SPOTLIGHT ON | Paul Hutchinson, Co-Editor of the Bedford Independent: "Community journalism represents what local or specialist media should be."
Paul Hutchinson has a media career spanning 20 years, which has taken him from a reporter at a local radio station to Deputy Editor of what was then the country’s largest commercial radio news hub, to joining forces with other like-minded news gatherers to set up and serve as Co-Editor at digital news desk the Bedford Independent.
Paul is also a member of the IMPRESS Code Committee; a group of experts who are responsible for advising the IMPRESS Board on the editorial standards and guidance for journalists that are incorporated in the IMPRESS Standards Code. Paul is one of three serving editors of IMPRESS regulated publications to sit on the 13-member Code Committee.
In our latest IMPRESS Spotlight interview, Paul shares the inspiration behind setting up a local independent news title, the importance of authentic community-based journalism, and his thoughts on how editorial standards need to move with the times.
> Tell us the story of how the Bedford Independent came to be; what inspired you to join forces with fellow journalists to set up an independent digital news desk?
The Bedford Independent (BI) was set up in 2018 after the closure of the Bedfordshire on Sunday. Despite it having a strong position in the area, the owners (Reach) had different plans for local news and closed the publication. There was a clear void of responsible and fact-based journalism in the town. So, Erica Roffe, now Co-Managing Editor, Julia Course-Crofts, now BI Commercial Director, and I got together to look at creative ways we could fill that void. Julia and Erica have always been active champions of Bedford, organising multiple events to ‘big up Bedford’ and publishing the local culture magazine the Bedford Clanger. I was also present in the local community, having been a news editor with what was Chiltern FM and founding and organising a successful Bedford Film Festival, so, we looked at ways we could bring our experiences together with a new publication.
> During your time as Editor, what story the site has broken are you most proud of, or most epitomises what the site was set up to do?
It’s hard to pick one single story however, the story that I think had the most impact and really showed Bedford how we were a cut above the others, was when the old hospital building caught fire. This was only a few months after our website launched and we were the only local news outlet giving people updates about a building that was close to many people’s hearts; lots of people were born there or had family members who worked there. We were the only media reporting from the scene within the fire cordon and we broadcast various live reports across our social channels. Our reports were also picked up by national media, and it gave us a great boost in confidence that we were doing things right.
Since then, we’ve published around 4,500 stories, including 137 exclusives. Each of them is special for various reasons, but some that stand out for me are the former pub landlord who had not paid staff, the blind woman who was told to leave a shop with her guide dog, and our extensive coverage of Captain Tom’s 100th birthday.
The people in our patch need a voice, they need someone to help them tell their story. The work that our editorial team, with the support of our commercial colleagues, allows us to do just that. People trust us to tell their story and that is, in my mind, the reason why we do what we do.
We’ve also made sure that our readers have access to what’s happening in local politics. We are part of our Local Democracy Reporter Scheme, and we report live from our local elections. In fact, one of our most read news articles is still our coverage of the 2019 mayoral election, live from the count.
> The journalism industry is rapidly changing and diversifying. What does the future hold for the Bedford Independent and what do you hope to achieve in 2022?
Well, not to sound too cocky, but we believe the Bedford Independent represents the future of journalism. We’ve been very conscious of how we need to future-proof ourselves, by being digital only and utilising social media, video and audio, as well as the written word, as best we can.
We have also adopted a ‘reader first’ approach making sure our content is accessible and not obscured by pop-up adverts or surveys that need to be closed before you can read the pages. By diversifying our revenue streams, we don’t need to have ad after ad after ad on our news pages.
But we’re not just thinking of the future with our technology, we’ve also been told our independent stance is refreshing, particularly considering growing fake news and rumour across social media.
We work hard to give our readers as much information as we can and then they can make informed decisions with fact-based news.
Like all independents, we hope to become more financially robust, as this will help secure the news coverage we bring to our patch for the future. We also want to continue supporting young people who are just about to or have recently finished their studies in both the editorial and commercial sides of our business. We are also currently in the opening stages of our second ‘Everyday Heroes Awards’, which we are sure will be another success and will help our readers say “thank you” to those who make Bedford brilliant.
> From your perspective, what is the significance of community-based journalism?
Community-based journalism is playing a significant role in making sure local people know what is going on in their area, or in the sectors they’re interested in. More significant, however, is the fact community-based journalism is needed in the first place. The big publishers have for too long systematically reduced genuine coverage of local news for the sake of their bottom line. They have a wide network and convince national advertisers this is where their money should be spent, yet locally, the BI, for example, has a readership three times as large.
Community journalism represents what local or specialist media should be. It’s what local media used to be, yet it’s often considered by many to not be worth the time and effort.
This causes a great deal of frustration for us at the BI and for colleagues at other independent publications. Our readership quite often exceeds that of our local competitors yet support from digital companies, advertisers, public bodies, and media groups continues to flow towards the big publishers. The tide needs to turn if genuine local news really is to be saved.
> The Bedford Independent joined IMPRESS back in 2018. What led you to join and how has membership benefitted your newsroom?
We always wanted to show our readers we are committed to fact-based journalism and that we have a code of conduct that we are proud to follow. We heard about IMPRESS from a legal colleague and so a few weeks before we launched, I contacted IMPRESS and had a wonderful conversation with Jonathan Heawood the former CEO. It was clear that IMPRESS’ values aligned with ours and joining was an easy decision. Thanks to this, our readers have known from day one that we’re committed to responsible journalism and that we hold ourselves to a high standard.
I believe joining IMPRESS is one of the best decisions we ever made.
Not only have IMPRESS been a phenomenal support in helping us to develop our own editorial mission and ethics, but they’ve also helped us to make good friends with other independents across the country so we can learn from each other. Both Erica and I have spoken at events and, as a publication, we’ve had a chance to put forward what matters to us both editorially and commercially. We feel like we’re part of a bigger picture.
> As a serving editor, what has been your experience of being a member of the IMPRESS Code Committee?
I am very proud to have been asked to join the code committee, especially at a time when the code itself is evolving so it is better able to support trust in journalism as new channels, behaviours and expectations emerge. Serving as part of the committee really has opened my eyes to the lengths IMPRESS goes to when developing its code of conduct and priorities to support its members and the sector.
The committee is made up of people from all backgrounds and we all have an equal opportunity to put forward our thoughts and ideas that we feel will best support our own area of journalism and the wider sector. I’ve also been really impressed with the external organisations and representative bodies that IMPRESS consults with, alongside individuals, to really make sure the code does everything it can to provide a robust code of conduct for publications of all sizes and genres.
> How do you think editorial standards can be improved to reflect the realities and nuances of contemporary journalism?
We’re in a very interesting time with how modern digital channels are impacting traditional sources of news. The internet is consistently proving to be a more popular source of news, with print and radio in decline. Mobile use to access news is consistently high and the temptation to just provide quick news in brief articles that don’t tell the story is also high.
Editorial standards need to adapt to maintain robust ethical practices within this sphere. While most of the standards are easily transferable, certainly with the content produced on official channels, more needs to be done to make sure that IMPRESS members don’t inadvertently undermine those standards elsewhere. With the emergency of AI, we also need to make sure that editors maintain a human-led approach to signing off content and don’t just rely on automation for the sake of cost savings.
Paul Hutchinson has had a 20-year media career which has taken him from a reporter at a local radio station to Deputy Editor of what was then the country’s largest commercial radio news hub, to joining forces with other like-minded news gatherers to set up digital news desk the Bedford Independent, the most widely read publication in their patch. Amongst all this, Paul has also worked on the other side of the news fence, providing PR and Marketing support in the public sector and private sectors such as law, film, music, and education, where he developed a passion and expertise in modern digital news channels including ever evolving and emerging social media platforms.