It's not all bad news

Who cares about journalism? Judging by the turnout at last night’s meeting, the answer is: “More people than you might think.” The Long Room at Oxford Town Hall was packed with local journalists, councillors and members of the public.

Journalist Nick Davies gave a talk drawing on the eye-opening material in his book Flat Earth News. He explained how cutbacks have created a newsroom culture that would have been unimaginable a couple of decades ago. Increased pagination and reduced staff numbers over the past twenty years mean that the amount of page space to be filled by each journalist has tripled since 1985. To put it another way, each journalist must now find and check each story in a third of the time.

The result has been a decline in fact-checking and original reporting. The Cardiff University researchers who helped Davies gather data for his book found that even in the country’s top national papers, only 12% of stories are journalists’ own work and only 12% of key facts are being checked.

He explained how churnalism - cutting and pasting copy from wire agencies and PR companies – leads to distortion and misinformation.

Michelle Stanistreet, deputy general secretary of the NUJ, explained that the cutbacks in journalism aren’t a response to straitened circumstances; they’re driven by owners’ desire for bigger profits and a disregard for quality.

She told the meeting that Gannett, owner of Newsquest Oxfordshire, aims for profits of 30% year on year – higher than companies like Centrica, which we traditionally think of as “fat cats”. The current financial climate is simply an opportunity to get away with using pay freezes and redundancies to squeeze even more money out of local newspapers.

We also heard from the Mayor of Oxford, Cllr Susanna Pressel, who expressed her support for local newspapers as a tool of local democracy. She backed up Nick Davies’s comments about churnalism, saying that she is bored of seeing council press releases reproduced word for word in the Oxford Mail and would prefer to see reporters actually coming to council meetings again.

Finally we heard from David Horne, a long-serving reporter on the Oxford Mail and Witney Gazette (both owned by Newsquest Oxfordshire), who volunteered for redundancy during the paper’s current round of staff cutbacks. He compared current conditions at the newspaper group to how they were when he started out as an Oxfordshire reporter. 

He said that the Newsquest group was not prepared to spend money on investing in the newspapers and their staff, even if those investments meant greater returns in the future. He also explained how the widespread use of digital cameras is putting professional photographers’ livelihoods at risk.

For me the exciting thing about the evening was the high turnout and obvious engagement with the issues. What could have been a straightforward question-and-answer session became a lively debate, covering issues such as cost, quality and accountability. We also discussed emerging forms of journalism such as community journalism, blogging and citizen journalism.

We didn’t manage to solve the industry’s woes in one evening, but the evening ended on a note of hope that journalists have strong public support when they demand the resources they need to do their jobs properly.