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August 8, 2016updated 09 Aug 2016 7:43am

Spiked column by star writer on Leicester Mercury railed against ‘risible’ standard of clickbait online journalism

By Dominic Ponsford

The Leicester Mercury’s multi award-winning features team has now been made redundant by new owner Trinity Mirror.

But today Press Gazette publishes one last column from star writer Lee Marlow in which he rails against the changes which he has seen at his paper.

Marlow lost his job just over a month after being named feature writer of the year for a third year running at the Society of Editors regional press awards.

He was made redundant along with the rest of the Leicester Mercury features team which comprised three full-time writers and two part-timers.

Publisher Trinity Mirror has said that in future their work will be done by one full-time and one part-time member of staff focusing on What’s On-style content.

The Leicester Mercury is one of 80 former Local World newspapers taken over by Trinity Mirror last November which have seen deep editorial cutbacks since then.

Newspaper titles across the regional and national press have had to cut costs over the last year in response to sharp drops in print and online advertising.

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Jeremy Clay, another former regional press awards feature writer of the year, was also made redundant in the latest cuts at the Mercury.

Four-time regional press awards weekly reporter of the year Gareth Davies has also been made redundant by Trinity Mirror, following cuts at the Croydon Advertiser.

Lee Marlow’s weekly Fred Leicester column was known for not pulling its punches and was often forthright in its criticism of local figures and institutions.

In five years of columns, only one was “pulled” by the paper’s editor. It was a column filed in April in which Marlow turned his attention to the Mercury itself.

It has found its way to Press Gazette and here we publish it for the first time.

Lee Marlow on ‘clickbait’:

Unbelievably, you might think – and you may well be right – a man at a local college asked if I might like to give a talk on journalism to a bunch of young students “who might be interested in a career as a reporter.”

A career as a journalist, for young people leaving school in 2016. Imagine that. Like journalism might still be a viable career in the 21st century. Maybe they were asking chimney sweeps, too, and coal miners. Maybe it was a very niche field.

“Just give them a flavour,” the man said, “what it’s like working at a newspaper… you know, all the deadlines and telling truth to power and the famous people you’ve interviewed and what they were like. That kind of thing.”

And as much as I enjoyed talking to someone who clearly didn’t have a jaundiced view of journalism – there used to be a few of those before the grim days tabloid reporters hacked into a dead girl’s phone – I declined his kind offer and the conversation ended there. In the greatest of Fleet Street traditions, I made my excuses and left.

Because although I could do that – and I have done it and enjoyed it, too – I’m not sure I could do that now.

Journalism, regional journalism, anyway, has had a hard time of it in the past decade.

Much of the stuff that used to subsidise the journalism in your local paper has migrated online. Cars. Property. Classified. Display ads. Huge swathes of advertising.

So we’ve had to cut back. There used to be nine editions a day of the Leicester Mercury you hold in your hand now. Today, there is just one.

There were 150 journalists at this paper 20 years ago. More people, again, in advertising and pre-press and marketing and newspaper sales. Not today. More cut backs.

The paper is still made here, written here, designed here by people who care about it and have worked here a long time. That’s important, I think, and I hope, for all of its faults, you can see that, too.

It’s just that at the end of the working day, the building doesn’t physically tremble as the presses rumble into life. The presses have gone. It’s cheaper to print it elsewhere.

Some of the decisions that have been made here have been made by good people with a heavy heart. I know that. Some of them had to be made, too, because if they didn’t, the whole thing would go under. I know that.

But some decisions have been made by people who understand money more than they understand journalism, the ones who my dad would say “know the price of everything but the value of nothing”.

Get the journalism right – good, interesting, compelling journalism – and the money will follow. Give the advertisers a platform they want their product to be associated with, and the money will come. We seem to have lost that. We seem to be chasing after the advertisers and forgetting the journalism. It’s wrong.

Some of those decisions have bemused me and made me cross.

Later this year, nearly all our photographers – good people, friends, most of them, brilliant at their jobs, too – will be let go. I’m sad about that. I’m not sure how we will fill a newspaper and a hungry website without good pictures.

Today, rather than updating those nine editions a day, we have a website which is updated all day, every day, constantly.

Yet it’s a website festooned with so many ads that you try to access it on your phone and it’s barely readable.

People have complained about this. No-one has complained more than the people who work here. Imagine sitting down to watch ITV or Channel 4 and there were more ads than shows. IT’S LIKE THAT, we have said, constantly.

It’s going to be changed soon, we’re told, although we’ve been told that before, so, really, who knows…?

Today we have a newspaper that costs 65p for you to buy everyday – and a website where you can get most of that news for free, every day, at the click of a button, albeit through an avalanche of ads which make it so difficult to read I have often wondered if it is a secret ploy to drive people back to the paper.

Imagine Mr Sainsbury going to Dragon’s Den with a pitch like that: ‘Well, I’ve got one shop where I’m going to sell beans for 65p – but next door I’m going to build another shop where I will give the beans away for free, albeit it will be a shop I will also fill with ad hoardings, which I will fire at you as you walk around. Hello? Hello? Please come back…’

And on that website there will be not just all of the news from the paper, but other ‘news’, too.

Stories about Apple iPhone batteries.

Product recalls.

Some stuff about how people are comparing Leicester City to Donald Trump. (No, really. Apparently, they are.)

Photo galleries of ‘Party People’ at a local club. Not all the clubs. Just one of them. No, I don’t know why, either.

This is ‘internet only’ news. Clickbait. You may have heard of it. It doesn’t have a good reputation and its reputation is deserved, if you’re asking me.

And although this has been explained to me like: “Look, Fred, this is just the stuff in-between the real news, the stuff which fills a gap,” I find it still sticks in my throat a bit.

I’m not pretending for a minute that the Mercury – or any other under-resourced, over-worked regional newspaper – is churning out Pulitzer prize-winning Watergate-style features EVERY SINGLE DAY. It isn’t.

But at least some of it – most of it, even – has merit. The clickbait stuff doesn’t. My worry here is that this is the future.

A few months ago a man from another regional newspaper came to the Mercury to improve our social media offering.

I didn’t like a great deal of what he did, but, thankfully, he left me alone and after a week or so he was gone. Some of what he suggested was taken on board. Some of it, thankfully, wasn’t.

Last week, I noticed that his paper had a story about someone dropping a bag of fast food on the streets on his town. They took a photo and wrote a story about it. ‘WHAT HAS HAPPENED HERE? IS THIS YOUR DINNER? CAN YOU HELP SOLVE THIS MYSTERY?’

If you’re thinking that sounds risible, then you’d be right. It was risible. But the story was given a prime spot on their website and relentlessly tweeted out and, of course, people mocked it. They open laughed at it. “Hashtag journalism” someone sighed, sarcastically, underneath it.

Unabashed, the paper updated the story later in the day.

“Since ‘going live’ this morning, the story has got quite a ‘reaction’ on social media.” For ‘reaction’, read people openly lampooning them.

But you can also see how these stories have been shared. This one had been shared more than 8,000 times on Facebook and Twitter. Click, click, click, click.

In this brave new world of digital journalism, this is what counts. The click is always King. It doesn’t matter that your readers are laughing at you when they click. It just matters that they click.

Another click, another notch on the website’s bedpost. In digital journalism, it’s not about the quality. It’s the quantity. Feel the numbers.

It doesn’t matter that somewhere out there, there is a growing legion of readers who are fed-up with this obvious rubbish.

It doesn’t matter that the newspapers reputation is being tarnished, daily, by this tripe.

All that matters are the clicks. The more clicks = the more readers. The more readers = the more you can sell your advertising for.

Except online advertising is hard to sell. Firms are luke warm about it, presumably because they don’t want to advertise on a website laced with non-stories masquerading as news which they can’t read because of an avalanche of ads.

And so on it goes.

Newspapers which sell fewer copies each year and websites that are so difficult to use they infuriate their readers.

So when my daughter said a few weeks ago she wondered if writing for a newspaper “like you, dad” might be a good job in the future, I sat her down and told her to work hard, pass her exams and find a job with a future, in an industry where the people who were leading it had some sort of idea of what they were doing, a workable plan for the future.

Not this one.

The people steering the journalism boat seem a bit lost in the fog.

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