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The Future of News

After a turbulent 2021, the Society of Editors is back on the front foot. In May, it held an in-person conference looking at the future of news. Ray Snoddy picks up on some of the main talking points from the day.

By Ray Snoddy

The Future of News
Alok Sharma.

One of the most important things about the 2022 Society of Editors conference was that it happened at all.

First there was Covid and then a near existential threat last year from an ill-considered press release on Meghan Markle and the press racism row that failed to take account of the change in public sensibilities following the Black Lives Matter campaign.

At the time, the Society made headlines for all the wrong reasons with conference hosts pulling out and journalists making clear they did not want to be considered for SoE awards, a controversy that culminated in the resignation of the Society’s executive director, Ian Murray.

Out of the crisis, the Society, one of the key organisations in the battle to protect press freedoms in the UK, has not just survived but has now emerged stronger with an increased membership.

The 2022 face-to-face conference tackled head-on the most significant issue – the future of news.

It ranged from a new sub-genre of broadcast communication designed to explain the complex, to covering the war in Ukraine. Then there was a rare government minister unambiguously standing up for press freedom and the media’s essential role in holding governments to account, not least over climate change.

There was also evidence of a practical agreement to improve access to the courts and finally a well-deserved award plus the latest thoughts on how best to fund journalism.

The BBC’s Ros Atkins has singlehandedly addressed a number of serious problems with television news, its inability to deal with the complexity behind breaking news stories, or holding ministers to account for the difference between what they have said in the past and what they are saying now.

Reporting news for today’s audiences

In a recent example, Atkins took seven minutes to explain the intricacies of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Good Friday agreement and the looming row with the European Union over threats to unilaterally change the protocol.

Ros Atkins.

At the SoE conference, Atkins set out guidelines on how to give new types of journalism the best chance of making it, and put the whole lot on Twitter in an unusually long 45 tweet thread.

Atkins believes that the disruption caused by the internet is so absolute that there is now a “non-negotiable” need for constant change alongside the existing givens of accuracy, fairness and high production standards.

“We should keep doing it (innovation). Again and again. Not everything is going to work of course – but there are things we can do to give ourselves the best chance,” the BBC journalist argues.

News, Atkins believes, is not a given in people’s lives and it can’t be assumed that the way journalists tell stories is the way people want to hear them.

The Atkins guide to the future of journalism includes showing people the evidence rather than just assertions, making the case for journalism and earning the trust of the audience.

He also believes that there has to be a social and digital dimension to how the news is presented and distributed, otherwise you are not making the most of your investment.

Assembling multi-disciplinary teams who display maximum flexibility is vital, as is the need to have definitions of what represents success to avoid news organisation doing digital things just for the sake of it.

The BBC journalist emphasises that digital isn’t only a distribution revolution, it’s also a story-telling revolution – story-telling that should embrace the styles of Tik Tok, gaming livestreams and comedy on YouTube.

“We are in an era of extreme creativity – we need to match that in news. We need to look far and wide for our inspiration. Otherwise, the news risks feeling tired and constrained to our audiences compared to everything else they can consume,” Atkins warned.

And finally in tweet number 45, Atkins insisted that the future of news was already here:

“It’s all around us in how people consume media content in a multitude of different ways – the test for all of us is whether we’re willing to take part,” said Ros Atkins who will probably have further leading roles to play in that future.

Atkins has, of course, been on hand on BBC News to debunk such things as false Russian propaganda that Ukrainians are Neo-Nazis. On the ground in Ukraine, many journalists, particularly broadcast journalists, have distinguished themselves in their brave coverage of the war. It has come at a high cost with more than 20 media workers of many nationalities killed so far in the conflict.

Reporting Ukraine – double standards?

One big issue dominated reports of the debate on Ukraine at the SoE conference – whether journalists have demonstrated double standards in giving the war in Ukraine such extensive coverage compared with civil wars in Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria where more people have died.

Simon Robinson, global managing newsroom editor for Reuters, argued that there was a practical reason for the scale of coverage. It was much easier to gain access to areas under Ukrainian control than, say to the Tigray province of Ethiopia where a violent civil war has continued for more than two years.

For some, the reason for the disparity is that it is a war being fought within Europe by people who share a common European culture.

Jonathan Levy, director of news gathering and operations at Sky News, thinks that there are indeed double standards but of a different nature.

“Where there are double standards, I think it is a slightly different thing that’s been going on, a slightly ahistorical thing. This, ‘wow, big shock,’ a war in Europe. Well Europe has a pretty blood-stained past. It’s not that unique for there to be violent war in Europe at one time or another,” Levy explained.

A supposed superpower going to war with the effect on the world economy, not least gas and oil markets, increased the likely prominence.

Yet, as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeses, director general of the World Health Organisation, who comes from Tigray Province, noted in April, the world is not treating the human race in the same way.

“I don’t know if the world really gives equal attention to black and white lives,” Ghebreyeses mused.

Room for further thought by Western journalists perhaps?

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine also featured in the SoE Outstanding Contribution to Journalism Award, which went to Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times. The citation said that Lamb had “brought the brutal reality of war home to all her readers” through the power of her story-telling.

In a pre-recorded message from her latest assignment in the East of Ukraine, Lamb said that the fact that some of the things happening in Ukraine were so horrific and uncomfortable made it all the more incumbent to cover them.

Christina Lamb said that in exposing injustice, it was her fervent hope that, at least in Ukraine because of the high levels of interest, that journalism would make a difference.

Courts reporting

It seemed a world away from the death and destruction in Eastern Ukraine to the more apparently mundane issue of access to the courts although both involve the freedom to report.

John Battle.

The SoE, together with the Media Lawyers Association and Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service launched a new charter setting out the rights of journalists to attend proceedings, take notes from court, use social media, access hearings remotely and receive information on courts lists and other documents.

John Battle, who chairs the Media Lawyers Association, said the charter was a significant step forward because it brought together in one document the rights of journalists to attend and report proceedings.

Such access and reporting was, “fundamental for justice, the rule of law and democracy,” Battle added.

There were also areas of optimism, albeit from very different approaches, in one of the most difficult, practical conundrums facing newspapers – how to fund quality journalism.

Jessica Hayes, who was involved in launching The Guardian’s contributions policy, urged the industry to get out of, “this mind-set that people aren’t prepared to pay for quality journalism. They are.”

Jessica Hayes.

Hayes said that the contributions policy was working well and that readers were not necessarily giving because they supported the paper’s political stance, but to preserve open journalism.

Neither The Guardian nor Reach, publishers of the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express, had plans to introduce paywalls in the near future. For Reach, head of invention Becky Clay’s role included working with advertisers on revenue-generating branded content.

In contrast, a paywall introduced by the Belfast Telegraph in 2020 had exceeded its targets according to deputy publisher Edward McCann despite initial concern that it might be difficult to achieve scale on a regional title.

Climate change

Yet perhaps the largest issue highlighted and the greatest long-term challenge facing journalism and the media is the reporting of climate change.

Alok Sharma, Cabinet Office minister and President of Glasgow’s COP 26, paid tribute to the tenacity and rigour of the British press.

“Whether it is war, or corruption, or injustice or hypocrisy, or indeed a desire for greater transparency, you are unrelenting, uncompromising and fearless in your pursuit of truth, and in your determination to hold those in power to account,” Sharma said.

He wanted the same rigour and determination to be applied to holding governments and businesses to climate change temperature targets.

Sharma acknowledged that the press had changed on reporting climate change. Analysis showed that in 2011, the right-leaning newspapers had carried one editorial in favour of climate action for every five against. By 2021, those newspapers were publishing nine positive editorials for every one against.

Sharma believes that the chronic threat of climate change and its expansive impact on all our lives “will increasingly be the biggest story of the twenty-first century”.

It would actually be the biggest story in many of our lifetimes, the minister added.

“And we need you to tell it. And we need you to shape it. By continuing to do what you do best. Speak truth to power. Report on the world around us,” Alok Sharma concluded.

Despite his kind words, there is still a long way to go. Perhaps it should be the main theme of the rejuvenated Society of Editors Conference 2023.

All pictures courtesy of James Linsell-Clark, SWNS.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.