Bristol NUJ is pleased to report a successful Local News Matters event held on 24th March at The Watershed. A panel of 9 Bristol media representatives discussed the issues in an exciting debate chaired by Bristol NUJ chair Paul Breeden, followed by questions from an audience that included several local Bristol MPs, Bristol Metro Mayor candidates, invited guests from news media and communications organisations and interested members of the public.
The Local News Matters is a national campaign by the NUJ which Bristol has taken up locally. As many people now know it is a response to the year-on-year cuts in jobs and closure of newspaper titles, which has been met with mounting concern by the NUJ and other organisations in the sector.
The media representatives on the panel were as follows:
Mike Norton, editor, Bristol Post;
Lorna Stephenson, co-editor, Bristol Cable;
Laura Davison, publishing organiser, National Union of Journalists;
Steve Brodie, former Home Affairs Correspondent, BBC Points West;
Ben Haggitt, programme and digital editor, ITV News West Country;
Richard Coulter, co-founder, Local Voice Network of 15 hyperlocal magazines around Bristol;
Selina Cuff, editor, Chew Valley & Wrington Vale Gazette;
Chris James, Made in Bristol TV, Regional Manager at Made Television
Vandna Mehta Vocalise magazine, St Paul’s & Ashley ward;
Bristol24/7’s editor Martin Booth had planned to be on the panel, but was unfortunately taken ill and could not attend.
Bristol NUJ chair Paul Breeden opened the panel discussion with an introduction in which he described a continuing situation in the media sector over the last few years marked by loss of jobs and competition from the internet.
“Advertising has migrated to the web and the business model has changed” Paul said. “This has resulted in an enormous reduction in the numbers of journalists including cutbacks in the BBC and lack of trust in the media. The latest MORI poll shows that only 21 percent of people would trust a journalist. Also, we hear the term ‘fake news’ being banded around, including with regard to stories that people don’t like. However, there are real signs of hope in Bristol because of the range of talent in the city. The Bristol Cable for example now has 1600 members, having been set up because there are a lot of local stories that are not being covered.”
Paul welcomed the audience to the event and thanked them for attending. He also introduced and welcomed various Bristol MPs and Metro Mayor candidates in the audience, including Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie and Labour’s Thangan Debbonaire followed by Metro Mayor candidates Stephen Williams (LibDem) Leslie Mansell (Labour) and Darren Hall (Green). Paul then asked each member of the panel to introduce themselves and their organisation and perhaps say something of the challenges they are facing and how they are responding to them.
First to speak was Lorna Stephenson from the Bristol Cable, who introduced the publication as a cooperative funded by monthly contributions from members.
“We’ve managed to convince 1,600 people to sign up so far which is great” Lorna said. “…and that I think shows that people just like the idea of what we are doing, and they like the idea that they can have a stake in a local media publication. It’s something that they feel more in touch with and a bit more responsive to the community that they live in. The kind of journalism that we do is quite different from the daily news cycle. We try and focus on doing more features about social issues or issues in Bristol in a little more depth than perhaps daily news reports would be able to, and to shine a light on things.”
Ben Haggitt from ITV News West Country mentioned a ‘dispersal of viewers’ as being among one of the channel’s main challenges, stating that ITV viewers tend to be slightly older and often female.
“In my 14 years we’ve probably lost approximately a third of our staff over that time” Ben said. “Which does pose its challenges. To compensate that we’ve invested massively in technology, multi-skilling, training so that in the past when we would have sent a sound recordist, a reporter and a camera it’s one person that does it now, and actually the skills that most of our reporters have now I think are equal to what we used to produce when we had three people. We’ve invested massively in technology, and we can do things a lot quicker. We’re about to invest a lot more in our live capabilities in the region so we we’re going to double our live capacity, so all of those things help us to counteract the fact that we do have fewer staff than we used to have.”
Chris from Made in Bristol TV said that the channel came on air in 2014, although it’s not the first time that a local TV channel has been tried in Bristol. He said that as a result of sharing transmitters with other users, Made in Bristol now utilises transmitters all over the city, making it easier for people to tune in. although the main challenge is getting people to believe in the channel and generating revenue. Currently, Made in Bristol is looking at employing more multi-skilled journalists.
“I believe that we are bringing an audience in and offering a service that no one else can” Chris said. “We’ve just changed the way that we broadcast our evening programme from a half hourly programme to a two hour rolling news format. The battle of six o’clock, it’s the traffic, it’s getting home for six and are you going to make it, no. So we as a broadcaster want to offer local news throughout the evening, up to eight o’clock, maybe nine o’clock as we go further forward and at breakfast time, something which on television, pure Bristol news, we can do, that BBC and ITV because of their schedules, can’t. So looking at some of the challenges we face, it’s getting people to believe in us that we can offer something that is worth watching, and also making revenue to make it work.
The story going forward from here is that Made Television we are looking to employ more journalists, multi-skilled journalists, wherever we have a station, we’ve got eight now in our network, and my job is to find good high quality journalists to come and work for the stations that I run, which is Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff.”
Vandna Mehta of Vocalise magazine said that the publication had been formed in the wake of a second successive year without a St Pauls Carnival.
“Vocalise magazine started about nine months ago….in the St Pauls area where the Carnival has stopped for two years in a row, and morale was low and everyone was annoyed that there was no Carnival for the area and there needed to be something to create community cohesion, for people to come together and have a platform to write, to see, to enjoy something to be proud of in the area.
Our main focus was for elderly and for the youth because in between those ages the internet has taken over so a lot of people would go online, but we wanted people to be able to have something to hold, so they can do a crossword how back in the old days my parents used to.
Our big challenge is growing. We’re doing all this on a voluntary basis. The great thing about this magazine is the positivity around it, everyone loves it, everyone who sees it says what a beautiful magazine. We are trying to get funding and make it sustainable.”
“We set up in 1984” said Seilna Cuff, editor of The Chew Valley Gazette. “It was originally run by one man but it now covers 64 square miles with a readership of 35,000 members and is now owned by Tindle which is buying papers rather than making journalists redundant.” She said that the Gazette is a free paper relying on advertising and that its main challenge is losing advertising revenue to social media, particularly Facebook. Interestingly, its main demographic is older people who don’t go on Facebook.
“We are a free paper, but we rely completely on advertising” Selina said. “So if people don’t want to advertise with us, there is no paper. Probably the reason our profits are dropping, is that increasingly the people in the office who have to sell the advertising are being met with, “oh well I’m on Facebook, I advertise through social media, it doesn’t cost me anything”, and that’s how people are selling their advertising. Our saving grace for the Gazette is that we live in a rural area where we have very poor broadband. So people aren’t accessing the internet most of the time. We’ve had two villages announcing they’ll be going 4G this week, a big story it’s even on the front page of our website.
Our demographic is actually older people, we’ve got this group of readers, dedicated readers who are elderly, they don’t go on Facebook, they don’t go on the internet, they like their physical Gazette and it’s a joy to actually see them pick it up on Friday, read it in the cafes, read it in the shops, read it in the bus stop.”
“A load of political figures would love to see the end of the BBC” said Steve Brodie. “You would regret it enormously. Just look at journalism in America, look at it elsewhere where there’s no independent voice, no true independent voice. In the 30 years I’ve worked for the BBC no one’s ever told me to do a story from one political angle or the next, never. And you should keep politics out of the BBC, it’s done it’s very level best in very difficult circumstances. David Cameron’s first act when he became prime minister was to sign this disgusting deal with the then director general of the BBC at the time that the licence fee would be frozen. We’ve been cut now, and cut and cut. You still want the quality, you still want the independence, you still want that expertise that has been brought up over the years. We are under constant battle. Points West the flagship programme here which is probably the third most popular programme in terms of reach in the country. We are facing 10 percent cuts starting in April next year. That’s 10% out of 69 people who produce Points West, that’s 10 reporters, technicians, cameramen, will go. that is a massive cut. It is not right but why, because investment is not there.
What do you get for your licence fee? In the West Country you get 5 radio stations, you get a television programme which goes in the morning, lunchtime, in the evening at 6.30pm and again at 10.30pm. What value, what other organisation can give you that value. We also have online and Twitter and Facebook, all those things are delivered by the BBC.”
Mike Norton, editor of The Bristol Post, attempted to counter what he described as Paul’s somewhat gloomy introduction, stating that the Post isn’t dying and that Bristolians still turn to it as the city’s main news outlet. The debate took on a bit of an edge at this point, but if anything that helped to draw the audience in, listening intensely.
“In fact we’re enjoying the best audience levels we’ve had for decades” said Mr Norton. “If something happens in this city, Bristolians still turn to the Bristol Post. And our digital revenues grew by a bigger margin than our audience. Our growing audience has attracted major commercial partnerships with both Facebook and Google. We’ve still got 28 staff reporters at the Bristol Post and they’re covering news, sport and what’s on, producing an average of 50 stories a day. We still have specialists who cover the council, health, business, education, we still have two reporters whose only job is to cover Bristol Rovers and Bristol City, we still have a reporter who sits in Crown Court every day.
I’m recruiting at the moment. I’ve just taken on two trainees, more than 100 applications for both of those jobs. Young people still want to work at the Post. Why? Because we’ll spend 2 years training them, preparing them, giving them a proper training to be journalists for the rest of their lives. But we’re also appointing social media editors, trends analysts, we’re changing, we’re different from years ago. And we’re working with Google in Bristol and Manchester to create a new model for news. We are very much part of the future of news provision in this city.”
“We have 15 publications across the Bristol area” said Richard Coulter of The Bristol Voice network “We operate in distinct communities, well defined and reasonably small with hyperlocal publications that we are delivering door to door. What we’re trying to do is offer something that I think there’s been a gap in. We cover unfashionable things like parish and town councils, things that are not necessarily on the radar of all the news organisations but that matter to people. So we’ll report on potholes in a certain street, and that might be of no interest to you, but if you’ve got the potholes in your street then it’s definitely of interest to you.
I think in terms of the challenges, the biggest is commercial. We’ve hopefully tried to create a commercial model that works. We never say that it’s the only commercial model, but we think we’ve got a model that works. We are able to offer employment of some description to 20 people, we make sure that we always pay people from the beginning. We’ve never taken people on for free. We deliver about 140,000 copies a month. Our dream would be to replicate the model somewhere else, to find the publishers with the drive and ambition to do that.
The challenge as always is commercial. I’ve always worried that within the journalistic fraternity, I think there has been a little bit of cloud cuckoo land sometimes about commercial and the feeling that we’re doing something so amazingly worthy and important that we shouldn’t have to worry about and dirty our hands about it. And I really think we’ve got to think in terms of creating good journalism and creating commercial models that work, because at the end of the day people have got bills and mortgages to pay, and people aren’t going to work for free. I would like to see a journalistic world where the quality is high, but people are getting paid and thriving in what they do.”
The introductions having concluded, Paul Breeden then asked members of the panel whether journalism is actually covering local news in as much detail as it used to, given that mainstream journalists seem to be withdrawing from local areas.
“A lot of people who left the Post are print production” Mike Norton responsed. “…but I still think we do a good job.”
Chris from Made In Bristol said that the channel broadcasts more local news that isn’t getting on mainstream TV, because it can get into areas and communities in Bristol that other TV stations can’t.
“We celebrate local people and the amount of creativity in Bristol” said Vandna. “We also highlight local issues but can’t print more than four times per year.”
Lorna, Bristol Cable: “The Cable is known for its investigative work. Most of our feedback is from our monthly meetings.”
“We treat it as a business first and do the journalism after that” said Richard from The Voice Network. “You’ve got to get a commercial footing first.”
“Yes, but you still have to have actual news” argued Selina from Chew Valley Gazette, swiftly responding to Richard’s comment.
“There is a danger of forgetting the old art of news gathering – going out and speaking to people” interjected Steve Brodie”, followed by Chris stating that Made In Bristol gets its stories from a range of sources. “But I wouldn’t base a story on hearsay, on something I heard in the pub…” responded Selina.
Following the panel debate, Paul invited questions from the audience. One gentleman observed that there has been relatively little cross-party argument about the council cuts in Bristol, while Lesley Mansell, Labour candidate for the Mayoral election for the West of England Combined Authority, felt that it’s really important to support the Local News Matters campaign.
“I think it’s really important that the media is independent” he said. “…that it’s democratic, and that it’s holding politicians and others to account, absolutely crucial.”
Metro Mayor candidate Darren Hall commented that the media these days is often filled with “celebrity opinion formers” and that people are turning to columnists rather than journalists. He said that people seem more interested in Gary Lineker or Katy Hopkins.
“I don’t think you can control that” responded Mike Norton. Steve Brodie seemed to agree with him, stating that “its how it is”.
“We now live in a digital world which creates a mish-mash of opinions” argued Richard, prompting Mike Norton to respond that people have to accept that people have opinions.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”
The discussion could have carried on and there seems to be an appetite for this kind of event looking at the media. So we may hold another similar event in the future, and please keep supporting your local media. Bristol NUJ would like to thank everyone who attended for helping to make the event such a success.