News fit for a prince
It’s not very often that I find myself pushing back against the editorial decisions of this paper, but I must say I was surprised when our May 31 issue contained no news story about the forthcoming June 30 visit of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. We would have been the first local paper to report it, and the visit is to be to the world headquarters of our publishing empire, the village of Wellington.
In last week’s issue, editor Mihal Zada wrote in her column that “the news value (of the visit) seems tenuous at best,” because royalty is “maintaining relevance [only] through money, celebrity status and pet causes that endear the public to it.” Left unwritten was the statement “so that’s why we decided not to run an article about the visit,” but that was the implication I drew.
It’s tough, all right, to decide what to report on in a locally oriented weekly newspaper, with budget and time constraints affecting your every decision. Do you cover the charity bingo, the junior baseball game, or the municipal council committee of the whole meeting? One rule of thumb I suggest is to develop a rough ‘relevance index’ by combining the number of readers who would be interested in the story because of its nature, with the number of readers who would be interested in the story because of its consequences. In the case of a royal visit to Wellington, I think you would be up to at least 50 per cent of readers based on its nature (a conservative estimate in Loyalist country), and close to the other 50 per cent based on its consequences—even if the latter group would be merely interested in knowing how best to give it a wide berth.
So that makes the omission of a story on the royal visit striking—particularly because you can always find an angle to overcome your lack of enthusiasm for the subject. For instance, you could pick inconvenience (“Wellington forced to go into lockdown during royal visit”). You could pick inequity (“Consecon threatens action after royal snub”). You could pick injustice (“Mayor says senior is on her own if petunia patch damaged”).
Mihal’s column admittedly does have an angle. She says the visit is “private and controlled,” and therefore, presumably, the rest of us shouldn’t care about it. The problem I have is that once The Times decided that the royal visit was not news (as the column confirmed), it essentially shut the door to further coverage of the visit. There will no doubt be some interesting tales to emerge. It would be a shame if The Times did not report them as a matter of editorial principle.
Mihal also argues that royalty is an institution dying from its own irrelevance, so why should she extend its life support by writing about it? In my view, that is combining an apple and an orange—mixing what’s happening in the short term with what may happen in the long term. For example, the short view would indicate that it is a good idea to write about the effect on local residents of rising lake and river levels. The long view would say that story is but one of a deluge of stories that will culminate in all of us being under water in 25 years. In the short view, big story; in the long view, no story. Given that our outlet is a weekly newspaper, to me the short view is more appropriate and suggests both the flooding example and the royal visit should be covered as news. As for the long view, that’s what we have columnists for, as Mihal ably demonstrates.
There’s another factor to throw into the mix. I think it is giving short shrift to the Prince of Wales to equate him to a partner in a “Hollywood power couple.” To me, he’s a genuinely interesting guy who wears his many passions on his sleeve. Just for instance, you can view on his website some 25 speeches that he has given in 2017 alone— few of them just biscuit-cutter style “I say, jolly nice of you chaps to invite me, glad to be here.” And while I knew that the Prince was interested in preserving traditional rural skills, I did not know that among the 400 charities he associates with he was patron of the Dry Stone Walling Association as well as the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society, Lleyn Sheep Society, National Hedgelaying Society, Poultry Club of Great Britain, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Royal Agricultural Society of England and the Welsh Black Cattle Society. I’ll bet you that’s a better list than George Clooney has.
So far as I’m concerned, then, the Prince is fit for our news coverage.