INTERVIEW 

Jonathan Grun - interview

Next May, Jonathan Grun will be stepping down from a role he describes as the best job in British journalism - editor of the Press Association. Jonathan talks to Ray Snoddy about his 36 years at the agency and about how the organisation is adapting to the financial squeeze and the changing media landscape.

By Ray Snoddy

Telephone Jonathan Grun, the editor of the Press Association, and likely as not, the call will transfer to the news desk.

Ask to speak to his secretary and the duty desk journalist says a little sheepishly that he supposes he is the editor’s secretary.

Grun, who has worked for the national news agency for 36 years and who will retire in May after being involved in coverage of his eighth general election, has an office but is hardly ever in it.

“I don’t have a secretary. I spend a lot of time sitting on the news desk. I have never liked sitting in an office. I like to be out there talking to people, seeing what is going on,” says Grun who has been PA editor since 2000.

And apart from “rare events” such as an outside lunch, or visits to customer media organisations, it’s mostly a case of sandwiches at the desk.

He has a team of course, and no one can be personally in charge of the detail of a news agency that never closes and can typically send out 150,000 words a day and 300 images.

Buck stops here

“The buck always stops with you, really. I’m perfectly happy with that, so I do like to have a good idea what is going on at all times,” says Grun who obviously feels a very personal responsibility for the never ending stream of news that comes out of PA headquarters in London’s Victoria.

Particularly when there is a big story he wants to be there, making suggestions – good or bad – rather than conducting post-mortems afterwards.

“If there is a post-mortem afterwards, you are going to be the one having to answer the questions I think,” says the PA editor, who studied science A levels at school in the hope of becoming a doctor.

Working part-time for a Cardiff news agency that covered sport changed all that.

“I was the world’s worst sports reporter but I absolutely loved the process of going somewhere and filing instant copy to newspapers. I just absolutely loved it,” says Grun, who instead of going to university became a trainee reporter for the South Wales Argus before joining the PA as a news reporter five years later. He was the night reporter in December 1980 when news broke that John Lennon had been shot in New York.

Like many before him, he imagined it would be an ideal stepping stone on the way to the nationals. After all, the PA is known jokingly, he says, as the Sandhurst of British journalism.

The move never happened because Jonathan Grun really loved what the Press Association stood for, and for him, nowhere else would do.

“The fact that, as we say, it’s fast, it’s fair, it’s accurate. We don’t have an editorial agenda. No one in the whole time I have been at the PA has ever told me the angle we need on a story, and I have never told anyone what the angle should be other than what I think the most interesting angle would be,” explains Grun.

Belt-tightening

Like other news organisations, the Press Association, a private company owned by a consortium of national and regional newspapers, has faced a financial squeeze in recent years.

To counter the impact, the PA has tried to concentrate its news resources “at the sharp end” by reducing reliance on freelancers, generating most of its content in-house and introducing a high degree of multi-skilling.

At the moment, the PA has around 90 newsgatherers, about 30 sports reporters and around 25 photographers. Some of the desk staff also shoot pictures, while news reporters often produce sports video coverage.

Grun himself likes to produce a story or two when he can.

“I was out for a run in Whitehall. I heard some sirens and it was pro-Palestinian demonstrators trying to occupy the Cabinet Office. I popped round, took a photo, wrote some copy, emailed it to the office and consequently was able to get it out on the wire,” says the PA editor.

Almost all the PA staff now have at least an element of multi-skilling, with reporters able to produce simple, if not exactly award-winning pictures, and photographers who can produce good video. When a story breaks, there is an immediate discussion among news editors, picture and video editors what “editorial assets” are required for it – the right balance of words, pictures and video.

“I always said that when we introduced multi-skilling and things went wrong it wouldn’t be the reporters or photographers fault, it would be my fault – though being an editor, I’d probably try to find someone else to blame,” says Grun.

He gives by way of example a major court case. You would want a great picture so you wouldn’t want the photographer distracted by having to shoot video. The reporters involved in coverage of the case could do that.

It should be perfectly possible, however, for one person assigned to a weather story to write a story, take a picture and shoot video.

The PA is also experimenting with a new product to be launched later this year that will offer story telling for digital audiences, combining words, pictures video, graphics and “curated social media”.

The rise of social media has changed the life of news agencies and Twitter, in particular, is an important source and has been brought to “the heart of the news operation”.

The PA has been experimenting with ways of monitoring Twitter to try to find out very early, news of a breaking story the agency did not previously know about.

“Stories do break on Twitter. There is no doubt about that but I still like to think that the best stories still break through news wires, and even when stories do break on Twitter, traditional media organisations have a really important role in validating content,” says Grun. Many Twitter breaking “stories” turn out to be based on misunderstanding.

Anything appearing on Twitter has to be checked before it will run on the PA. Another of the agencies’ mantras is, “we have to be first but first we have to be right”.

As for his own performance on Twitter - @jonathangrun is a modest affair. His last tweet was on 27th February 2013, he has only tweeted 29 times – mainly about PA stories - and follows 2 people with a mere 197 followers.

“Although I have pretty strong personal views, as editor of the Press Association, I don’t make them public to anyone, just as anyone from the PA has to hang up their views with their coat when they come in in the morning,” he explains.

Advocate of free press

Grun has twice been president of the Society of Editors and has there given evidence of strong views, using the platform to emphasise the importance of citizens’ rights and a free press.

At the height of political talk about a Royal Charter for the press, Grun of the SoE warned that “intervention of the state in the regulation of the media will not serve society, and it will send out a dangerous message to repressive regimes across the world.”

He is a supporter of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and believes it should be given a chance to establish itself under its first chairman, Sir Alan Moses.

“From a viewpoint of five years from now, looking back, I hope we can say we are celebrating a success,” says Grun who believes he speaks for the vast majority of journalists who believe passionately in what they are doing and were horrified to see the reputation of the industry tarnished by illegality.

Grun and the PA’s legal director Mike Dodd, who is editor of Media Lawyer, have also been active in mounting legal challenges to attempts to limit open reporting of court hearings.

In one of the latest examples, a London borough went to the High Court and applied for the defendant in a murder trial to be made anonymous on the grounds that naming him would harm his child.

The application came half way through the trial, and with virtually no warning, even though the child had already been named on websites.

The application was successfully opposed and it was made clear in court that the press should have proper warning about such submissions in future.

“This sort of thing requires daily vigilance. Orders are sometimes made in the courts that should not have been made, and if we let them go unchallenged, we lose a little something from this country,” he says.

But why is Grun giving up a job he clearly loves when he is only 60 in October?

“There does come a time when you think - let someone else have a go at it really. Have a different pace to my life,” says Grun who will become the Press Association’s first Editor Emeritus, a part time role that will involve representing the PA, and getting involved in training and making sure the highest ethical standards are maintained.

Then there is the 36-year list of things he wants to do. He has already recently taken a sailing course, run his first marathon and completed a diploma on the history of Westminster at the University of Westminster.

“I have walked the streets of Westminster for over a third of a century and if I could find the odd opportunity to communicate some of my enthusiasm and love for its people, then that would be worthwhile,” says the PA editor.

And any advice for his successor: “Enjoy it. It’s the best job in British journalism without a doubt – so absolutely enjoy it,” says Jonathan Grun.