News fit for a prince

Posted: June 16, 2017 at 9:42 am   /   by   /   comments (1)

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.

Comments (1)

  • June 19, 2017 at 12:59 pm Elizabeth Lancaster

    If indeed, the lack of coverage of the upcoming visit of Charles and Camilla in the May 31 issue of The Times (and subsequent ones), and the line in Mihal Zada’s editorial that ‘The news value seems tenuous at best’ does reflect a decision not to cover the event because monarchy is irrelevant, then alarm bells need to start loudly ringing about the journalistic direction our community paper.

    ‘If it matters in the County it’s in the Times’, is, as far as I know, still the tag line for the paper. It still shows up with regards to its website at least. So what does it mean for an event to ‘matter in the County’? Some factors no doubt would be the number of people and level of energy and time involved in its creation and execution, and/or the impact on the regular functioning of the systems in the County like traffic and business, and/or the number of people likely to attend. On every count it would seem to me that the royal visit qualifies as something that ‘matters’.

    If, however, the Times has now decided that the principals at the centre of the event are irrelevant – as would appear to be the case based on Mihal’s commentary and lack of other coverage – and that this is what excludes the event from ‘mattering’ then this is a reframing of newsgathering and journalism that I find to be of very significant concern. A decision based on this kind of thinking changes the definition of news from covering what’s happening, to covering what its editors decide to agree with or disregard. This is the absolute antithesis of journalism.

    In fact, such a move twists the notion of newsgathering and coverage from being with society as events unfold to a values-based opt-in or opt-out process based on the opinions of its owners or editorial board. It’s astonishing to me that any reputable news organization, however large or small, would deem this appropriate or acceptable in our country. This approach reflects the worst of what is happening in some media outlets in the United States and when taken to the extreme, is exactly how so-called news organizations run in repressive regimes across the globe. News media are not objective, silent players in a democracy where differences of opinion, relevance, thought and perspective are invited and encouraged as part of the lifeblood of the social and governmental systems. News media are vital reflections of these differences and enable us to engage in thoughtful discourse as we navigate the creative tensions of democratic society,

    In his excellent book Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Timothy Snyder writes that lesson one is Do not obey in advance. In other words, do not give ground on small issues as they provide information about what changes can be introduced and pass unnoticed in the future. So does it matter that the Times has decided not to cover a story in Wellington? Yes, it most assuredly does.

    I am hopeful that the new owners and editors of this paper will reverse their decision and commit to the journalistic ethics of a democratic country or at the very least recognize that just because something that happens in the County doesn’t matter to them, it may matter to others. And while I am certain it’s of no value to anyone to know this, let me state that I personally have no interest in this visit. I do, however, have a very serious interest in the quality of news media in Canada as it relates to our democracy.

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