Writing the ‘unread story’: Is it time to double down on editorial instinct?

That’s Carl Bernstein writing in 1992. It would be nice to find things have changed, but naturally they haven’t. It would be nice if what he said reflected only the US, but of course it’s much more universal than that.

The succession of political surprises over the past year has rightly been the subject of numerous discussions within the journalistic community. Clearly misreading the prevailing public mood has led to a good deal of soul-searching and cries of must-do-better. That’s good. It’s surely never a bad thing to stop and reflect and adapt.

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Political upsets are one thing, but there’s another more harmful result of a lack of grass-roots reporting in favour of click-happy headlines and articles promising to unravel whatever quasi-scandal is deemed the most newsworthy on any given day. The tragic fire that gutted the Grenfell Tower in London on 14 June is a stark reminder of the importance of local, beat and shoe-leather journalism, and the dangers inherent in not speaking out until it’s far, far too late.

“National and international media… have conspired in creating an attention economy which leaves no room for the unread story” – Emily Bell

The local press is having a hard time: it’s commonly reported that something like 80% of journalism jobs have gone since 2006, and more than 200 titles over the past decade. As the news world has moved online, these local publications – in whatever form they inhabit – are struggling. It’s easy to see how editorial decisions are dictated by this very stark reality: economic buoyancy does not often allow for this ‘unread story’ as Bell terms it.

The issue of course is that simple algorithms can easily obfuscate the fact that engagement with local journalism begins first with building trust in the community in which it’s placed.

When Ishmahil Blagrove lambasted the mainstream media for their apparent lack of interest in reporting the concerns that the Grenfell Tower residents raised, he was speaking to this very point. How can they trust a media which ignores the issues at the centre of their lives?

“We talk about community and religious leaders as being the lifeblood of neighbourhoods but we forget that local newspapers are, too. They are an essential ingredient in the fabric of society, a cornerstone of democracy. Or were.”

These words were written by Grant Feller, who penned an article well worth reading on LinkedIn last week. Feller worked the Grenfell beat nearly thirty years ago, when the housing and safety issues were first raised by residents and he was one of the reporters committing these concerns to public record.

Communities, says Emily Bell in her aforementioned article, need serving with news for three reasons:

  1. It’s civically important to do so
  2. It creates an access point into journalism for many journalists
  3. It creates a record. This is where is becomes painfully relevant to Grenfell itself: when grievances are committed to print, they become part of the public record.

“I wasn’t just a reporter. I was a conduit, a campaigner-by-proxy, an accidental member of a fractious, neglected and welcoming community,” says Feller. This work is the very essence of speaking truth to power, which is – after all – one of the pillars on which journalism stands.

If you are that conduit, that campaigner, that connection between the local community and the larger one, you’re not only performing this very important social function, but by demonstrating you have a man on the ground who is prepared to be a mouthpiece for the issues at hand, you also have the ear of that community, and that trust that goes with it. “The immediate reach of a single story is only half the story,” says Bell, and if you look beyond the simple metrics against the failure or success of a story in the short term, this is absolutely so.

There’s no metric for this function, but trust – like attention – is a valuable commodity and, to paraphrase Ev Williams, it’s only when the commodities are scarce that they become so valuable and worth nurturing.

You gain trust by being engaged in community: perhaps by immersing yourself in it physically, but also by engaging more generally and more regularly with whichever audience you are targeting. And if, as an editor, you’re concerned that this kind of reporting isn’t going to get you the attention your publisher is demanding of you, perhaps it’s worth changing the way you approach your editorial analytics. Sure, these stories might not leap to the top of the real-time charts, but what about the solid, genuine attention they receive? How about the longterm attention that they garner? The ‘unread story’ may not offer immediate gratification, but as a builder of trust over the longterm there are bound to be benefits.

“Why didn’t we see newspaper stories about this inaction? Partly because it is hard to cover things not happening. Attention focuses on action: walkways collapsing, dead firefighters. But, as journalists, we have to plug away at the dull stuff. Keep timetables on our computers of decision dates. Check back to see if things are being done. Write loud words when they are not.” – Laura McInerney

The point here is not that high politics should be sidelined in favour of more localized coverage. Of course the former is necessary. It’s about paying more attention to an editorial strategy that recognizes the long term benefit of writing for a readership, and understanding that readership’s immediate concerns and questions. It’s about dialogue, about – as Lea Korsgaard said – “stepping down from the pedestal”.

There’s more information of value to the editor than simply measuring success by page views and shares. Longer term, people will return to the publication – and trust it – if the decision is taken to engage with them on the issues that are of the most importance to them in the first place. We see this now at Grenfell: how much better it would have been if the focus of news outlets prior to this event had been a little bit more focused on demanding preemptive action, rather than analyzing the terrible aftermath?

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