The conspiracy of crap journalism

Kemain1

Today’s KE rolls into one splash the cut in Eurostar services at Ashford (bad news), the council u-turn on Wye Park (good news), and more delays on the Stour Centre opening (no news at all). Can you see the connection?

What is it with the Kentish Express? Week in, week out it resolutely ignores the biggest scandal in the Ashford borough for years despite save-wye’s publication of plans, minutes, emails and other documents showing the scale of the deceit that lay behind the concordats signed by our glorious leaders last year. Even when the KM Group’s only serious opposition — Kent on Sunday — published a copy of Imperial’s masterplan after it received its first public airing here, the Ashford paper resolutely refused to cover this story. When challenged by readers, its editor, Leo Whitlock, protested that if it hadn’t been for his paper, the signing of the concordat would never have received the publicity that it did on December 8.

Then, when Ashford Borough Council drops Wye Park from the local development framework and its leader distances himself from the project, up pops the Kentish Express’s veteran chief reporter, Mike Bennett, with a whole page on how the project might be in doubt. I don’t go a bomb on secret plots and grassy knolls because I have a thing called a life, but I’m beginning to wonder.

Why has the KE been so resolutely piss poor on this? Why has it not printed a copy of Imperial’s 4,000 house masterplan even when offered it on a plate and even when Mr Bennett is forced to quote Cllr Clokie referring to it? Why has it failed to ask a single meaningful question or conduct a single line of investigative inquiry since this charade was set running by Imperial nine months ago? Why have some of its senior staff dismissed the concerns of its readers about Imperial’s real intentions — now proven — as ‘wild conspiracy theories’?

I’m beginning to think there are two conspiracies here: the conspiracy of crap journalism and a conspiracy involving a shadowy group (yes, you read that right) of unelected people who seem to have undue influence in the decision-making processes in our county. A group called the Kent Ambassadors.

I’ll come to the latter another time, but allow me to sound off on something I know a little about — garbage journalism and the decline of the press. For the first time in British newspaper history, last month’s audited figures showed the circulation of every paid-for regional paper falling; not some, or most, but all of them. That figure includes the Kent Messenger Group’s once mighty flagship, the KM itself, and its ugly little sister, the Kentish Express.

The Audit Bureau of Circulation figure for January to July this year shows the KE sold, on average, 24,029 copies a week – a decline of 3.7 per cent on the same period last year. Nothing too desperate there you might say when you consider that the paper I work for, The Sunday Telegraph, has been registering falls of 6 per cent for a number of years. But the KE’s gentle decline has been going on for a number of years, too. Since 2003, the KE’s circulation has declined by 7 per cent — a drop which stands in stark relief to the success that the paper enjoyed in the mid to late 90s when it was the UK’s fastest growing publication five years running, regularly posting circulation gains of 20 per cent.

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The graph they don’t want advertisers to see: The rise and fall of the KE

What has changed since then? Yes, news is more widely available on the internet — though wading through the KM’s equally poor website you’d be hard-pressed to find any — and we are bombarded with inane local radio stations — many of them owned by, you’ve guessed it, the KM Group. And, we are told, people have less time and want their news on the go. But unlike most local papers, the KE is sitting on top of a growing gold mine which it is inexplicably failing to exploit: Ashford is currently Britain’s fastest growing town, building more than 2,000 houses a year. That’s potentially 2,000 new readers — roughly 10 per cent of its total sale — wanting to buy a lively, informative, campaigning, well-written local paper. Instead, they are offered the Kentish Express. Little wonder that, on ABC’s figures, not one new reader has picked up the KE for over three years.

The rot in the local press has been going on for years and the reasons for this are many. But the main one is lack of staff — both in quality and quantity. When I started as a trainee reporter on the Kent and Sussex Courier in Tunbridge Wells in the mid 1980s, leathery old hacks with nicotine virtually oozing from ever pore bemoaned the passing of some golden age when reporters bounced around the countryside in Mini vans with contacts books filled with the unlisted phone numbers of policemen, clerks, solicitors, landowners, businessmen, housewives, parish council chairmen. They only returned to the office with a notebook full of stories. But to my eyes, the newsroom of the Kent and Sussex Courier in 1985 was still a magical place. There were 20 reporters in it — all clattering away on typewriters in a haze of cigarette smoke. Today, the same newsroom has two reporters sitting at their computer terminals. In Ashford, the lack of staff is also apparent. The few reporters available are under constant pressure to ‘fill pages’ and so cannot afford to develop contacts or spend time out of the office. The result is the travesty we are presented with this week: a series of follow-ups of stories that have appeared elsewhere, the obligatory pictures of other peoples’ children and a series of low rent crime stories dished out by Ashford police station’s ‘publicity officer’.

 

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While the KE can’t find room to print the leaked map showing the horrors of Imperial’s development plans it can still find space for, er, exclusives like this…

Back in 1985, I was paid £2,500 a year. Today, the starting salary of a trainee reporter in Kent is somewhere in the region of £11,000 a year. In those 20 years, the average salary in Britain has risen from £7,000 to more than £23,000. There used to be a nationally-recognised apprenticeship for reporters run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. But companies like the KM put paid to that. It was too expensive, the results did not appear on the bottom line, reporters spent too long training and not long enough ‘filling the paper’. The result has been long in development but it is called the Kentish Express — a crap paper filled with crap stories about crap things you’ve either seen or heard elsewhere or pictures of children with chickens on their heads. There is no investigation, no intelligent comment, no serious questioning of those paid to represent us. Lines are swallowed until ‘the council’ tells Mike Bennett otherwise.

And they are still at it. Today’s offering continues to parrot Imperial’s fantasy of a £1billion project when we’ve proved beyond doubt that it would only ever have cost a quarter of that. Cllr Clokie has implicitly accepted the veracity of the ‘map’ showing Imperial’s true ambitions so, in the interests of democracy, we offered it to the KE. Our offer was declined. Apparently, ‘lack of space’ prevented it.

My friend, David Hewson, wrote on save-wye several months ago that when local papers go bad, democracy quickly follows. Is it any coincidence that Ashford, that most rotten of rotten boroughs, is served by such a rotten local paper?

 

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About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome. Most recent book the novel of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
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11 Responses to The conspiracy of crap journalism

  1. Sean says:

    If I may add my support to this opinion, with a slightly long-winded rant of my own:

    Investigative journalism may be not attractive and fluffy like an otter or a water vole, but it is a vulnerable and endangered creature. It is also vital to a healthy, working democracy (I’m not sure otters are, but they indicate a healthy ecosystem, at least)

    We should remember that we are lucky for the freedoms of speech and media that we have and that they are protected, not just in law, but in our culture. many, if not most, other countries do not enjoy such regular scrutiny of those in power. (eg. Zimbabwe: news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/5341150.stm)

    But we often think that the greatest threat to free press is government interference and conspiracy (though the government’s scalping of the BBC over the dodgy Iraq dossier does spring to mind….)

    However, I think Justin has rightly identified the bigger threat – under-paid, under-educated, lazy journalists working for local papers and TV stations that won’t do stories that may threaten advertising revenues or ‘rock the boat’.

    Instead we get the worst of both worlds: those who are working to make Ashford, and Kent, a better place to live are attacked with playground jibes when things go wrong and ignored when things go right.

    Meanwhile, when there is evidence of backroom dealing and dubious back-scratching, the silence becomes deafening.

    Is it because the journalists are in the pay of these people? unlikely.

    Is it because they all belong to the same secret Da Vinci Code society? Hmm. Probably not, but the writing is almost as bad as Dan Brown.

    Is it because it takes time, effort and determination to go out, get first hand evidence, risk annoying people and to clearly explain what has happened and the underlying reasons why? Now we’re getting somewhere…

    Why bother with working when you can stand outside Maidstone Crown Court every day and give salacious details of the latest rape/murder/theft/child porn case which does little other than elevate the fear of crime in one of the safest places in the world?

    Why bother when you can have a cheap headline about the future of Ashford going down the pan, assembled from, as Justin says, from bad news, good news and no news?

    So come on Kentish Express, have the guts to be a real newspaper.

    (Oh, and otter populations are recovering in the Stour and elsewhere: http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/subjects/conservation/483249/)

  2. Edward S Burgess says:

    Is it any wonder why “Kent on Sunday” has such a large take-up. Why pay KM when something better edited, produced with content and layout so obviously superior is available

  3. Julia Taylor says:

    When I started on the Ashford Adscene just more than two years ago, I too had the romantic vision of being a roving reporter. Discovering I was the only reporter who regularly had to fill 20 pages of news by myself put paid to that.
    I don’t mind the low pay, I always knew it came with the territory -what motivates you as a reporter is the new contacts and the exclusive stories.
    But when you have to file at least two leads a day, as well as all the fillers, it leaves little time for such grand ideas.
    The new contacts, the exclusives, are bonuses unfortunately.
    I have to say that no one in Wye offered me these stories/reports, and not for want of trying. I was in regular contact with the Wye Future press team, only to discover, of a Sunday, that the KoS had some superior exclusive -but maybe I was talking to the wrong people?
    Free papers are frequently dismissed -and I notice Justin Williams does not even mention the Adscene. But I’d hazard a guess that even those who put it straight in the recycling bin have a quick flick through first.
    Many a complaint has been raised to me that the Adscene is not delivered in Wye, but I have no control over circulation. What I do know is that the people in the rest of Ashford are interested in Wye too. Either because it is close to home, or because it’s the same corrupt council pulling the strings, or both. And surely raising awareness goes part of the way to helping any cause?
    I’m a Northerner, and I’ve worked on newspapers all round Manchester, and what is startlingly apparent is that southerners, or maybe just Ashfordians, are appalingly bad at what we refer to as call-ins.
    In Manchester there would be at least one call-in a day for every reporter, leading to the building of contacts and exclusive investigations. Moreover, MPs and councillors would call-in just to express disquiet over certain issues.
    I don’t hear anything from Damian Green unless I call him or there is an election on the horizon, ditto councillors.
    I’m leaving on Thursday, and I hold my hands up -I could have done better.
    But it’s a two-way relationship. The local press is here to represent you, so get vocal.

  4. David Hewson says:

    Thanks for being the only working journalist to take the effort to comment here, Julia. I’m sure it’s much appreciated. I think the Wye campaign’s press efforts were very substandard to be blunt, and principally targeted at the KE which simply didn’t want to know most of the time.
    Back when I was a local newspaper journalist the first thing any news editor would have done on the great day last Friday would have been to send a reporter and photographer to the village to get some good on the spot reaction and photos. I don’t know if the KE even sent anyone – no-one I spoke to saw them.*
    Good luck with the move and I hope you’ve enjoyed your time in Kent.
    *Apparently there was someone in the village on Friday – I await this week’s KE with bated breath!

  5. Justin Williams says:

    Thanks for your comments Julia. I must admit that we don’t get Adscene in Hassell Street (we don’t get anything except the odd dose of the plague) so I haven’t seen whether you have done anything on Wye Park.
    I sympathise with you but only up to a point. In my experience, you can’t just sit around and wait for a story to appear as if by magic. Cultivating contacts is a fundamental, not a bonus, something you have to do if you want to get any decent stories.
    I used to have my own rural edition of a weekly paper. It meant filling eight broadsheet pages in the days when high story counts were considered important. Yes, that meant writing up press releases. Yes, it also meant writing captions to go with cheque presentations. But it also meant finding seven decent page leads and an exclusive splash every week.
    Both David and I have full time occupations — David writes highly successful novels while I’m assistant editor on a national newspaper — and yet we still managed to find the time to break every major story on Wye Park this year.
    We could have sat back and waited for Damian Green or Paul Clokie to call us but how many stories do you think there would there have been on save-wye.org? About 20, if we had been lucky.
    And as for Kent on Sunday getting the decent stuff? Maybe that’s because they bothered to follow up the stories here and develop some of their own. There was nothing to stop you contacting David or I, we would have been delighted to help you — this was, after all, a campaign which we wanted brought to as wide an audience as possible.
    Good luck with the move.

  6. Gary P says:

    Julia – I too am a Northerner, and my wife worked as a journalist in the Manchester area, Southampton and the US for quite a while too. But I agree with Justin here. This world is full of people that are under-resourced and over-worked – and I sympathise. But the fact of the matter is that nothing comes to those who wait. If it did, do you think Justin and David would have done such a stellar job? You had a major story on your doorstep and you didn’t go after it! But what prompted me to write tonight was the way you appear to blame the “Wye Future Press Team” as the reason for the lack of exclusive stories passed your way.

    It may come as a shock to you but Wye Future Group (I thought as a trained journalist you would have got the name right) did not have a press team!!! Like most volunteer groups with limited resources we had resources that were strong in some areas, and weak in others. PR was one of our weak areas – we were aware of this and were in the process of trying to resolve it.

    Having said this did any trained journalists or PR professionals come forward to help – no! We had to find our own way. In the meantime our chairman, who is not (as far as I am aware), trained in PR or journalism took it on his own shoulders to be our spokesman to the media. He managed to gain coverage in most of the Nationals, and reasonable regular coverage in the locals too.

    Personally, this was a pretty good effort, and I, for one, am getting a little fed up of jibes from folks in the media that we weren’t up to there standards. Enough already!!! We all did what we could – some more than others, and perfect or not, the job was done.

    Lets rejoice, and no more bitching……

  7. David Hewson says:

    I have to say Gary, I think you had two trained journalists who came to help… I don’t think Julia was bitching at all. She was trying to explain, that in a world where the local media is extremely stretched, organisations that want coverage have to make an extra effort.

    At save-wye we pleaded with everyone to send us press releases. I can count the number I received on one hand and I suspect we still have never received a single formal one from WFG. This was a real weak point and everyone who looks at the aftermath of this event should face up to that fact. You should also realise that local newspapers work in incredibly tightly defined geographical lines. If a story is in Wye and the paper doesn’t cover that area then whoever edits it will dump the thing immediately.

    When someone who’s in the business tries to explain things from their perspective it’s worth listening.

  8. Gary P says:

    David, I recognise that you and Justin helped tremendously – this is beyond question. What I meant was we had no-one giving professional PR advise within WFG. I know that folks (like yourselves) working in the media have certain expectations – but we were rank amateurs, frankly. We had no experience in this area and we were struggling for resources. This, in part, is why press releases were not routinely issued, to save-wye or anyone else.

    It was a weakness, you are right. We all have our areas of expertise, and ours was not the media! Now if you want to debate biotechnology and bioengineering with me!?!?.

    Perhaps, subconciously, because we had such an effective journalistic campaigning on our doorstep in the form of save-wye, it wasn’t a priority. Should we have duplicated / competed against what you and Justin were doing, or just use this in a different way?

    We all did what we could. We have all expressed our gratitude for all that you and Justin have done. Sometimes I wish that you also would recognise that others also put in a lot of effort, regardless of how efective this was, rather than emphasise the negative aspects of one area which was, admittedly, our weakness……

  9. David Hewson says:

    So much for ‘Let’s rejoice and no more bitching.’ What I was trying to say was that when a professional local journalist has the guts to come on here and say, ‘I hold my hands up -I could have done better’ it just might be worth stopping to listen instead of biting their heads off. If we don’t learn from our mistakes we are doing ourselves a great disservice.

    I was a professional journalist for many years, for both local and national newspapers. My frank opinion is that the campaign as a whole — everyone, from WFG to individuals, organisations like CPRE and save-wye — performed magnificently against the institutions we faced. The media relations side of things, which happily, as it turned out, we didn’t need to rely on too much, was terrible.

    Why else do you think one of the most astonishing victories for the English countryside has, so far, been completely unreported by most newspapers out there?

  10. Gary P says:

    I agree, mediaa relations aside, we all perfomed magnificently – enough said!

  11. Ben Moorhead says:

    Julia and Adscene did a very good job for WFG. She always chased up for stories.We gave her what she could and when she said she was running something it inevitably appeared. Generally, we never determined what any paper said. Of course most of save-wye’s revelations were more juicy than anything we produced.

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