In praise of regional journalism

Will we miss it when its gone? I think we will.

I've been accused of being a little unfair towards journalists in the past, which is somewhat ironic given that I laughably call myself one -- but let me put it right anyway.

Most journalists I've met, and worked with, and known, are hardworking, diligent, decent folk. They mostly come from good families, and god knows their parents tried -- but for some tragic reason, their offspring at one time or another came to the sad conclusion that they'd be better off writing or broadcasting things for a living.

It's not their fault. You don't choose journalism as a career: it finds you, whether you want it to or not.

You don't really want to be doing what you're doing for a living, but sooner or later, you just seem to have ended up doing it -- and by then, it's too late. You're doomed. It's somewhere warm to go during the day, and people don't bother you too much -- except for when those rude folk from the general public dare to use the telephone to try and contact you -- so it makes for an acceptable lifestyle.

Better than sitting around the park with a three litre bottle of cider, anyway, or whatever it is that we'd be up to otherwise. It could be worse, couldn't it.

I have spent most of my career working in the regional press, which is a curious thing, a world of residents up in arms, old ladies complaining about their boilers and old Jaff from down the dominoes club wondering when his bloody league tables are going to go in the paper.

It's a world where, when they get a letter from the PCC, editors are actually dismayed and worried about the consequences, rather than shrugging it off as a gnat-bite inconvenience. It's a world where, more often than not, people really care about what they write, because they can see the consequences.

You're actually working right next door to the people you're writing about. There isn't that level of detachment; you know that what you say and write can really upset someone, and they're often within walking distance of your office - even if, as is often the case nowadays, your newspaper has been relocated to some faceless industrial estate in the middle of nowhere rather than the middle of town. You can't hide when people come calling with complaints -- and if they're legitimate, you're left feeling ruined about what you've done to them.

I say all this for few reasons.

Firstly, as I say it's to right a perceived wrong, in that I may appear to have seemed to be anti-journalist or anti-newspaper in the things I've said and written, whereas the reality couldn't be further from that. Secondly, these hardworking, underpaid, undervalued hacks at local rags -- and "local rag" really is a term of affection among readers, no matter what wafer-thin-skinned editors might tell you otherwise - are dwindling in their numbers, not because they're actually no longer needed, but to prop up the profits of their huge parent corporations.

Just this week, more job losses appear to be on the way, at Johnston Press in Yorkshire. Other newspaper groups are doing the same -- or will be soon. Journos at the place where I learnt my craft, the South London Guardian, has been out on strike this week, complaining about an entire sports and leisure department being told they're at risk of redundancy.

And even as I was writing this, news came through of more jobs under threat, this time in Newcastle.

Wherever you live, the people who are writing about your local city, town or village are becoming fewer and fewer in number, and the decline is, if anything, accelerating.

Yes yes, blogs and hyperlocal sites will fill some of the void, but not all of it. Now is the time to value those local journalists more than ever, perhaps unfairly bundled in along with the worst extremes of the red-tops.

Will we miss them when we're gone? I think we will. People trust regional papers more than other news sources; they don't approach the local rag with the same jaded cynicism they might reserve for a national. But, whether they think that or not, the memos about "difficult trading conditions" and "tough choices" will be sent out in more and more newsrooms in the coming weeks and months.

Something has been started that isn't going to be stopped, I am afraid. And the impact it has on what news we get about where we live is only just beginning.

The readers aren't stupid; they've noticed the difference already. And it's only going to get worse as time goes on.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.