Saturday, June 27, 2009

Michael Jackson publishing conundrum

The timing of Michael Jackson's death left us - and many other regional newspapers - with a difficult decision.

At the Leicester Mercury, we see ourselves as a local newspaper. We report on Leicester and Leicestershire and rarely stray beyond these boundaries other than to put a local angle on to national or international events. But sometimes, things happen that are just so big that it is impossible to ignore them.

Princess Diana's death, the country going to war, 9/11, the London tube bombings, Lockerbie, the Hungerford and Dunblane shootings - these are all examples of things which are not local, but which are so enormous in terms of public conscientiousness and reaction, that I believe a newspaper not leading on them looks odd.

I don't think Michael Jackson's death comes quite into the same category despite the level of reaction, but, nevertheless, we took the decision late on Thursday evening to lead the paper on the night's events. Why was that? It was at least in part because it happened so late that I thought that it might miss the early editions of the national newspapers, but it was also because I felt that it was a big enough story to mean that it would be the only thing people were talking about the next day.

Was that the right decision? I don't know. Many other regional papers disagreed and didn't change up and it's too early to see what effect it had on our sales figures. However, I would say that when I saw the bills in the streets later in the day, I felt the decision was right.

What made the decision more difficult was knowing that whatever we put on the front at 2 or 3 in the morning, was going to stay there all day. I would have felt more comfortable if we could have had the shock news of Jackson's death on our front page first thing in the morning when people were still digesting the news, but later in the day, or early in the evening, when many people read the paper, moved on to looking at the reaction ... but that's no longer possible with our overnight printing.

I've posted before about the fact that I believe that early morning printing means that we should be able to get later news into the paper than previously on most occasions, but this does highlight the downside of a single print run and it doesn't make the decision any easier!

As an aside, I noticed that the version of the article that we put on our website at midnight, but replaced by about 8am, was read almost 700 times.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson reported dead - late night

The first sign I saw that there was something seriously wrong with Michael Jackson last night was on Twitter. At about 10.30pm UK time people were starting to say that he was in a coma ... and some were saying he was dead.

An hour later, there was an absolute storm of tweets, but what was most interesting was that the initial story was broken by the LA Times newspaper on its website and virtually every tweet was about whether or not traditional media outlets had or had not confirmed Michael Jackson's death.

Person after person came on to say that this outlet had confirmed it, or that one had not. And they were not talking about blogs or Twitter, they were scouring the newspaper and TV sites. The story seemed to be accepted only when the LA Times confirmed it.

I'm not sure what that says, but it says something!

I got calls from our chief photographer, Jason Senior, at about 11.30 telling me that national news agencies were confirming the death. Deputy Editor Richard Bettsworth was still in the office and after various conversations, he called the chief sub, Matt Sulley, back into the office and began redoing Page 1 for tomorrow, despite the fact that the news had yet to be confirmed. I updated the website based on the LA Times article.

It will be interesting to see how many of the morning papers have the news tomorrow ...

Monday, June 22, 2009

Should a local newspaper really be neutral?

When I posted a couple of weeks ago about the way we intended to cover the BNP, @goodfella66 posed this question:
Interesting blog but in terms of a supposedly, neutral local paper don't you think it would be better just to report the interview as is & then let the reader make their mind up on whether he is racist, fascist, bigot, general good guy etc?
And, this morning, I received a letter from a reader who said that they had never written to a newspaper before, but that they were outraged by a 'so-called neutral' local newspaper taking a stance that allowed one of our feature writers to 'ridicule' our new BNP county councillor.

It's interesting that both questioned the neutrality of the newspaper and yet I'm not sure that local newspapers make a claim to be neutral, other than in the sense that we tend not to be political in terms of supporting a particular political party. It's clear from our leader columns that we take a stance on all sorts of issues - we, for example, support Leicester's bid to bring the world cup to the city. Does that affect the way that we cover that issue? Well, yes and no. Yes in that we tend to look for positive articles to write about the bid and give them prominence; no in that it does not prevent us from asking questions (and writing articles) about the downside of the bid. Perhaps a better example would be the Special Olympics which are taking place in Leicester next month. The paper supports the bringing of the games to the city, but it does not prevent us from reporting that the sponsorship efforts for the game have failed and that local taxpayers are left with a bill of up to £1million.

In general, we would want to be supportive of things that we thought were good for the city and we would be anti those things which we thought were bad.

So, we would not support - or indeed publish - views that we thought were divisive. Sexism, racism, terrorism, crime etc. I don't think you'd expect any different.

The problem comes when you get to something like the BNP which is attempting - and, in some people's views, succeeding - to legitimise itself. At this point, there are those who don't accept that it's ok for us to unilaterally decide that the BNP is not acceptable and that we will not treat them in a neutral way.

It's a difficult area and it is, to a large extent, a subjective decision. It's not that long ago that many papers treated Greenpeace as if they were a bunch of tree-hugging left-wing loonies intent on bringing down the capitalist state ... but in more recent years they have become a sort of media darling whose statements are not only actively sought, but accepted almost without question. They are often now portrayed as the heroes of many issues.

I guess, when it comes down to it, this is a decision that I have to make as Editor of the paper - get it right, and most people are happy; get it wrong, and we'd lose a lot of readers!

Whoops! You mean THAT Edward Garnier?

It's not the question you want to hear from your lawyers when you ring them for advice after you've upset Edward Garnier: Is that THE Edward Garnier QC, and pre-eminent libel barrister?

Worse still, the answer was yes!

That's right, Edward Garnier, MP for Harborough is a barrister specialising in libel ... and we made a pretty poor error in our report on his expense and allowance claims. He wasn't happy! Fortunately, we reached agreement quickly and the error was corrected the next day, along with an apology, and that seems to be the end of the matter.