Saturday, June 06, 2009

Should our Leicester City writer be a Leicester City fan?

I had lunch yesterday with an old geek friend, Dan, who's also a massive football fan.

In the spirit of openness and amidst the furore around allowances, I'll declare that I was on a day's holiday and paid for the lunch myself and there won't be an expenses claim to cover it, despite the fact that we sat and talked for more than three hours almost entirely about work-related things. Oddly, he turned up with £18,000 in cash in a laptop bag ... but that's another story!

Inevitably the conversation got round to the fact that the Leicester Mercury is currently looking to replace our long-term football writer Bill Anderson who has retired after covering Leicester City for more than 30 years. I placed an advert on a web site called -it's a site I set up about 10 years ago - asking for applications from experienced football writers. We've been flooded with people wanting the job. Almost 140 have applied.

I don't know why I'm surprised - it's a great job if you're a football writer. You get to cover one of the bigger clubs in the football league on a day-to-day basis for one of the largest regional papers in the country. For a lot of people, it is a dream of a job.

I was commenting on how difficult it is to work down from 138 to a sensible short-list and the criteria we are using, when Dan asked: 'Are you looking for a Leicester City fan?'

I have to admit, that wasn't something that I'd thought about, but Dan was adamant that, as a football fan, he wanted his local newspaper writer to be a fan.

Was he right? Should the Mercury's next football writer be a Leicester City fan?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

So, what is this blog?

I've been asked a fair few times about the status of this blog since I first starting putting my thoughts online as editor of the Mercury. Not everybody is entirely happy that I use this medium to talk about what I see going on around me.

I think there is a nervousness in some quarters about the different tone that blogging allows journalists to take compared with the articles they write in our newspapers. As editor of a local paper, the only place I get to express an opinion in print is when writing the leader column, but that is really about giving the newspaper a stance on issues rather than expressing a personal thought and it's not really an appropriate outlet for holding a discussion about what does - or even what should - make a newspaper.

I'm quite clear about one thing - I am blogging as the editor of the paper and see this blog as being as much a part of the company's output as the newspaper itself, our free weekly titles, the monthly magazine or our other websites: thisisleicestershire and thebluearmy. Other people on the paper blog and those who do so in their capacity as employees - education correspondent Ian Wishart and political writer Martin Robinson - hold the same view. I know they do as we sat down and discussed it. We agreed that probably the best analogy was to view the blogs as columns of the newspaper. This means that while they have much more freedom to express themselves and their opinion, it still has to be done within the boundaries of what would be acceptable for the Leicester Mercury. For them, that has an important consequence: they know that I am editor of their blogs and that, if it comes to it, I will get the last say in what they can and cannot blog.

I suspect for a lot of people involved in social media that might seem odd, but I think it is an inevitable consequence of them blogging on the back of their reputation as an employee of the paper. They both seem quite happy with the situation and they blog because they want to, not because I tell them to (which I don't). I don't expect to be involved in what they are saying and I certainly don't read anything before they post ... and so far I haven't intervened in any way on either blog. They are both bright, articulate guys and I'm really pleased that they think blogging is worthwhile.

I see my own blog in a similar way. I see it as a column of the paper.

On the other hand, our news editor, Mark Charlton, blogs in a personal capacity. He doesn't really spend time talking about his role at work - he's much more likely to be found chatting about the twins that he and his wife are expecting ... or some very odd connection that he has with a German football team. Don't ask. Whatever, Mark's blog is not part of the Mercury.

The odd thing for me is this: I hadn't really intended to put my thoughts into the public domain ... yet. Don't get me wrong, I think editors should blog and I think there are massive benefits to be had from holding a public discussion about the paper and how we work. I think the tools of social media give us the opportunity to be far more open and transparent and things like blogging and Twitter allow me to have conversations with far more people than I would be able to without them. I believe that transparency builds trust which itself is the bedrock of the relationship between a newspaper and its readers.

But I wasn't ready yet.

There are two things about blogging that worry me. Firstly, will people find it interesting? And, secondly, will I have time to blog often enough to make it worthwhile? What I had intended to do was to blog 'privately' for a couple of months so that I could judge for myself before putting my thoughts out into the open for feedback. I didn't want to spend too long messing about setting myself up so I picked up an old blog, deleted all the old posts and began writing.

OK, I know I could have gone into my settings and made it a completely private blog, but I - fairly naively as it turned out - thought nobody would notice while I carried out my little trial. Very quickly, I had more than 500 visitors coming to the blog each week - it's not a massive number, but it's enough for me to consider it public rather than private!

To be honest, I enjoy blogging (even if I nearly always end up doing it very late at night - it's now 11.50pm) and I see it as a start. I believe that 'social media' will play a massive part in the success of our newspaper going forward and the key to that success will be conversation ... and conversation is a two-way street which is enabled on a large scale by things such as this blog, Twitter and Facebook.

I'm listening. Talk to me.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Talking to readers

I pulled up at the security cabin in the DMU carpark this afternoon to be greeted by two men. There was the dreaded sound of air being sucked in through gritted teeth as I explained that no, I didn't think I had a space booked, but I did have a meeting to get to. "Don't know about that, Sir, where are you from?" "The Leicester Mercury." "Right, you've got a new Editor haven't you?" "I am the new Editor." "Right, well when are you going to put something interesting in the paper then?"

We were off to a flying start! To be fair, they were helpful, found me a car park space and then explained that they both had the paper delivered every day - had done for years - but they didn't sound convinced about the content. As I got out of the car, one of them wandered over and asked my a question that I'd already been asked today: 'Have you moved the printing of the Mercury away to Derby? Doesn't that mean that the paper's full of old news?'

Yes and no.

Yes, we have moved the printing, but no it doesn't mean our news will be old. In fact, I believe our news will be more up to date - I'll explain below.

But first, why have we moved the printing? It's obviously about saving costs - running a press is an expensive business and for some time regional newspaper companies have been reducing the number of presses so that the those remaining can be used for more of each day, reducing the amount of time that they stand idle. The presses at the Mercury building have for some time printed other newspapers - including, for example, the Hull Daily Mail, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and the Lincolnshire Echo. The Nottingham Post has not had its own press for at least the last 15 years and has been printed at Derby. All of these newspapers are part of the same group as the Leicester Mercury, Northcliffe Media Group.

Our sister company in Derby has better, faster presses than those at Leicester and, by moving the Nottingham paper to another of the group's presses in Stoke, we were able to save a lot of money by reducing the number of presses from three to two.

It's wasn't a nice decision - more than 60 people lost their jobs - but it was part of cost-cutting programme that the group has gone through to ensure that it has a healthy future and to guarantee that Leicester keeps an independent local newspaper. I mentioned in my earlier post that we have concentrated on making sure that those things that make the Mercury a Leicester newspaper, remain intact and in Leicester. That means that the reporters, the photographers, the feature writers, the sports team, and the editorial management team - including me - all remain in in Leicester. We also design all the main pages and proof read all pages.

Of course, the one thing that closing the Leicester press did affect was our deadlines. The Mercury now starts printing at about 3am - it takes a few hours to complete the run, but it does mean that the paper is on sale much earlier in the day. In some shops, it is available by 7am and you can find it on the counter of all shops by not long after 10am.

So how can I argue that this gives us the opportunity to have fresher rather than older news?

When I arrived at the Mercury in February, the shift patterns in our newsroom went something like this. The pages in the paper were split into two sorts: live pages and what we call overnight pages. As you might expect, live pages were those that were done on the day of publication. The overnight pages were, as the name implies, done the day before and these accounted for the vast majority of pages. In fact, the number of live pages on the first edition of the paper was usually not more than three.

Most of our staff would work a normal 'office hours' day, which meant that pretty much all of the overnight pages had to be complete by about 5 or 6pm. Obviously we could not put all of our pages together at the last minute and the overnight pages were done throughout the day prior to publication - in fact, on the first Monday that I arrived at the Mercury, the first news conference that I attended was at 9.30am and it was to discuss the news for Tuesday's paper. The only stories that the news editor could confidently tell me about must have come from over the weekend - or worse still, Friday - as he had so little time on Monday to prepare them before the 9.30am conference. As the week went by, it was clear that stories would be held out from one day to give the news editor the opportunity to fill early overnight pages the next day.

Even if the newsdesk wanted to get stories into the paper as quickly as possible, there were plenty of things that happened late in the afternoon, and which were not strong enough to go on the three live pages the next morning, which would therefore be held out for another full day..

For example, a reporter in court who filed her story at 5pm on a Monday would not usually expect it to appear in the paper on Tuesday unless it was strong enough to go on pages 1, 2 or 3. It would appear in Wednesday's paper.

In fact, because our deadlines for the first edition live pages were so early the next morning, some of our staff had to come in at 6am to prepare them. Of course, at that time in the morning, most sane people are still fast asleep, or at least only just getting up ... which meant we got very little news as there was nobody to speak to! This meant in reality that even the news for the live pages was usually prepared the night before and very little changed in the morning.

As I have mentioned we worked what were pretty typical hours for an 'evening' paper - starting reasonably early in the morning, but largely leaving by 5 or 6pm.

Now, however, we are moving increasingly to work as a morning paper - that means that we don't start anything like as early, but we work much later in the evening.

So, the court reporter who files her story at 6pm can be far more confident now that it will appear on Tuesday, not Wednesday as happened under the previous system. It has the potential to bring much of our news forwards, often meaning that it will be published a day earlier. This is not an instant change for us - we have not moved immediately to bring our staff in much later (they could file as late as 2am under the new system), but the paper is moving towards later deadlines, giving us the opportunity to get news into the paper more quickly.

Of course, there will always be the exceptions. Big news that breaks in the middle of the night - under the old system it would have got into the paper the next day on the live pages ... now, the paper would be printed and it would be too late. But you'd be surprised how rarely news breaks in the middle of the night, especially between 2am and 7am.

We will see an interesting test of our new systems on Sunday when the count for the Euro elections takes place. We fear that the count for the East Midlands seats - which is taking place in Leicester - may not finish until 2am. If it is that late, we will get it into Monday's paper ... if it's 2.30am we'll probably still just manage it, but if it's any later ...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Update on Patricia Hewitt exclusive

While writing the bit below on Ms Hewitt's decision to stand down at the next general election, I wrote to her asking why she came to the Mercury, rather than go to a wider audience through the national press. Here's her response:
"Happy to help with the blog! It's the people of Leicester West who elect me and pay for me, so I had to make my announcement directly to them, rather than just using the national media. I have always felt lucky to have a strong local newspaper like the Leicester Mercury that really campaigns on local issues - so there really was only one choice about how to make my news public."
Ok, there will be those that say that I was looking for a cheap compliment for the Mercury and that the response is a bit sickly - but that wasn't what I was doing, I was just trying to avoid putting words into Ms Hewitt's mouth even though I was fairly sure I knew what the answer would be. While Ms Hewitt's response may be instinctive, or even political, we have plenty of research to show that what differentiates our newspaper from other media around about us is that we are trustworthy, traditional and, most of all, local.

We may be slow in comparison with much of the digital media that we all consume nowadays, but actually slow is not always bad. Note for example the growing 'slow-food' campaign or 'slowdown' - our newspaper habits give us time to look a little more carefully at the stories in front of us. Our reporter spent the best part of an hour speaking to Ms Hewitt yesterday and then plenty more time putting the articles together - he was then helped by our policital correspondent, Martin Robinson, the newsdesk and variuos production people to finish off his work.

So, while the digital response is rapid, much of what was discussed this morning referenced back to the work that we put in yesterday and it was our work that ensured that the conversation that went on was at least based on fact. Even the online versions of the national papers pointed back to us as the original source.

We seek to combine this with our presence online - our exclusive this morning was available on thisisleicestershire long before it was picked up elsewhere and we have used my blog and twitter to look for reaction to help inform tomorrow's article on reaction to Ms Hewitt's decision. It is a difficult balance, but we are looking to combine the best of the old with the best of the new ...

A good old-fashioned exclusive

The Leicester Mercury has a big political exclusive today - Patricia Hewitt is to stand down at the next general election. It's an exclusive in the old-fashioned sense of the word. That is, it hasn't appeared anywhere else first, although I suspect that within a few minutes of the paper hitting the newsagents and the story appearing on our website, it will be everywhere - all over the Internet, tv, radio and, of course, the national papers (although they will have to wait until tomorrow).

I can't claim that this exclusive is the result of good old-fashioned investigative reporting. Well, not directly anyway. The truth is Ms Hewitt sent me an email over the weekend asking if she could come to see me yesterday as she had an 'announcement' to make which she thought should be done through the Leicester Mercury.

Given the clamour of doomsayers who have been writing the obituary of local newspapers over the past few years, why do people like Ms Hewitt turn to papers like the Leicester Mercury when they have something to say? Clearly the fact that 170,000 people read the Mercury every day plays a big part in that - we are still the best way to talk to the people of Leicester.

And, despite our occasional falling out with those who would rather that we didn't report what we see and hear, most people know that if they come to us we are going to report in a fair and considered manner. Ms Hewitt is not the only person to turn to us recently - it happens every day and it helps make the Mercury what it is. Our aim is to find unique content about Leicester and while much of that content comes from our reporters, much more comes from the people of Leicester themselves.

Our story on Ms Hewitt today reports the fact that she is to quit and gives a brief overview of her political career in the city, but has little in the way of reflection on what will happen next or reaction from anyone on what she has achieved. Why is that? Well, it's the nature of an exclusive. If we had started to ring people yesterday and ask about Ms Hewitt, her decision would have started to appear elsewhere last night and we would have lost the exclusive nature of our story.

Of course, today we will be looking back at her career in more detail and rounding up people's reaction to the news - I think it's fair to say that she hasn't always been the country's favourite politician! If you've got a view, why not add it in the comments to our article online or email it to me for the paper? As I said above, while our reporters will be doing their bit, the people of Leicester will add to the story in their own unique way.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Do we give our MPs fair coverage?

I've blogged previously on the fairly predictable response by our readers to Keith Vaz's open letter in the Leicester Mercury last Saturday, but I've been back to re-read the letter because there was a part of it that was bugging me.

While I don't agree with much of what he threw at the Mercury - he says we have been unfair and claims to have answered our questions. I, along with the majority of our readers, disagree. Although we know what he spent money on, he has not explained why he thought it right to spend it other than to say it was within the rules. For me, one of the most telling lines in the letter was: 'All MPs get the same budget. It is for them to decide how they spend it.' Is it a budget?

Anyway, that's an ongoing debate which I don't want to get bogged down in today. The issue hasn't gone away - readers are still writing to me about it and I expect we'll see it reflected in next week's election results.

The point I want to pick up on in this post is the one that Mr Vaz makes about our lack of coverage of the work he does as an MP. He says this:
"In the last nine days I travelled to Amsterdam to visit Europol, chaired a European conference on human trafficking, published a 400-page report on the subject, chaired a series of meetings with Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha veterans, spent three days lobbying ministers to agree to the Gurkhas being given rights of settlement, interviewed the Metropolitan Police commissioner and spoken eight times in Parliament."
And that, of course, is on top of any work he did as a constituency MP.

He has a point. We didn't cover any of that.

It is easy to dismiss it as 'not local', as Mr Vaz acting in his capacity as a national politician, of more interest to the national press than his local paper. But that's not entirely fair. Mr Vaz is very active compared with most MPs - in the past year he appears to have spoken in 75 debates, asked more than 246 written questions and he sits on two select committees, including the Home Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

I can find Mr Vaz talking about, or asking quesitons about, Leicester in the House of Commons almost 30 times so far in 2009. In May alone, I can find these:
  • A quesiton about the number of children suspended in Leicester schools following racist incidents (if I read the answer correctly, far fewer than in the rest of England)
  • Urging the Government to pay attention to professor of genetics at the University of Leicester, Alec Jeffreys, when considering changing the rules on the retention of DNA samples by the police
  • A question about the number of independent and internal investigations into the NHS in Leicester - no answer was given.
  • A question about the number of care homes in Leicester operated by local authorities and private enterprises, and the number of people over 60 years old in them
  • A question asking for the number of people in Leicester diagnosed with schizophrenia and being held in secure hospitals
  • A question on the number of racist incidents recorded in Leicester schools. The Government replied that the data was not collected, but promised to consult on whether schools should be forced to record the data
  • A question on how much public money funds third sector organisations (charities, vluntary sector, not for profit organisations) in Leicester and Leicestershire
  • A question on the number of third party organisations in Leicester - the Government doesn't know
I'm not sure that we covered any of those in the Mercury.

As a standalone question, it is difficult to see what Mr Vaz was getting at with many of the above, but you have to assume there was a purpose behind the questions and I think he has a point when he says we haven't given him enough coverage.

Don't get me wrong - I don't think that we have treated Mr Vaz unfairly in our coverage on his allowance claims. Apart from anything else, we have twice handed over pages to him to have his say, unedited by us. On each occasion, our readers have reacted with anger at what he has said - it is easy for him to blame the messenger, but, on this occasion, I am afraid people really didn't like the message.

But, having said all of that, I don't think we are giving over enough space to the work of our MPs - and I suspect Mr Vaz will be amongst the most active. I'm going to talk to our newsdesk and our lobby correspondent to explore the possibility of doing a weekly column which rounds up what the MPs are up to.

What do you think, would it be interesting?

And given our article yesterday about the fact that nobody can even name our Euro MPs, perhaps we should be looking at them too!