Is the end nigh for feature writing in the local press?

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Narborough Road in Leicester has been named the most diverse street in the United Kingdom.

That's now a widely-known fact, thanks to a recent high-profile Channel 4 campaign that cast the road’s residents as programme announcers for shows including Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and The Simpsons.

The street’s new fame was proudly reported by the Leicester Mercury, which celebrated how Kurdish-born restaurant owner Ufuk Gundogdu and others were set to “hit national television screens” and noted that the broadcaster’s campaign had been inspired by original coverage in the Mercury. What the paper did not mention was that its award-winning features team, who broke the Narborough Road story and reported it in great and colourful detail, are now out of work. Indeed, they are preparing to sue the paper over the circumstances of their departure.

Just as the unlikely Premier League success of Leicester City has put this unpretentious East Midlands community in the spotlight of the world’s media, so its 142-year-old local paper has become a symbol of the chronic problems besetting large parts of the UK’s regional press.

Despite the success of the Foxes, the sales of the Mercury fell to 28,756 in the six months to January, down from 32,225 the previous year. Some 72,769 users visit the website each day. The paper, part of the Local World group, was bought by Trinity Mirror, publishers of the Daily Mirror, in October. Last week, Trinity Mirror declared adjusted pre-tax profits of £66.9m for the first-half of the year, a remarkable rise of 42 per cent on the previous year, despite having paid out millions in settlements and legal fees over phone-hacking claims.

The Leicester Mercury doesn’t look much like it is part of a big money-making machine.

Decorated features desk axed

Lee Marlow was the author of the Narborough Road story, which was later published by the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail before being picked up by Channel 4.

Marlow, a Leicester lad, has spent almost his entire 23-year career working at the Mercury, the paper he delivered as a boy, and which his parents read every evening. “I didn’t want to work for a national… or anywhere else really,” he says.

His record is one of the most remarkable in UK regional journalism; he has won the Society of Editors Feature Writer of the Year award for the past three years. His winning work for 2015 included a heart-rending piece about female genital mutilation, a complex and fascinating investigation into a Paralympian canoeist with a doubtful disability, and a compelling interview with former would-be Labour leader Liz Kendall, at her office in Narborough Road.

Marlow, 46, was made redundant by Trinity Mirror on 1 July, a few days before the Channel 4 campaign on Narborough Road launched. The rest of the Leicester Mercury features desk went too. They claim to have been told that the paper was no longer interested in articles of more than 500 words.

The Leicester Mercury features desk was one of the most respected in British regional journalism. Marlow was just one of its writers who regularly scooped awards. The pieces it produced, he says, were “In depth interviews with normal people in abnormal circumstances, emotional pieces with people who had suffered all sorts of tragedy, stories about redemption, trauma, real life, proper backgrounders, holding power to account…”

If such a paper can no longer sustain the type of well-researched, lengthy piece that helps to define the essential character of a large city and its people, and if the Mercury’s experience is symptomatic of wider industry trends, as it appears to be, then British society as a whole is in danger of having less of an understanding of what it really is.

Gareth Davies, four-times winner of the Weekly Reporter of the Year at the Regional Press Awards, has taken voluntary redundancy from the Croydon Advertiser, another Trinity Mirror title, in exasperation at what he sees as the demise of campaigning, public interest and investigative reporting. “The majority of local papers aren’t doing anywhere near enough of that and it’s not because journalists don’t want to do it but because it requires time and resources which publishers aren’t willing to invest,” he says.

Thorough reporting gives way to live blogging

Davies argues that “live blogging”, aimed at increasing overall traffic numbers to attract online advertising, has become the overriding priority in local newsrooms and that reporters are discouraged from leaving the office. “The editors are under so much pressure to meet their stats targets,” he says.

Staff at Trinity Mirror titles in Liverpool, Newcastle and North Wales have in recent weeks taken industrial action over redundancies and “the threat to quality journalism” allegedly caused by company restructuring. The company said it was “disappointed” by this reaction to “small but essential” changes.

The Leicester Mercury’s Narborough Road coverage was quality journalism, an example of local feature writing at its best.

“It came from one line in a large, unwieldy report from the London School of Economics,” Marlow recalls. “Sociologists there had been all round the country looking at ethnically diverse streets. And this one – right in the heart of Leicester – was the most diverse."

It was the features editor Jeremy Clay who spotted the killer line. “We agreed that if we did it right, it could be a good feature,” says Marlow, “but to do it right would take time. So I walked the length and breadth of Narborough Road one day, interviewing traders from all over the world. Then we spoke to sociologists and civic leaders. It was the front page and four pages inside.”

Marlow was so synonymous with Leicester journalism that he wrote a column for the paper under the alter ego Fred Leicester. It was intended to "poke fun at the pompous and rattle the cages of those in power". Fred Leicester was named Society of Editors Columnist of the Year for 2014.

Trinity Mirror explained its restructuring of its features operation in a statement. “The Leicester Mercury’s editorial operation has been reviewed in the light of the need to focus local editorial resources on creating and managing content which best serves our multimedia audience and at the same time to manage our costs efficiently in what remains a challenging economic environment," it said. “As a result it is proposed that the volume of features content published in print and online will be reduced. This would involve a reduction in features pagination. Some locally produced features pages would be replaced by content created for use across titles by the Trinity Mirror Shared Content Unit.”

'The click is always king'

Marlow maintains that the features desk was making an important contribution to the paper's website. "We didn’t stand there, arms folded, saying we didn’t embrace the digital world. We did. No one in that office was better at presenting that than Jez (Clay). He made slides – comparing pictures of old Leicester and new Leicester – he did interactive quizzes, he made music videos."

In April, Marlow wrote his Fred Leicester column on the “brave new world of digital journalism” and, despite his claim to have embraced the internet, took a scathing view of what he saw as a drift to “clickbait” in online news. The column was spiked by his employer but leaked to the Press Gazette this week. “The click is always King,” Fred Leicester opined, scoffing at a sister paper’s live blog about street litter. “It doesn’t matter that your readers are laughing at you when they click. It just matters that they click.”

Marlow may have been on borrowed time at the Mercury after that column, in which his alter ego explained that he would not encourage his daughter to pursue ambitions in journalism. In real life, Marlow says he is now considering various career options beyond newspapers, “maybe some PR even”. For a writer of such natural talent it seems a waste. “I never had a Plan B,” he admits.

The features editor Clay was an award-winning writer himself – he once generated an original piece by spending a whole day living inside a chimpanzee’s cage at Twycross Zoo. Latterly, he installed on the wall above the features desk two clocks intended to mimic the broad, unceasing outlook of a global news organisation. Except that one clock was tagged "Luton", where the Leicester Mercury was being printed, and the other "Liverpool", where Trinity Mirror had assembled a team to produce generic lifestyle features for use across all its local titles.

The Leicester Mercury clung on to ambitions to write at length about its local community. Marlow's feature on an East Midlands Paralympian was a cover story in More magazine, the paper's popular supplement (also a winner of a Society of Editors award). More's editor, Gemma Peplow, was among those made redundant on 1 July. More is now filled with content produced in Liverpool.

The legal action being pursued against Trinity Mirror by at least three members of the redundant Leicester Mercury features team will focus on redundancy terms, with the departing journalists offered only a week’s pay per year of service, instead of a previous arrangement of 2.5 weeks.

When Trinity Mirror bought Local World it was surprised by the scale of the Mercury’s features department and disappointed that some of the output was achieving low audience response online. The paper’s news reporters will continue to produce feature-length pieces, and the website will run features based on material gathered by its data unit.

Long reads published on Saturday about local football teams and other sports have proved popular on websites in the group and will be encouraged.

Trinity Mirror, which has warned of further cost cutting in response to a downward impact on advertising revenues resulting from the Brexit vote, said that it was using online data to better deploy its resources according to the types of stories readers most engage with.

“Editorial judgements have always been taken on the length of stories. The advantage online is that we know exactly what audiences are reading and at what time. We use this information to shape our content, giving audiences what they want, when they want,” said a Trinity Mirror spokesperson.

“What we won’t go back to is the old approach of producing content to fill gaps in print products which we know very few people read. Instead, our newsrooms chase content that really matters and best serve both our digital and print audiences. We are absolutely committed to serving our audiences the content they want, and that will inevitably be a mix of long and short form news across a traditional mix of sport, features, entertainment and more.”

Search The Drum Jobs

Explore the best jobs in Marketing and Media industries
View all open jobs
IB

Ian Burrell

All by Ian