In My Opinion: Derek Tucker: The internet, media graduates and being ‘Jurassic’

On the eve of his retirement, after 18 years as editor of The Press and Journal, Derek Tucker was invited to share this thoughts on the newspaper industry to the annual conference of the Society of Editors, held in Glasgow between November 14 and 16. This is what he had to say…

WE have had an horrendous last decade, some of it caused by the economic situation, much of it self-inflicted, but I do believe newspapers will survive and can prosper if we stop for a moment and take stock of what went wrong. I have never seen it part of my remit to criticise other newspapers or other companies, and I am certainly not going to start now.

What I would prefer to do is set out why I think the Press and Journal continues to prosper and is now the third-largest selling regional newspaper in Britain.

There are many things we continue to do which are considered perhaps a little passé either because they require too much staff time or because of the mistaken belief that readers are no longer interested.

On any one day, for instance, we will have twelve reporters covering our local courts. We will have two staff reporters covering the workings of the Scottish parliament while our London editor works away in Westminster establishing how UK government decisions impact upon the lives of the people in the north of Scotland. We continue to cover all our local councils and committees. There is no look of amazement if a Press and Journal reporter turns up at a community council meeting.

Quite simply, we have remained true to our beliefs. We do ‘what it says on the tin’. We have continued to produce totally different newspapers for the very disparate communities we serve in the north of Scotland. While our industry websites are full of reports chronicling cutbacks and job losses, we have recently increased the number of editions to eight each day and are now producing in the region of 100 broadsheet pages each night to ensure that each edition is tailored to the area in which it circulates.

It is a huge undertaking, and requires a lot of journalists to make it happen, but we believe, right from the very top of our company to the very bottom, that a quality newspaper is the foundation on which commercial success is built. We have, of course, watched with interest what has happened in the rest of the industry, particularly the move to dispense with sub-editors and have reporters writing to formatted shapes, but we do not believe we could produce what we do produce using that model.

It may well be that reporters writing direct to pages is the way ahead, but I would be very reluctant to embrace that with the current state of the education system and our industry’s decision to hand over to universities the training of future generations.

It frustrates me, and I know many other editors feel the same, that a lot of the young people leaving so-called university journalism degree courses are totally unsuited to the needs of newspapers. Very few possess the street cunning and inquisitiveness that are the hallmarks of good journalists and it appears sometimes that English is a second language.

We are, in a sense, reaping what we began to sow years ago when we decided it was cheaper, and more convenient, to leave training to the academics, who were only too pleased to tap into the continuing demand for a career in the media. Unfortunately, we also washed our hands of the careful selection process which placed the attributes of a good journalist above, or at least equal to, educational qualifications.

If we are to re-establish newspapers as the information source of choice, we must play a more active role in the selection and development of the young people entering our profession. Tomorrow’s journalists must be identified and trained by today’s journalists, not yesterday’s enthusiastic but amateur academics. I know the NCTJ is seeking to address this situation, but much work needs to be done.

The other main reason for our continuing strong performance is that we have not sold our souls by creating an all-singing, all-dancing, free-for-all website.

Can you imagine any other FMCG manufacturer offering a product for sale and then saying: but if you’d rather not pay for it, we’ll give you exactly the same product free of charge and, what’s more, we’ll deliver it to you before the shops open?

But that’s what we do. Or, rather, that’s what some of us do.

We, and I’m talking Aberdeen Journals here, have always adopted a different strategy from the industry norm. We impose strict limits on how much of our content is uploaded and we make sure that the loyal customers who pay good money to buy our newspapers receive their copy before it is available online. Unless, of course, you are one of the growing band of people who have subscribed online via PageSuite to either the Press and Journal or Evening Express, in which case you receive the same product, at the same time, but with a different delivery method.

Ah, I can almost hear some people saying, if you don’t give people free local news online, other people will. Well, if that’s true, bring them on, because, from where I’m standing, I don’t see too many companies looking to recruit 150 journalists in the north of Scotland to provide content for a website in the hope that advertising will follow.

Nor do I see hordes of bloggers or citizen journalists or whatever else we call them filling the press benches in courts and council chambers. Joe Public is still excluded from the press facilities at our football clubs, although if you live in Southampton, so are the local press.

There are signs, many of them emanating from Rupert Murdoch, that the tide is turning and that those of us who remained Jurassic where the internet is concerned are now being joined by other sceptics concerned that increased website traffic has not led to increased online revenues but has served only to erode sale.

I would suggest that, if you study the sales performance of Britain’s regional dailies, there is a correlation in many cases between the enthusiasm with which they have embraced their web offering and the size of their year-on-year newspaper sales deficit.

There remain very real challenges ahead of us, but I do believe that the future can be bright for our industry and that the solutions to the problems of the last decade are in our own hands.

Derek Tucker.