Interviewer: Peter Houston

Will Gore: The Community News project was a scheme set up, well, it was launched in 2019 based on an agreement that had been made in 2018, between Facebook, the NCTJ (which is the National Council for the Training of Journalists), and nine regional news publishers.

And the idea in a nutshell was that Facebook would fund the hiring of up to 80 community news reporters who would work for those various publishers, and each of those reporters would be handed a two year contract.

And during that two years, they would also study for an NCTJ qualification. So in most cases, that’s the Diploma in Journalism, which is the, I suppose the key pre-entry qualification, which most students do before they begin their careers, but a number of students do while they are in their initial stages, for example, if they’re doing an apprenticeship.

And then some of the communities reporters are studying for the higher level NQJ qualification, which is the senior journalist qualification, if you like.

Peter: So, in terms of the NCTJ’s role in that, do you see that as a way of making sure that the people that are in these roles have the sort of education that you’ve been providing for years and years and years, but that’s then funded separately?

Yes. I mean, I think the NCTJ’s role is twofold. One, we are essentially managing the project. I think Facebook rightly felt that it was more awkward, and I suppose raised potentially difficult questions if it was going to directly fund publishers. So the NCTJ manages the project from a financial point of view.

But absolutely our additional interest in all of this is around integrating training with on the job learning, which I think is something which we know is effective because of apprenticeships. But this is an interesting and alternative way to do that.

So Facebook in some ways sees you as an honest broker, you can sit between them and the news organisations. Is Facebook also interested in that kind of benchmark for quality journalism?

Yes. I mean, that is certainly a key factor in all of this, and I think the NCTJ has always provided that benchmark. It is an industry-backed charity, it’s existed for 70 years, it has very much evolved with the times. Obviously its background was very much in print journalism, but now is equally focused on digital and broadcast.

So I think the NCTJ as a benchmark is a hugely useful factor in all this, and I think, particularly at the moment when you’ve got – and have had over a number of years – this sort of debate about trust in news, quality, ensuring that journalists are properly trained, seems to me absolutely fundamental to demonstrating to the public that they can trust journalists that they are reading or listening to or seeing.

What do you think that looks like now though? What does a properly trained journalist look like?

Well it probably takes a number of forms, doesn’t it. I think there are some fundamentals about journalism, which remain unchanged in terms of, how you get a story, what you understand to be a story in fact, I suppose at the outset, how you get the story, how you frame the story, how you contextualise it, and how you present it. And all of those things, they sound like things that anyone can do, and with a bit of training, no doubt that that’s perhaps true, but it’s not as easy as it looks.

And I know from my own experience, having ended up in a newsroom through a slightly odd route; my background was in media regulation, I realised on the very, very rare occasions that I ended up writing a news story, and literally, I think I did it about twice, because I realised immediately I just really couldn’t do it. Because I hadn’t had the kind of training that NCTJ trained journalists have. So, I was able to write an op-ed, because I could write and I could give a reasoned point of view, but when it came to actually structuring and presenting a news story, it is genuinely very hard.

So I think that those fundamentals do remain unchanged. And of course, an awful lot of other stuff has changed drastically around technology, both in terms of how journalists use technology to produce their work, but also how they use technology to actually gain stories in the first place. So that has to be built into the training as well, so it’s trying to combine those two factors, I suppose.

The thing that always comes up when there’s that conversation about the NCTJ’s training and the evolution aspect of it is this idea of shorthand. And it’s this big, ‘Oh, why is anyone even bothering learning shorthand,’ and then as all these people pile on, they say ‘Shorthand is amazing, I use it every day, it’s wonderful!’

The truth of the matter is that shorthand does remain very, very useful for an awful lot of journalists. And if you want to be a court reporter, then you have to have shorthand. And if you want to have a foolproof way of recording an interview when your dictaphone breaks down, then really you have to have shorthand.

I do genuinely believe that shorthand is hugely valuable to an awful lot of journalists. I mean, I think sometimes the debate around shorthand does cloud broader issues.

I think that’s my point. It’s a real distraction.

I think it can be, yes.

The point is exactly what I think you’re talking about is a fundamental skill set of reporting and properly sourcing a story. One of the things I wonder about, maybe you can talk about is the idea that there’s almost a contradiction in what you’re training people to do, and what publishers, or news publishers want them to do, you know that idea of cut and paste that people complain about so much in newspapers, particularly in digital.

Well, I don’t know about that. It’s always easy to find an example of journalism that doesn’t meet the standards you think it ought to do. Because they’re the kind of examples that people jump on very quickly, circulate on social media, and everyone says, ‘Oh, well journalism’s not what it used to be’.

I don’t really accept that that is true. You look at any period of time, pick up a newspaper from 30 years ago, flick through the pages, and you will find journalism that is not brilliant. It’s always existed.

But I think now, it’s much easier for people to amplify the examples which they think are not great. Actually, my view is that – and I think that the Community News project is a great example of this – is that there’s a hell of a lot of really, very, very good journalism out there. And I’m not just talking about the groundbreaking investigations or the exclusive interviews or the amazing scoops. There is an awful lot of really good day to day, general reporting going on for which journalists get remarkably little credit.

And I think we’ve seen that as part of the CNP where you’ve got journalists out in communities that have perhaps been underserved for a while, and they’re just getting good stories. They’re not necessarily stories that are going to make national headlines. But they’re meaningful stories for local readers and local audiences, and I think that’s really important.

So I don’t think there is a contradiction between what we’re teaching and what publishers want. I think all publishers want journalists who can produce good journalism and can adapt to the markets that they’re working in, and be flexible in the way they produce journalism too.

I think a brilliant example of that was a post that was on Medium; Behind Local News. It was a week in the life of a community news reporter, and it was talking about a lady called Rebecca Beardmore on the Blackpool Gazette.

I think that is exactly right. She is just one of, what is it 77/78 community news reporters who are in post who are doing a really difficult job in really difficult circumstances who are also studying for a qualification. Many of them have other responsibilities. She’s emblematic of that in that she’s got three kids, they’re two, seven and 10, she’s trying to do her job from home, she’s trying to revise for NCTJ exams.

I mean, this is really tough stuff and yet, she’s doing it willingly, she’s doing it well, and it really makes me so angry when you hear flippant criticism of journalists or journalism, or even the kind of stuff that you get from time to time where people just talk down, particularly the regional press, they say ‘Ah well, it’s been a failing model for years and years, and coronavirus is going to be the thing that finishes it all off.’

And I do think well, yes, of course there are massive challenges, massive structural, economic challenges facing the sector, but it is innovative. It is full of good people who work really hard. They will, I’m sure find ways through these tough times.

So I sort of resent a lot of the talking down of the sector because usually it comes from people who either don’t know it very well, or perhaps knew it a long time ago, and have got their rose tinted spectacles on, and I think an awful lot of it is frankly not very accurate.

Do you think part of the problem though, is that some of the chains have reduced people on the ground, the number of people that they actually have on the ground? So to talk about local news is actually in some organisations is a little bit of a misnomer because they’ve got one person in a hub covering four or five different areas.

I think everyone would acknowledge that most local regional newspapers don’t have the resources that they once had. But I think the Community News Project is an example of what can be achieved when you get those people back in communities.

And clearly the economic situation makes that difficult. But that’s kind of where we have to look to see the future of local news, is engaging with communities, being relevant, as local media always has tried to be

What do you think that looks like when we start to get to this ‘new normal’ that people are talking about after the pandemic?

Perhaps it does need to be even more community focused than it perhaps ever has been. Because I think that is what makes local news outlets distinct is that they speak to those community audiences.

And part of that also taps into the idea that local newsrooms, just as national newsrooms, across all sectors of the industry need to make even more of an effort to represent their audiences, in terms of being diverse themselves. That’s something else that the Community News Project has been very successful in.

I think 69% of the reporters hired as part of this scheme fit one or more of the various diversity criteria that was set. Now this isn’t a kind of quota system that was put in place, but there was certainly an ambition at the outset of the project to try and attract a diverse intake.

That is one of the reasons that the project has been an enormous success, because I think what audiences have seen and what communities have seen is that there are journalists out there who actually are just like them, because they come from those communities.

There’s always been an element of that in local news, of course, but I think increasingly – and we’ve seen this over the last few years, to be fair – it’s got to be quite an explicit effort. And certainly that fits with the NCTJ’s broader diversity aims.

As you probably know we run the Journalism Diversity Fund which helps people from diverse backgrounds study on our courses. So that’s another element of what local news needs to look like. It needs to be as representative of its audiences as it possibly can.

Do you think it also needs to be where they are, maybe that doesn’t mean print anymore, it means Facebook?

Maybe, but it’s easy to write print off, isn’t it? And I think there are still an awful lot of people out there who like nothing better than picking up a physical newspaper and reading it cover to cover. And, yeah, sure those readership numbers have declined. Maybe that decline will continue, maybe it won’t, who knows?

But I wouldn’t write it off completely. I think that there is still a place for print, undoubtedly. But ultimately it all comes down to good journalism, doesn’t it, and it doesn’t massively matter what the platform is, as long as audiences are engaging with it.

Yeah, and I guess as long as it can be sustainable financially somehow, whatever that looks like.

Absolutely, that is the million or no doubt multi billion dollar question, isn’t it? But to a certain extent, that has been so for 20 years.

I remember when I worked for the Press Complaints Commission, I’d go along to industry conferences, and you’d have panel sessions asking, ‘What is the future of journalism?’ as you always get at these conferences. And people would chat about the internet and the impact on news, and no one really knew what the answers were then.

I think we’ve inched towards answers in the meantime, but things change so rapidly. Obviously the current crisis has been completely unexpected and unprecedented.

But notwithstanding that, things are changing rapidly and unexpectedly in terms of the tech, in terms of audiences, and I think news organisations have simply to be ever more innovative and flexible in terms of reaching audiences and finding ways to to monetise them, frankly.

So I just read a piece last week in Press Gazette, blaming Google and Facebook for the demise of BuzzFeed News in the UK. You’re coming at us from a different point of view than Press Gazette – I don’t agree with Press Gazette necessarily with that Duopoly campaign, but I get it. I know where they’re coming from. But you’re coming at it from a different point of view. How do you deal with that idea, that scepticism if you like, of Facebook’s motivation in this kind of space?

I think that scepticism obviously exists and is strong in some quarters, less strong in others. The antipathy towards the big tech companies is over is oversimplified.

It goes without saying, no one is going to disagree with the notion that the successful business models of Facebook, Google and the others, but those in particular, have caused massive disruption to existing news media organisations. But I don’t think that is the only factor in the challenges that the news media organisations have faced. And I think to a certain extent, Google and Facebook have provided new ways for those organisations to reach audiences.

You can debate till the cows come home whether there is sufficient transparency around ad spend and ad revenue, whether there is a sufficient share going back to publishers, and I think those are very legitimate questions to be asked.

But I do think some of the antipathy is over done, and obviously from the point of view of the Community News Project, that is one example among quite a number of projects, schemes, programmes that Facebook, Google and others have supported, which directly help journalism.

I totally get the idea that some people will have that it’s simply a way for Facebook and Google to get some good PR, and in a sense cover their backs. That’s an easy contention to make. But I think actually, there are many people at those two companies who completely acknowledge the disruption that has been caused to local media, who totally understand that actually, news is an enormous driver of their own brand successes, and that journalism is important.

So I think the idea that it’s only a PR trick is just not sustainable. A) this is actually helping journalism in the UK. This isn’t a fig leaf, this is a successful project. And B) the people at Facebook and Google who are backing projects like the Community News Project have a genuine belief in the importance of journalism.

I get the scepticism and I understand where it’s coming from. But I think it’s just too easy to be a sceptic and to not acknowledge that actually there is a lot of positivity behind projects like this one.

One of the issues we’ve got is this idea – you mentioned it earlier actually – trust. Trust in journalism, trust in publishers, trust in platforms. There’s this whole sort of public mistrust if you like. How do you see you role from NCTJ’s point of view in trying to help fix that through education, or actually journalism education more generally?

To be honest, I think it’s something that the NCTJ is very, very conscious of. In my career, it’s been a slightly odd one, but the factor which holds it all together from my decade in regulation, self-regulation through nearly a decade in newsrooms and then out the other side to the NCTJ, the common factor in all of that has been around standards and quality and trust.

The NCTJ has a very significant role to play in all of that, both in terms of continuing to train student journalists to high standard, but also there is a much bigger role for us to play in the, if you like, the continuous professional development of journalists once they’ve got into work, because I’ve always been aware that that is an area that is patchy at best.

There are some news organisations which I think are excellent, and they make a real point of keeping their staff up to date with new developments, new skills and so on. Other organisations are not very good, and some are in the middle.

And I think the NCTJ, which has always been in that sphere to an extent in that we run scheduled training for journalists, we run bespoke courses for news organisations that want us to develop them for them.

But I still think there’s a bigger role for the NCTJ to play in that continuous development of journalists throughout their careers. And that’s the area where we are currently looking to expand into, because the NCTJ’s record when it comes to training students is terrific, and it has built his reputation on that.

But moving more compellingly into the in-work training sphere, that is something that we are aiming to do. And I think it absolutely speaks to that question of trust in journalism more broadly.

Do you think it’s a skills thing, or do you think it’s a PR thing, or do you think it’s both?

I think it’s probably a bit of both. There is a skills element to it, which is partly around, I suppose the rapid advances in technology, which journalists frankly do need to keep abreast of if they’re to do their jobs to the best of their potential.

I think it’s not only about technology, it’s also about understanding the developments in audience behaviour, it’s understanding developments in even things as basic but essential as media law and media regulation, media ethics, those are things that change over time. And if you don’t actually take the opportunity occasionally to update your knowledge about that, it’s very easy to become out of date.

But yes, I’m sure there’s a PR angle as well, in the sense that the journalism industry has always had a problem at explaining to the public why they can be trusted.

It’s often sort of asserted, but actually, I think pointing to training, pointing to codes of ethics, those are the kinds of things which actually make a difference and which can combat that narrative of mistrust, which has, I think very unfairly for the most part, taken hold in recent times, and has taken hold in part because it has suited the agendas of some other people – I include politicians in that to an extent – to sow that seed of doubt.

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