GAY and I are dinosaurs, refugees from a local newspaper world that places no value on journalism, that applies a ruthless “no advert, no editorial” policy on everything from new businesses to a local charity fund-raising concert.
We believe in journalism that is accurate, balanced, objective, informative, entertaining – and well written. How did these values become old-fashioned?
Accurate means checking your facts – not “fact-checking” which is a statistical and often meaningless cliche of broadcast news, seeking to present “facts” to counter the probably biassed, exaggerated or just plain dishonest stuff dished out by politicians of all hues.
Balanced means seeking to present in a reasonable way both sides of an argument in which there are two (or more) strongly held views. It does not mean, for example, a story that warns “Villagers fear vandalism and anti-social behaviour at hall discos” when one loud-mouthed recent arrival complained about the plans for charity music and dance nights at the new and well-supported village hall – the vast majority of the population supported the application. One complainer does not a balanced argument make.
Objective means that in a report, you aim to lay out the facts without expressing your own opinion, but endeavouring to be accurate, and to give weight to various opinions – even if you personally disagree radically with some or all of these views. You don’t aim to be objective in a review – but you do still need to be fair, constructive and honest.
Informative means that you try to put a bit of flesh on the bones of a story. With a report on a controversial planning application, for example, what other local connections are there to the people involved, who else is affected by what is proposed, why do some people think this will be good for their community, who lived in that dilapidated old farm that the developer wants to knock down ….
Entertaining means that you want your reader to stay with you. If it’s news, you have to remember that old truism that the public has a short attention span: catch them with the headline, engage them with the story in the first paragraph, tell them what happens (again, if need be) in the last paragraph. Everything in between is what makes the story, but give them the bare facts in the framework. Entertaining also means that you can make people laugh or gasp, or want to read the story aloud to their friends or partner.
What this all adds up to is the importance of knowing your subject, or informing yourself about it, trying to ensure that you are putting over a balanced and truthful account, and telling people things that you hope they will find interesting and, yes, entertaining if appropriate. And for that you need good writing – not cloned copy that can be produced by a computer (and, believe me, nowadays a lot of it is).
As the malaise that was already gripping local papers 10 or 15 years ago has now spread to many of the nationals, the quality of journalism has dropped. But for the most part, this is not the fault of the journalists or the editors – it is the fault of profit-at-all-costs managements who see “editorial” as a disposable column in the Expenditure column of the balance sheet. Let “Citizen Journalists”, algorithms and AI-robot-computers provide the “news” and have a handful of well (over)-paid columnists who contribute their strident opinions and social media-inspired gossip.
But hey, all is not lost! (And we aren’t just talking about Fine Times Recorder, although we do strive to maintain our standards, without any paid advertising and the inevitable compromises that produces). All hail the FT Weekend!
We are indebted to a friend, another woman journalist who, like us, got out of the business years ago, but still loves newspapers and wants to read proper news, opinions, reviews, features and snippets. She advised us, a few years ago, when we were having a moan about the nasty comments of a well-known woman columnist on one of the so-called “serious” newspapers, and the way that political bias had invaded even reviews of the theatre and Proms concerts.
She had, she said, been buying the FT Weekend edition for some time, and had given up all other papers. She got a good week’s reading out of it, enjoyed the diversity and quality of the writing, the range of topics covered, the objectivity of so many of its articles, whether on international news, national politics or the environment, and thought we would love it. She was right.
We do still have a daily paper and another paper on Saturday – we really do love newspapers – but it is the FT Weekend that has become indispensable. The writing is generally brilliant, the opinions consistently interesting and informed, and it is sometimes very funny. Columnists like Simon Kuper and Gillian Tett bring wit, style, expertise, passion and knowledge to everything from football to international finance, while Robert Shrimsley can have us laughing out loud about almost anything, from his sporting prowess (or lack of) to his lockdown online shopping habit. Lunch with the FT can feature anyone from Annie Leibovitz to the Dalai Lama. The review pages are not only broad in their scope – rock, rap, opera, theatre, comedy, television, films, dance – but also international. It is, for the most part, refreshingly free of the political ties which make some of its competitors little more than puppet mouthpieces for one side or the other.
It is clear that many newspapers – particularly local titles, many of which have served their communities for 100 years or more – will not survive Covid-19. This is a time when we have more need than ever of reliable, truthful, objective reporting. There are world leaders – some close to home – who want to bypass the news media entirely to present their own “facts” and “truth”. We need to support and cherish those media which maintain the values of objectivity, honesty and balance. They have never been more important.