Question Time: Agricultural journalist panel

29.08.13 Question Time: Agricultural journalist panel discussion archive

A slightly different AgriChatUK discussion to normal, this one featured 7 of the industry’s top agricultural, environmental and food journalists taking questions on their roles, editorial drivers, opinions on social media, and effectiveness of different mediums to get farming’s message across to the general public.

A love of writing, plenty of ideas, and energy and confidence to chase out good stories were recommended to those wishing to pursue the journalism path, with a voice recorder and learning shorthand skills key requisites!

Social media was seen as having enhanced the role of the journalist as a tool for new leads and interaction; bringing the story back to what farmers needed to know was seen as a core driver in editorial guidance.

The future landscape will see mobile technology, infographics and data-journalism become more prevalent, though print publishing could become more of an opinion piece due to the speed and immediacy of social media and online publishing in providing news distribution to the industry much easier and quicker.

The discussion held on Thursday 29th August 2013 was a Question Time panel discussion featuring 7 agricultural journalists, namely Louise Gray, Daily Telegraph; Charlotte Smith, BBC Farming Today; Julia Glotz, The Grocer; Johann Tasker and Gemma Mackenzie, Farmers Weekly; Alistair Driver, Farmers Guardian; and Caroline Stocks, freelance. It generated a total of 1009 tweets on the topic from 130 participants. These included farmers, agri-food businesses, rural advisors, land agents, lawyers, journalists, academics and NFU officeholders, as well as members of the general public.

Q1a Any advice for those wanting to start out as agri journos? What are the qualities needed? Any specific to the ag press?

  • John Deere runs a great journalists’ training programme http://www.gaj.org.uk/award/john-deere-training-award
  • Get as much experience as you can, pitch ideas, start a blog etc. If you do a journo course make sure you learn shorthand
  • A place on the John Deere course was my introduction to ag journalism
  • Determination… Anyone can do it & should do it I don’t think you necessarily need a farming background
  • First advice, get a proper job! start in general news, it’s a good grounding, then specialise if you want.
  • Our agri titles are v good at giving youngsters a chance + experience if you are prepared to make the time. Show initiative
  • Nosiness, a penchant for asking question and a love of writing and words all help. Also, get as much work experience as poss
  • My route into ag journalism was: HND agriculture, degee agriculture, 18 months on a newspaper then FW
  • The same journalistic skills apply across all industries – I ‘fell’ into agriculture after writing about health and property
  • Surely writing about what you care and feel passionate about is No. 1?
  • You need energy + confidence Ask difficult questions. get out there Get into debating – great skill in articulating ideas
  • I don’t have shorthand – wish I did. Buy yourself an in-line recorder for your phone linked to a Dictaphone
  • When starting out and learning how to write, always think ‘how would I explain this to my pal down in the pub’

Q1b Does the rise of the farmer tweeter diminish or enhance the role of the Ag journalist?

  • Rise of farmer tweeters IMHO enhances rather than diminishes role of ag journalists. Room for both.
  • Definitely enhance. Great new tool for leads. Adds to interaction, discovery, sharing of views and good practice, education
  • Ag journalist are only more powered by twitter and social media. It gives them power to reach out to more and faster
  • No it enhances it I’d say. Journalists like debate, opinion and challenging statements, Twitter does this well
  • Farmer tweeters enhance my job – great source of info and fab way to interact with readers. Gets me ‘virtually’ on farm
  • Twitter is one of my favourite journalistic tools and has made my job so much more fun! I can talk to readers and get a gauge of what’s interesting to them, pick up story ideas and get to know and contact key contacts much more easily
  • Should be a bonus for ag journalist, for instance to get have a sense of farmers’s views and feelings from the ground
  • I would reckon most farmers will know before the ag journalists when something’s happening, great way 2 getnews
  • In effect we have MANY more ag journo’s…. have to choose who and whether you want 4,5,6 day or 4,5,6 minutes old material.
  • Definitely enhances it, twitter is the only medium I now look at Ag articles
  • Often farmer views are fresh, interesting and grounded, down to time to think on a combine maybe?!
  • For me a definite plus. Instant feedback. Not all ag journalists use twitter though
  • But beware the limitations of Twitter. Has the power to distort where a few people make a lot of noise
  • Twitter is underestimated, I think if farmers really embraced it (which they wont) ag papers would struggle to compete
  • Surely the point is Twitter provides real time valuable leads? Tweets are not facts, good journo gets to facts

Q2 What are the drivers for choice of editorial topics in the farming & food industries?

  • If you want to read it you’ll pay, If you pay my editor wants it in the paper, If my editor wants it in the paper… Having said that sometimes what we want to read is different from what we should read…
  • The farming calendar must dictate a certain amount.
  • Sectors are split into sections at FW where each editor decides on the news agenda
  • Editorial drivers: What do farmers need to know, no. of readers affected, controversy, implications
  • Current market scene, climatic implications, research results in agriculture, crop specific observations
  • Editorial drivers include what farmers need to know and what will help them run their businesses
  • An interesting one. Often you have to follow agenda, eg badgers, CAP. But important also to look for the unique/unusual
  • I look for stories that are likely to impact on readers – whether that’s weather or a policy that will affect their business

Q3a How much true independence do ag journos have? Are they simply “industry copywriters”?

  • I found it depends on mag but ultimately advertising rules in all titles no matter what some may say…
  • Most of the paid for ad and copy titles are explicit about it. Best to get your story in a true independent
  • I’m independent. Free to pursue the stories I want within confines of laws of land Not all stories work out though
  • Independent journo reporting vital but industry key resource to help inform the story
  • I’m free to write what I want. But we as industry writers mustn’t be dismissive of questions about our independence it’s for us to demonstrate that we can be critical of our own readers when need be
  • Much independence in what we cover. But for public service broadcasters many rules on impartiality etc rightly apply.
  • Print press under pressure financially, but that doesn’t mean journos writing ‘corporate copy’- would need to be paid for ad
  • Many titles are contain a fair bit of PR contributed copy and not journo researched articles…despite names on article
  • Big prob in my field (machinery) is that no one reports on what they find on test drive in fear of upsetting advertisers.

Q3b With high no. ag stories in consumer media, could trade press play bigger role helping understand facts?

  • Trade press often works behind the scenes speaking to other media outlets about farming
  • Is an issue that soon as industry ‘trade’ publications/tv progs become too mainstream they can lose technical input?
  • No. It muddies the waters between reporting on industry and representing industry. There’s lots of communication but my primary responsibility is to my readers, not to other journos.
  • I think so Stories in trade press are sometimes inaccessible Could they do dummy versions to educate more ordinary people?
  • Perhaps it’s more down to freelancers who are freer to choose their audience. A mag editor has to think about own readers

Q4 How much do ag journalists know about food? What’s their contribution to connect ag along the chain?

  • From what all we get to read, I think generating those facts nd stats needs that knowledge. They definitely know a lot.
  • Most of my readers look at ag through food/retailing lense, so spelling out importance to wider supply chain is key that’s becoming increasingly easy, especially following Horsegate. Really put ag supply chains top of agenda
  • Along the Ag value chain, dependence on media is valuable. Contribution of Ag journalists reaches all along
  • I think you’ll find most have a VERY good understanding. Raison d’être for many of them.
  • When we build our system, we rely totally on info and media by Ag journos. That’s what we are taking to each stakeholder
  • A lot of ag journalists have a direct farming connection. And those of us who farm see ag journalism from both perspectives
  • For our more general audience vital to connect issues to food, otherwise why should they be interested?

Q5a Due to topical issues like bTB etc how effective is industry at getting point to journos vs pressure groups?

  • Getting better for sure. take TB. Last autumn industry lost PR battle. This week, a draw Industry is good at getting point across but I’d encourage more farmers to get in touch and share their stories
  • Story needs to be good + relevant to public to hit mainstream arguably it’s not their role to educate it’s ours
  • In my view not good; the NFU is the cull ‘sponsor’ as much as government. No ‘neutral’ spokesperson for farmers.
  • The debate around the Nocton ‘super dairy’ was a turning point. NGOs ruled it
  • Industry is getting its views across. But needs to accept opponents will too – not sign industry comms have failed
  • The ag industry has got their point across as well as pressure groups – Involvement of politics makes people mistrust
  • I’ve been away, b4 cull hard to find real farmers who’d talk.That didn’t mean protestors got easy ride but more available.

Q5b How do journos think farmers can better use social media & TV to get the public behind our industry?

  • This brings to something we’ve been highlighting always. Bring out farmer’s voice to all directly
  • #sosdairy campaign was a great example of successfully doing this BUT need more positive stories from farmers to public
  • If farmers come live on social media, they can help peers and entire ag value chain. It can be a big change throughout
  • Tweeting under a common hashtag can make it easier for you to be heard & shows you’re not just a lone voice
  • Social media makes us all publishers – has to be good for telling farming’s story
  • Already we’re able to connect with so many farmers around the world. Connection and information always help mutually
  • Just be yourselves. The public are not stupid Over the long term they will respect honesty Thats farmers
  • Tweet it how it is! Social media great at spreading a story, real life is instantly recognizable!
  • Make your point forcefully but don’t be aggressive. So much shoutiness on Twitter – you’ll stand out with reasonable tone

Q6 Why are social media discussions not reported offline in print, does this mean such platforms aren’t as important?

  • They’re too new compared to print media. And it’s not that they aren’t being pointed out by print media. Over time, we can expect summarized discussions like this being available in print media for sure
  • In FW we often use twitter, facebook and blog comments in print
  • A lot of stories start from social media now and no end of them quote from FB and Twitter
  • A discussion isn’t news. if its a discussion about news the comments might get picked up. Not unimportant, just different.
  • I often keep quite online as twitter can open the door to abuse. Your opinion can be more respected in print
  • But follow-ups from an SM debate can turn into important print stories & often do. If the debate was interesting, that is
  • Main reason is space! SM convos sometimes lead to stories, more often we run comment panels for a snapshot of reader opinion

Q7 How has agricultural journalism changed over the years and how do you predict it to change in the future?

  • Future to be highly benefited by Data journalism and visualisation. Great infographics are a result of journalism excellence
  • The internet’s made a huge difference – we don’t break stories in print now, it’s all done online. In future, I think…
  • Current SM and technology tools aid knowledge transfer of science & tech
  • There’ll still be farming press, but we’ll be providing commentary on events – often by the time we’re published news is old
  • One of biggest changes is mass consumption of media via smartphone/tablet.
  • Greater focus on online. increasing split b/w news being done online & print more for long-form content
  • Datajournalism, infographics and videos becoming more important
  • Mobile, mobile, mobile
  • Data analysis/visualisation will also become more important. But at heart, a good story will still be a good story
  • Get to the heart of a story and tell it how it is. It’s the ‘how’ not ‘what’ that changes – Twitter, FB, SM are new tools

Q8 What do farmers/rural community want to hear more of from our industry’s journalists?

  • FG will be around in print for a long time because that’s how many want to read it. But many other formats, too (eg FG app).
  • Want more stories that are inclusive and capture the DIVERSITY of farmers & farming
  • Publicise the environmental work being done on farms
  • Just keep bringing truth and knowledge in agriculture. Millions of people depend on journalists.
  • Journalism which shows independent thinking and sharp critical analysis gets my vote any day – never enough of that!

Simon Haley, Reading Agricultural Consultants, and Alan Spedding, 3 September 2013

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