Reporting the news in lockdown
One of my first editors was a man called Joseph Bonney, a seasoned and highly-respected business journalist and a former wire reporter with the Associated Press, the US news agency. I was working for a US business magazine at the time and Joe took me aside and set out what he expected in our journalism.
He spoke to me about structure and news hooks, about simplicity in language, pace. And he gifted to me the best book on journalism I’ve ever read, ‘The Word: an Associated Press guide to good news writing’, by Rene Cappon, the AP’s former longtime news editor.
But the most important lesson I learnt from Joe was that the best journalism lets the story speak for itself. The reporter’s presence in the text is rarely, if ever, necessary.
I was thinking about Joe when I sat down to write this because I’m about to do something that I would normally baulk at, and that is reflect publicly on my business and the work my team is doing in the Covid-19 crisis.
Anyone who knows me knows I struggle writing these columns. You wouldn’t know it from these opening paragraphs, but I have a problem with first-person singular pronouns. It’s counterintuitive to every journalistic instinct in my body to put myself in a story. I’m from Joe Bonney’s school of journalism. I’m a reporter first and foremost, and I prefer to tell other people’s stories, not offer opinions. But sometimes, it’s necessary.
SO WHAT has all of this got to do with Covid-19? It’s about our approach to coverage.
At the Chronicle, we have taken - and are taking - great care to balance the inevitable bleakness with a steady diet of positive stories. We do this with great attention to detail, countering the desire for optimism with a healthy dose of realism, and vice versa.
We have reported on the humanity of this crisis, from the elderly patients who have recovered, to the nurses who cared for them and the frontline personnel who work in other essential areas. We have done this - and are doing this - by going out as needed, speaking to people face to face with everything that entails, taking precautions but conscious that we too, as individuals who live in this community, have our own worries and fears. But we deliver and continue to deliver, 20 pages a day in print and 24/7 rolling online news to boot.
Among other stories, we have covered trials, thereby showing that our institutions continue to function; we have reported on musicians, artists and online cultural life; we have covered public-interest legal cases that would otherwise go unreported; we wrote about the first birth in lockdown; have carried opinion and and feel-good articles; have filled two pages daily with sporting news where there is no sport; reported on the drop in local pollution levels three days before the BBC did the same for London; and travelled out into the bay to report on deck as an 82-year old Gibraltar resident was repatriated from a cruise ship. We have even found time to write about planning applications and the life of pets in lockdown.
We have done all this in between doing the daily news, adequate coverage of which, despite its ugly nature, is vital for all in the community. We report not just on developments here, but in Spain and the UK too, generating our own stories and adding a local angle wherever we can to news agency coverage. We do this despite the personal toll that constant immersion in this nightmare entails. We cannot switch off. Alongside our colleagues in other media, we have covered every press conference at No.6 Convent Place; reported on emergency sessions in Parliament; we have interviewed politicians and health specialists; we have followed up on difficult subjects responsibly, conscious of the need for accountability but also of the extraordinary nature of our current circumstances and the importance of unity.
We have done so, to the best of our ability, in a balanced and measured manner, letting the stories speak for themselves in print and in real-time, just like Joe Bonney liked.
AND WE are working remotely under difficult circumstances. Think, for a moment, about what it takes to fill 20 pages of print daily, to lay out pages and get them to the printers in time for the early morning delivery run, all the while feeding the beast that is online news. Then think that, including our vital backroom staff, there are just 15 of us at the Chronicle doing this day in, day out, seven days a week.
We have done all this despite the pressures of the loss in advertising, the drop in circulation and the usual difficulties faced by all newspapers everywhere in the social media era, small and large alike. But the encouraging thing is that in March alone, nearly 150,000 unique users from around the globe visited our site and clicked on nearly half a million pages. Sixty percent of them are returning visitors who come back for more. We see support in print sales and online subscriptions too, despite the lockdown restrictions and the drift to social media as a source of news. So maybe there is hope after all.
In common with other publications, we have reached out to our older, valued readers too, delivering - through the Housing Department under the guidance of public health officials - 400 free newspapers daily to the four pensioners’ residences in complete lockdown. At the Chronicle we did this in March on our own initiative and at our expense, but we have been able to continue through April thanks to a generous donation from a local businessman who, while wishing to remain anonymous, reached out to us to share the economic burden of giving away our product. Like us, he too was conscious of the importance of a local newspaper to community life.
In parallel, we are putting our key Covid-19 coverage online outside the paywall on our website, in recognition of what we know with certainty is its importance.
WE’VE HEARD on countless occasions the mantra that this crisis must be a catalyst for positive change. We must adjust as a society in order to be successful when we emerge from this, leaner, more flexible and adaptable, more efficient. My business is no different.
I see no immediate change in our print product, but digital will be an increasingly-vital element of the Chronicle’s future. This is a transition process that we started years ago and our suite of digital products, from our app and e-paper print replica to our website and its mix of free and premium content, provide a solid foundation on which to build.
But in an era where too many people expect their news for free, we cannot do this without the support of our readers. Each paper sold, each online subscription, helps ensure that we can carry on.
I’ve written this piece because I have the sense that, outside my industry, there is little awareness of the work and commitment that goes into collecting, producing and delivering the news.
We constantly strive to improve and do better, and that will not change. Our work is laid out daily for all to see, and we ourselves are our biggest critics.
But I’m proud of my small, hard working team and what we’re doing. And I know that others in the print, online and broadcast media are working just as hard as we are.
So next time you pick up a newspaper, click on a story or tune in to the news bulletin, thank you for reading and watching but please, take a moment too to think about what it takes to produce what you’re consuming.
And if you’re reading this free online, well, you know what to do.