Trust: the compass steering local journalism through the Covid-19 crisis

New visualisation of the Covid-19 virus, March 12, 2020

By James Mitchinson, Editor, The Yorkshire Post

(April 30, 2020)

Wednesday 18th March: the last time we at The Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post – we run a joint newsroom – saw one another in the flesh. It was that night that I ordered everyone out of the building, for their own safety.

The national lockdown actually came a few days later. We decided as a management team that we wanted to get ahead of the screaming writing on the planet’s wall. Our disaster recovery plan was robust – and no less complex – and has enabled us to work from home without too much fuss. In many cases, productivity has increased.

The health, safety and wellbeing of my staff is and always will be my number one priority. My rationale: my staff must trust absolutely my – and that of the management team – leadership in order for them to feel safe and able to produce trustworthy journalism. The tone and temperament of The Yorkshire Post’s content, I believe, is set as much by the way we conduct ourselves as it is the content plan itself.

With my team safe, connected – to one another and to the products we produce – and productive, I could turn my attention to my number two priority: the health, safety and wellbeing of The Yorkshire Post and its sister titles. Overnight:

  • our advertisers – who we value enormously – had to pull in their horns in order to protect their own businesses and their families;
  • newspaper sales fell dramatically as people were staying home to protect each other and the NHS;
  • retailers – quite rightly – closed to adhere to Government guidelines.

In short, our industry – as with so many others – was hit by a barrage of turbulence the like of which I doubt we’ve seen in our 266-year history. JPIMedia – our parent company – has been forced to furlough 350 staff as well as asking every single person to take a pay cut – board members 20 per cent – in order to elongate the runway on which we deal with the shock to the business. I found myself late one night, with a heavy heart, writing to our fabulous freelance contributors – every single one of them brilliant at their craft – asking them to take at least a ten per cent pay cut. Not one of them refused. Most willingly gave up more than 10 per cent. Some are working for free, stating that they hoped in so doing it eased my headache. I’ll never forget that.

But there is a reason why journalists have been assigned Key Worker status during this pandemic. Access to high quality, well researched, fact-checked news and information is instrumental in keeping people safe in mind and body. Having a place to go where you know you can trust that which you read – just bear in mind the backdrop of an election and Brexit campaign littered with lies, deceit and dirty tricks that left the nation as exhausted as it was bewildered – is a critical resource in supporting the mental health of individuals and communities. We know this is true as our digital traffic grew exponentially as the pandemic began to creep into our lives. People were looking for guidance. For answers. And from brands like ours that have stood alongside their families down the generations. A wise old family friend, if you will.

As the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: properly done journalism, journalism done for the right reasons – not all ‘journalism’ done in some quarters of this country is what I would call journalism – done for the betterment of the communities it serves, in the spirit of good citizenship, is the fourth emergency service. [1]

There is perhaps no better illustration of that than the collaboration we quickly set up with local authorities across Yorkshire. As people’s access to news and information was necessarily impeded, the burden of responsibility we felt – if we were going to live up to the status assigned to us by the Culture Secretary – in reaching the vulnerable and isolated of Yorkshire, many of whom have no access to nor appetite for digital products, weighed heavy.

I am pleased, proud and grateful to those local authorities who responded to our pleas and are now distributing thousands of newspapers right across the county as part of the emergency supplies packages that are reaching those who need them the most. Of course, that helps with newspaper sales figures, but we have collaborated at cost price – no profiteering – and, most importantly, feel we are doing all we can to help people make sense of what is happening.

As well as moving quickly to do what we do alongside local government, I have spent many hours lobbying central government through MPs and contacts we have established in and around Whitehall. I was pleased to be among the first editors briefed on the Government’s multi-million-pound public information campaign spend with our industry and continue to be hopeful that it will listen to those of us asking for the business rates relief that has gone the way of, for example, tanning shops and vaping stores, to be extended to local news publishers. I do not begrudge those businesses help, incidentally. I just feel that what my team does is worth supporting in that way, too.

I also believe the furlough scheme needs a flip when it comes to journalists like those I lead. I would rather not have a furlough scheme that rewards me for keeping journalists – key workers, remember – at home. I need a furlough system that encourages and incentivises me – and other editors – to keep hard-working, conscientious reporters on the front line giving guidance that is in the public interest.

Keeping us going is now the challenge. I wouldn’t normally put this into the public domain. It isn’t a good look to ‘virtue signal’ – as they seem to say these days – about such trivia. However, on Wednesday 29th April our front page carried an image of two clearly distraught women in NHS scrubs. Exhausted and fraught with emotion. So moved were we at The Yorkshire Post that I decided I would track them down – and have, to Salford Royal NHS Trust – in order to send them flowers. I added this message:

Dear X (names witheld)

We at The Yorkshire Post were deeply moved by the photograph that we used on the front of Wednesday’s edition. You are clearly sacrificing so much of yourself in order to keep people safe from this dreadful virus. We wanted you to know that we see your sacrifice. We see what it means to you. And we want you to know that we appreciate everything you are doing for us. For your community. For your country. Please, if you will, pass this message on to your colleagues. You are all – each and every one of you – genuine heroes. 

With love – please stay safe – The Yorkshire Post team.

Who will do that when we’re gone?

I will finish by returning to what I said previously: I believe the tone, temperament and quality of a newspaper is intricately and inextricably interwoven amongst the personalities, conduct and beliefs of its journalists. Everything else is secondary.

 

[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/coronavirus-newspapers-press-media-oliver-dowden-culture-secretary-a9472016.html

Author photo:

James Mitchinson is the editor of The Yorkshire Post, recently awarded Most Trusted Newspaper in Britain status by PAMCo.  He is the editorial director for JPIMedia Yorkshire, responsible for a score of news brands that employ over 100 journalists across Yorkshire, as well as a Westminster Correspondent and City Editor, both based in London.  The JPIMedia Yorkshire print portfolio for which James is responsible sells around 300,000 copies per week, reaching around 1m people every week across Yorkshire. Its digital portfolio attracts over 0.6m unique browsers per day generating over 1m page views per day.  Last year the Society of Editors awarded The Yorkshire Post the accolades of Campaign of the Year and Front Page of the Year. JPIMedia crowned Yorkshire’s National Newspaper its National Title of the Year for 2018.  James is a married father of two boys who – when not at work – can be found in the countryside with his seven-year-old trusty Golden Retriever, Wilf, by his side.