What’s going on at The News?

Update 14/3: Shortly after I hit “publish”, a story popped up on HoldTheFrontPage about an initiative by Local World, one of Johnston’s main rivals in the local paper market.  They are now allowing the Police to publish stories directly without any journalistic involvement (or, clearly, subediting).  This is taking the “let somebody else write the content” thing much too far.  For one thing, the Police’s story in the Torbay Herald Express says a man “stole” a handbag.  I think they mean “is alleged to have stolen”.  Original blog continues below.

From time to time, I have the odd minor dig on Twitter at The News, though I have great respect for the dedicated and professional journalists who produce the paper.  These days, with all the cuts and underinvestment from Johnston Press, they literally do produce the paper themselves.  It can only be a matter of time before they are required to ink the presses and drive the delivery vans.

After they recently promoted me to “Councillor” and printed the full text of a letter I wrote in correcting Cllrs Hunt and Vernon-Jackson, I have little to complain about personally.  I’m still waiting for a writ from either of them in respect of that letter, by the way.  I very much look forward to seeing the debate on PCC’s response to changes in the law regarding recording and reporting of meetings next Tuesday at the full Council meeting.

I hope this will be accepted as a moan about the way Johnston Press run down their papers, and not taken as an attack on the staff, because the problem I’m highlighting isn’t unique to The News; it afflicts a number of other JP titles, such as The Scotsman or the Yorkshire Post.  But I’m going to say it anyway:  the Comments section underneath stories on The News website is a cesspit.

There are Councillors on there slagging people off anonymously, general abuse, and a lot of “dog-whistle” stuff that really doesn’t have a place on a proper newspaper site. I know who some of the Councillors are, and as it happens they are Lib Dems, but it’s been suggested to me that there’s another party involved too.  Pack it in, chaps, it’s impossible to argue that Council politics should be taken seriously if you’re behaving like idiots.  I’ve been collating some particularly ridiculous comments from Councillors I know to be impersonating members of the public and maybe there’s a blog in that in the near future.

But the case that really boggled my mind was one I’d spotted online a few days ago, in a thread that had already had a moderator in action.  This isn’t a case involving a Councillor.  It’s under a story about South Parade Pier, which of course has left a large section of the public annoyed at PCC’s inaction.  I don’t agree with the politics of the party in question here, but this sort of comment isn’t on:


A lot of online forums rely on a “Report abuse” button, or a blacklist of forbidden words, so you could say it would be unfair to be too hard on The News for this, even though it’s unacceptable.  But that’s only half of it, because someone must have seen this comment.  See this picture of the paper the next day:


Now, I’m glad the abusive references to GVJ were at least removed before they appeared in print, but I do wonder why the original was left untouched online – it’s still there now as I type this.  Should someone who writes that sort of stuff be used as a source of material for the paper at all?

Most of the comment traffic appears under stories about football.  This particular one has somehow survived over a week.  It’s repulsive:


I realise that Johnston Press’ strategy for their papers depends on increasing reader engagement.  Indeed, getting readers to write the content where they can get away with it is part of most local papers’ approach these days – but Johnston’s approach to the digital environment is not a recipe for success.  The iPad and tablet edition of The News is great.  But the generic Johnston website design is awful, and functionality like “log in with Twitter” never seems to work.  It’s good news for bloggers if local papers are slow off the mark, but in the end a strong local papers are an important part of civil society.  I hope in the end someone rescues ours from the clutches of Johnston Press, or things are only likely to get worse.





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