Reach PLC is damaging a historic newspaper brand – and it doesn’t need to

I was moaning earlier on about the lack of local council coverage in Cambridge’s daily newspaper the Cambridge News – formerly the Cambridge Evening News when I delivered it during my early teens on my paper round in the early 1990s.

The one prize reporting role they used to have was the Local Government Correspondent – one that for the past four incumbents has led to a promotion for the post-holder to a national title or agency in London, covering Westminster. If you are in that field, getting down to London similar to my move there in the civil service is a sign of having ‘made it’.

So I asked Mr Bartlett, the Editor-in-chief when we can expect a replacement – only there are a lot of meetings going on and for whatever reason outside of the LDR not being in post, none of the other reporters appear to be covering those posts.

The decline of local newspapers

Read this article by Phil Rodgers, Cambridge’s sort of semi-official local elections psephologist. (He looks at the numbers and trends behind election results – statistics of which were/are unofficially kept by the late Colin Rosenstiel, and maintained by Keith Edkins.

Between 2001 and 2011, the circulation of the Cambridge News halved.

Fast forward to 2021? They’ve collapsed further – 80%.

Above – from ABC, the circulation figures for the Cambridge News is now just over 4,000. So over 20 years they have collapsed by 90%.

Irrespective of what happens digitally, that collapse is simply unsustainable. With those figures, and looking at how little local content there has been in the paper compared to its weekly rival the Cambridge Independent – which now has the contract for local council statutory public notices required by law. This traditionally has been a source of much-needed income for local media. Some of the online ones are already up at For those of you more interested in campaigning and want more details, have a look at Cyclescape

Relying on a stream of young, inexperienced and trainee journalists, with a click-based targeting approach

It’s not the junior reporters and the trainees who are responsible for the catastrophic fall in readers over the past 20 years. In the grand scheme of things, they are blameless. For a start they don’t get to stick around long enough to make a difference positive or negative. They also don’t get to decide strategy. They are not the decision makers. It’s the executives at the top who are ultimately responsible.

But if all the shareholders see are revenues coming in from clickbait, why should they bother with anything else? So long as the money is rolling in, they must be doing something right? Right?

But then who are local newspapers accountable to? The shareholders or the readers? Has that local line of accountability gone with the emergence of the local newspaper behemoths that have dozens of titles all over the country in their stable? In the case of Reach PLC, they can send their trainees all over the country. I’ve now lost track of which of their local correspondents I’m supposed to be following – two of their most prolific local current affairs content writers having recently moved down to London. (Ben Hatton to the PA, and Alya Zayed to one of Reach’s London titles).

It’s one thing to experiment with new media, it’s quite another to become skilled at it.

Earlier today my FB page opened to one newly-arrived reporter doing a livestream walk around town in what I guess was a ‘tourist’s eye view’ of Cambridge’s town centre.

Now, the easiest thing to do would be to do a metaphorical hatchet job on the reporter concerned (who didn’t re-state who she was and what she was doing in that livestream – I missed the start which is partly my fault). One of the reasons for not doing a tear-to-bits piece is because as she stated, she only arrived in Cambridge a week ago. It’s not how I roll, tearing young people new to town & new in their trade to bits. Furthermore, *I want the Cambridge News to do well*. It’s an historical title that is part of our civic history. If it goes under, we all lose. If it is managed badly by the title owners, we all lose.

Also, doing town walk-abouts Is. Not. Easy.

Here’s an example of me doing a walkabout in South Cambridgeshire on the lack of access to open green spaces during lockdown.

Such things are seldom broadcast quality. Most of the time you have a smartphone and a selfie-stick. And that’s it.

Is there additional kit that mobile reporters should be carrying with them if doing such pieces to the camera? Yes:

  • A gimbal – to stabilise the inevitably shaky footage you get when walking out and about
  • A lapel microphone – wired or remote – just make sure it works
  • A wind shield – audiences will forgive not great visuals if your sound is very good. They won’t if it is the other way around.
  • Remembering to look into the camera lens
  • Remembering to hold your camera far enough away from you so you get your face and some background in
  • Remembering to vary your voice as you speak
  • Remembering what it was that you wanted to talk about – which involves preparation

Some of the last point won’t be possible if you are reacting to events or are simply taken by surprise on something wonderful or eye-catching. In Cambridge this is likely to be an outstanding busking musician or a very colourful protest as much as any building you’ve not seen before.

The newspaper getting back to basics.

I’m not a qualified journalist. It’s not my business to get into the detail of how journalists should do their job. For a start the profession requires bag-loads of courage to ask difficult questions of not always friendly people. Especially if you are a court reporter. As a buyer of local newspapers, I do have the right to feedback on the quality of the product. And as things stand, it is substandard. Not just in volume but in that the organisation is missing out on the very essentials that the public has the right to expect from a local newspaper – namely local news on issues that are likely to have an impact on them. Such as future transport plans. Such as new local council policies – of which there are *lots* at the county council following the surprise change of political control. Such as what the new Mayor has planned. And such as local court reporting.

To my knowledge, there has not been a long term replacement for Raymond Brown, the former Crime Reporter who local blogger Richard Taylor wrote about here. They also had a very talented court reporter a few years ago called Tara Cox who really made her name covering a very difficult and emotionally challenging trial, live-blogging from it. They’ve not had anyone long term covering that essential field. One former local government correspondent, Josh Thomas, spent a day inside Cambridge Magistrates Court and live-blogged what happened. (I was with him for part of the day to see for myself). Court reporting is a highly-specialist area, not least because of the legal requirements of court reporting and the potential penalties of breaking the law and injunctions made by judges, for example protecting the anonymity of those involved.

If we are to build back better, a strong, vibrant, and trustworthy local media has to be a component of it

Because at the moment, no one in/around Cambridge really knows how to publicise issues that are of significant public interest – such as the emerging local plan. Which is one of the reasons why I’ve said the councils need a big rethink on how to do this.

It also requires us as a city and a county to ask ourselves how to we collectively communicate with each other. It’s something I looked at over five years ago here. I still haven’t figured it out. A year later, I read and heard about a number of job cuts at the Cambridge News as a result of yet more cost-cutting by the owner – only this time people started speaking out – criticising the owner Reach PLC – then Trinity Mirror, very openly. And some of these were their former staff.

Jess Brammar – remember her?

I first noticed her over a decade ago when she started following Puffles while I was still in the civil service. Then she was a junior producer at the BBC. I’ve followed her rise ever since. Yesterday she was finally appointed to a well-deserved executive post at BBC News

Back in 2018, I reported on a previous sales decline for the Cambridge News, and noted that Ms Brammar as the then editor of the Huff Post (before being made redundant in an ill-advised round of cuts), did something that no London-based editor has done before, and none since: She relocated her entire news room to Birmingham for the week, and told her reporters to ‘go out and find the news’.

Maybe that’s something Reach PLC should consider doing with its own titles: moving away from the clickbait and getting more of its reporters out and about – while taking the necessary CV19 precautions obviously.

Journalists as part of the community

The reactions of some of the tabloids to Ms Brammar’s appointment has been shocking – one or two of the descriptions of her partner I dare say potentially actionable as well. (What was I saying about court reporting and professional journalism training?)

Local politicians should be familiar, but not over-friendly with local journalists in their patch – and expect the latter to hold them to account for the decisions they make. They should be recognisable to people (in a friendly way) out and about on the streets. It’s as one neighbourhood police officer told me at a council meeting, “we don’t want people – in particular young children – to be afraid of their local police officers as this may harm them if they really need us”. (Note this is not in the context of the very serious issues that other parts of the police as an institution have – as has been widely-reported.) For me it’s similar with local journalists – you don’t want people being either unaware of their presence or afraid of them because you fear being dumped on in a social media firestorm. Think of all of the times where local media intervention has potentially saved someone’s life. Whether finding a missing person to getting emergency repair work done to a home that the responsible organisation had messed up on.

Those young trainee reporters need to be given the time not only to put into practice what they learnt at college, but also to build some of the early working relationships with local communities and local public institutions, charities, and businesses that will stand them in good stead for their future careers – whether as journalists further up the chain of command, or – as is often happening, in sectors outside of news reporting.

I’ll make the point again.

Cambridge needs the Cambridge News to succeed. We want it to succeed as a newspaper. Well…I do anyway. It’s just the way it is being run at present is doing it and Cambridge no favours, and it is only a shadow of itself. It has huge potential – it always has. At the moment, its problems go beyond one person locally. It’s institutional. The fate of the publication should be part of a wider county-wide discussion on how the people and institutions of our city & county communicate with each other.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: