Lessons In Journalism, Populism And Diversity At ITN London (Extended Feature Version)

ITN CDN Open Day semipartisansam 004

 

I walked through a doorway, found myself standing in the ITV National News studio, and for a moment I was shocked to realise that I didn’t recognise the space at all.

Not because of the floor-to-ceiling green screen backdrop and the absence of the computer-generated background – the final version, familiar to viewers, was displayed on a monitor to the side – but because I hadn’t deliberately or consciously watched the ITV News in more than a decade. The news desk, the set, the logo – nothing seemed familiar or evoked the old ITV I remembered from the late 1990s.

I’m a voracious reader and consumer of domestic and international news. In fact, I’m currently embarking on a side career in political journalism. And yet I was somehow completely untuned from one of Britain’s main news outlets. Should that be cause for concern?

Then came another shock. As our tour group wound its way through the humming newsroom, quite by chance I found myself standing behind a bona fide news celebrity – veteran broadcaster and news presenter Alastair Stewart – as he sat at his workstation, deep in conversation with colleagues sitting at identical high-tech hotdesks in the middle of the newsroom floor. Gosh, I thought, thinking back on his many years presenting London Tonight, I didn’t know he was still working.

I was behind the scenes at ITN’s London newsroom thanks to an invitation to attend a Creative Diversity Network open day, one of many similar events being held around the country where major broadcasters (Sky, BBC, CNN, ITN and others) open their doors to give people from ethnic and socially diverse backgrounds the taste of a career in TV journalism. My invitation came through Poached Creative, the social enterprise with whom I trained earlier this year.

As one of the assistant news editors gave us a flavour of the thrills, constraints and deadlines of his job, it occurred to me that since many of the people on the tour with me were at least ten years my junior, they conceivably grew up and came of age in a time when Alastair Stewart’s face was no longer an automatic, ubiquitous presence in their living rooms.

Two decades ago, the creep of widespread cable television and internet news into our homes was in its infancy, and the likes of Stewart (and his contemporaries Moira Stewart, Dermot Murnaghan, Peter Sissons and Trevor McDonald) held a virtual monopoly in our living rooms at their scheduled hour. At times of international crisis or national mourning, it would be these same few faces who would break the bad news, solemnly keep us updated and, through their regular presence, reassure us that all would be well.

We have come a long way in twenty years. News can now be consumed on a computer or mobile device from sources as numerous as news websites, blogs, RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook and of course the greatest nemesis of television news, YouTube.

But for people such as myself fluent in these new technologies – and the news editors and proprietors who increasingly see people like me as a prime demographic – it can be easy to forget that not everyone chooses, or is able, to receive the news in these innovative new ways.

The Master Control Room (MCR) at the ITN London studios
The Master Control Room (MCR) at the ITN London studios

 

My daily news consumption might often consist of a click through the top stories on the Telegraph and Guardian newspaper websites, followed by a browse of what the Economist and Spectator magazines have to offer online (paywalled newspaper websites are toxic to me, my one exception being the New York Times). Then come my favourite bloggers and discussion forums, some with a broad focus and others on very specific topics of interest. And regular checking of Twitter and Facebook feeds almost inevitably yields up another few items of interest.

My television news viewing habits, by contrast, are sporadic and almost intentionally designed not to provide a large-scale overview (I do that through my self-assembled online monitoring) but rather to plug any gaps that my regular websites or social media streams have not filled. Perhaps there is an interesting debate happening in Westminster, and so BBC Parliament will play in the background for three hours while I half listen. Or maybe I have sensed that I am not getting a complete or impartial picture of a certain story from the news sites and blogs, and want to see the protagonists fight their corners in televised interviews on the news bulletins (generally the BBC, sometimes Sky News).

And for items of particular interest, when my consumption spikes enormously (such as party conference time or the run-up to an election), I’ll hold my nose and watch some of the BBC’s half-hearted political programming like The Daily Politics.

The one thing almost entirely missing from my chosen sources of news? The regularly scheduled bulletins on terrestrial television channels.

Why? Because I almost never find myself already watching BBC One or ITV when Big Ben strikes six, nine or ten o’clock, and because I can fill what I perceive to be the gaps in my knowledge much more immediately and conveniently elsewhere. The only real exception to this rule would be times when I have stayed with friends and relatives who make the terrestrial bulletins a part of their routine, or when extreme circumstances (such as hospitalisation) have limited my usual access to information.

So what is the role of terrestrial television news in twenty-first century Britain? And how far should organisations such as ITN (and their client ITV) go to attract younger, more digitally savvy people in order to arrest their declining audience figures?

At various points throughout the open day – whether we were hearing from ITN’s managing editor Robin Elias or his enthusiastic technical and editorial team – ITN staff were eager to stress their organisation’s universality. We were told (correctly) that unlike the newspapers who preach confirmation bias-reinforcing propaganda approved by their proprietors, they have an almost sacred – or at least legal – duty to cater to the whole nation.

But how to do it? How to report the news in an OFCOM-approved way while simultaneously striving to appeal to the younger demographic who are now used to getting their news online (if they knew any other way at all)?

Instances of craven demographic-chasing have become commonplace in the United States, where news channels such as FOX or CNN – and even some of the major broadcast networks – constantly interrupt their bulletins to breathlessly inform viewers what Bob from Ohio said on Twitter about Hillary Clinton’s chances of becoming President.

Who do the American news programmes think they are helping by cramming these constant social media intrusions onto the screens of their mature and elderly viewers? The young people who actually communicate using Twitter and Facebook are off reading their news at the Huffington Post, while the poor baby boomers and senior citizens scratch their heads in puzzlement. Surely this is not the model for ITN?

There were times during the CDN Open Day with ITN that I felt a pang of sympathy for the many talented, hardworking people there. Old media faces a genuine quandary – with the fracturing and disaggregation of the media industry, organisations such as ITN are on one hand told to create compelling content on platforms that can be accessed by the whole nation, while one of the only audience segments who stuck around just wants the old product, done the way it was always done.

And all of this with ever-shrinking budgets and more limited resources.

ITV News's Alastair Stewart consults with colleagues at a desk in the ITN London studio
ITV News’s Alastair Stewart consults with colleagues at a desk in the ITN London studio

 

But as I travelled home my feelings changed and I started to think that maybe it was I, the technologically literate millennial, who was missing out, and not them. Was I not being condescending toward this organisation brim full of talented professionals, in assuming (even though the viewership data back me up) that just because I and others like me don’t (or haven’t) been tuning in, that it was they who were somehow sliding into irrelevance and decline?

What if it was me who was the one losing out?

ITV News may have become less relevant to my life but this is not the case for millions of other Britons, whose tastes, interests and preferences are no less valid – and sometimes considerably more lucrative and influential – than mine. At times, half living in a digital world, it can be easy to forget that for some people the word Twitter means next to nothing.

For these people – and in truth, for us all – the importance of regularly scheduled, high quality and impartial news programmes never diminished. And they aren’t necessarily the doddery old folk at death’s door, as perhaps in my arrogance I had assumed, when I thought about it at all.

No, many of these people (with whose news intake I am wilfully unfamiliar, and whose priorities and motivations consequently are then inevitably, to some degree, beyond my understanding) are of prime earning age or on the cusp of retirement, and consequently very much in a position to influence my future with their votes and economic decisions.

The staff of ITN who so kindly hosted us on the CDN Open Day do important work, educating and informing the nation. When, in my teens, I got distracted by blogs, tempted by the ease of newspaper websites and hooked on Twitter and YouTube, the people working in traditional media (and the parts of it that creatively try to reach out to the young) carried on with the job. Alastair Stewart kept reporting the news, faithfully, diligently, honestly. Just unwatched by me.

But just as those who make no attempt to understand the interests and habits of the younger generation will continue to lose touch with them, so I have now come to see that by letting ITV News and other terrestrial news broadcasts fall off my personal radar, I have unintentionally harmed my own ability to understand, empathise and connect with a significant proportion of my fellow countrymen.

And I am not alone. With so many television channels and websites to choose from, and ever more news sources competing for our attention, it becomes increasingly unlikely that our personal ‘news feed’ will be the same as our neighbour’s. Just as Netflix and Sky+ mean we no longer watch the latest episode our favourite TV shows at the same time, so the fractured news market means that the idea of watching the daily news bulletin as a shared national experience has become an almost laughable anachronism.

This would be fine if I was just another disinterested member of the British public. But as a blogger of several years and newly minted political journalist who increasingly takes the establishment to task for failing to understand or relate to people unlike themselves (the poor, the aspirational working class, UKIP voters…) my failure to push back against the pressure to narrow down and pre-filter my information world has been a grievous omission.

But having now had the opportunity to experience the beating heart of a national newsroom and see a live bulletin prepared and delivered – a wake up call that the world I left behind in 1999 is still very much there – it is an omission that will be rectified.

For the first time in maybe a decade, tonight I will sit and watch the ITV News at Ten.

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