Credit: Dean Village, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash

Will Gore is head of partnerships and projects at the National Council for the Training of Journalists. He was formerly executive editor of The Independent and deputy managing editor at the Evening Standard.

It is important never to lose sight of the past.

This is especially true for journalists, whose job is not – or should not be – to report only what is going on but to set current events in some sort of historical context. That can be shown in something so simple as comparing this year’s crime stats with those from five years ago, not just last year’s. A knowledge of history may also help to explain broader political trends and perhaps enable journalists to highlight instances where history appears to be repeating itself.

I have thought about history a lot recently and not only because of the chaotic political situation we find ourselves in, and the concomitant global resurgence of populism.

Having taken up a role at the National Council for the Training of Journalists this summer, I have seen the media industry from a different angle, from beyond the hurly-burly of the newsroom. And I am struck by several things.

The first is just how broad a sector journalism has become. For all that some parts of the industry face enormous challenges, there is no shortage of journalism being done: in print, in broadcast media and via a panoply of web-based platforms. What is more, the lines between different media are now so blurred that journalists have greater opportunities than ever to explore different aspects of their trade.

Innovation is what links the old to the new.Will Gore, head of partnerships and projects, NCTJ

The second is that, despite sometimes negative perceptions, there is a remarkable number of journalists doing great things: from investigative newspaper reporting to brilliant podcasts; and from TV documentaries to innovative use of social media. Reactions to journalism among the general public may too often be rather binary but they rarely reflect the excellence and the nuance on display.

Thirdly, the steady advance of digital technologies may have been disruptive for many media companies but journalism is – as it always has been – improved when technology is embraced and is at its best when new techniques and innovative tech are combined with traditional skills, as the NCTJ recognises in its evolving qualifications and courses. After all, journalism is still at its heart all about getting and telling stories: in that respect, and perhaps that respect alone, nothing has changed.

I have been particularly reminded of this in the context of the Community News Project, the Facebook-funded initiative which is being managed by the NCTJ and which has seen 83 new reporter roles created across the UK.

This scheme, launched at the start of 2019, was established in recognition of the gap that has arisen between some communities and their local papers as newsrooms have shrunk during the last couple of decades. The journalists recruited under the project’s banner each work for one of nine regional news publishers and are studying towards an NCTJ qualification alongside their reporting work. Some are dedicated to a geographic patch, others to a particular demographic group; but all are focussed on that notion of community, engaging with local people and providing them with a voice.

In this endeavour, using up to date technology is crucial. Whether by making video packages on their smartphones or establishing community networks via Facebook, digital skills matter both in rooting out stories and in showcasing them in a way that encourages positive audience engagement. Indeed, the Community News Project has not only sought to give the newly-recruited reporters the tools they need to flourish in this regard but has also encouraged the onward transmission of skills learnt to newsroom colleagues.

Yet it has also been fascinating to see how these community reporters, their roles determinedly focussed on the local, have been deploying the most old-style of methods in their work: walking the high streets, meeting people week after week to chat about what they are doing, getting into regular routines on their patches. 

One reporter working in Liverpool told me that when she first took up her job she was met with a degree of scepticism. But by being a visible presence and by listening to people, she had gained their trust and had unearthed their stories. After a few months, she was regularly receiving unsolicited emails from locals she had met around and about, offering potential leads.

She was trusted because she had demonstrated an understanding of the context in which her readers were living their lives and she was trusted because local people understood the context in which she was doing her journalism.

And that brings us back to history, which to avoid repeating we must learn from: using our knowledge of it to understand audiences as people, not just as numbers; to understand their stories not only as news but as part of a broader narrative within which individuals co-exist, responding to what is happening around them, reacting to things we won’t know about unless we ask.

Everyone lives in the past as well as the present; and everyone looks forward to a brighter future. By remembering that news is not context-free – and that innovation is what links the old to the new – journalism itself can look to the future with confidence.

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