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Can’t be bothered

Mark Rowe spent his summer trying to whip up some interest amongst the local press about his recently published book. What he found was a near-universal lack of interest and feedback.

By Mark Rowe

I am glad to read InPublishing and would like to link comment on the Peter Sands article on journalist training in the current (Sep/Oct 2010) issue with my experience of the regional press this summer.

The History Press published my first book Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion 1940. As I’d done no end of research around the regions, I sent pieces about the book, locally relevant, to dozens of weekly and daily papers. Whether it was any good and newsworthy is, like many things in life, a matter of opinion, but as a former regional press man I assumed it’d be snapped up.

Maybe it was. I don’t know because I got so little feedback. A freesheet local to me rang up; I presume by a work-experience lad, because he didn’t have a company email address and nothing went in the paper. A cathedral city daily’s newsdesk emailed back and said a reporter would ring the next morning; they didn’t. I don’t mind that, because newspapers are busy places and things change.

The exception was the local (Wolverhampton) Express & Star, whose reporter rang and took a few personal details and a photographer called round and took a photo, which appeared. I knew already that the Express & Star is an outstanding paper. The norm however was: no reaction. It may be that everybody ran what I sent them, in full. I don’t know.

Why don’t I go online to find out? Talking of websites, have you gone online to contact another newspaper – or to see how easy it is to contact your own magazine or paper? For one town’s daily, I gave up – though I could reply to the editor (I suppose) when I went on his World Cup blog. Does that newspaper want readers to contact it, via the website? It didn’t look like it.

What made me sad was this lack of interest. I was careful to put across to the work-ex lad who rang that I could send more stories; because I could. I was taught well – the spring 1990 course at the Westminster Press training centre. At Hastings it was drilled into me – so that it won’t come out – that you get names and faces in the paper, by making contacts, that you cultivate and keep. Nowhere have I found that this summer.

You could say, I am some far-off bloke that it’s not worth a reporter in Trowbridge, York, Carlisle or Birmingham, cultivating. I name those places because I used to work at papers there; two did not answer. Sure, I guess I am long unknown in those newsrooms. So that makes me an ordinary member of the public. A customer. With the exception of the Express & Star, I cannot say UK media’s customer service towards people going to them with news is bad – the service does not exist.

And if you say you’re editorial, customer service does not apply to you, I say back: how’s your circulation lately?!

Which brings me to the article by Peter Sands, an illustrious former editor I know only by reputation I should add. He wrote of the Daily Mail’s training of reporters. My parents take the Daily Mail so I won’t hear a word said against the Daily Mail. But I object to all the time, effort and admiring publicity given to training of the media equivalent of Special Forces, when nearly all journalists are in the trenches. (And do you imagine ordinary soldiers like Special Forces?)

Fleet Street reporters need not do customer service. Like Special Forces, they parachute in, shoot a place up, get what they want and leave. Which is legal, and indeed necessary for a democracy. But it’s the exception, not everyday journalism.

What alas is everyday is a features journalist on a regional Sunday paper (sister to one I once worked for) emailing: ‘I’ll see what I can do’ after I have sent her a feature article; and requesting a book. I posted it and have heard nothing since. Would a thank-you email hurt? I trust it won’t turn up at a car boot. It never occurred to that journalist that my parents have taken that paper for 30 years; what should I tell them?!

What is that features writer doing, and what are you doing, today, to retain and gain readers? If you answer, that’s not my problem, I answer: there is the problem.

(I have had a Robinson Crusoe-like existence as the sole journalist on a trade press magazine since 1999. Needless to say my views are my own and not my magazine’s.)