My journalism hero: Barrie Pennett

As someone who teaches journalism and digital media to degree level students, I’m sometimes asked who my hero or heroine in journalism is.

It’s an interesting question. There have been many good people who have influenced me during my career. In terms of all the online stuff I do I don’t look much beyond some of the folks at The Guardian who I was fortunate enough to work with on the Local Project.

Digital journalism leaders like Emily Bell, Martin Belam, Sarah Hartley, Meg Pickard and  Hannah Waldram who are all at the cutting edge of what they do. And, digitally, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. More generally I find the people like Will Perrin at Talk About Local and what the guys at Hebe Works are trying to achieve genuinely inspiring.

But actually, when I think about it, as good as these guys are the person who’s influenced me most is someone who doesn’t come up in Google searches, who probably never had a single story on the internet and for whom social media and mobile journalism probably seemed like something out of a Ray Bradbury sci-fi novel.

His name was Barrie Pennett. I worked with Barrie on the Wharfedale and Airedale Observer, (now the Wharfedale and Aireborough Observer) a weekly paper which was then run out of Otley rather than off-patch as it is now (from Skipton).

WHARFEmay4Barrie was an old-style journalist. He joined ‘The Wharfedale’ straight from school. He was still there some 50-odd years later. Barrie lived and breathed his patch of Aireborough (mainly Guiseley, Yeadon and Rawdon).

He lived in Yeadon with his wife Val and KNEW EVERYBODY! Almost literally. If you walked through Guiseley centre, different people would stop him for a chat, sometimes to give him a story, sometimes just to chat because he was a friendly, smashing bloke with a great sense of humour. EVERYBODY knew Barrie!

For a young journalist it was a powerful lesson to learn – contacts were key. Barrie spent very little time in the office. He was always out in his patch, visiting contacts, speaking to them, having a cup of tea with the local vicar or civic leader. He knew the names of every corner shop owner, community group leader, vicar and local busybody going. He chatted to them regularly (not just drop them an email or a tweet, but was actually a face, a real person, working his patch every single day) and rarely missed the night meetings in the area.

He knew the value of speaking to people and asking questions. He knew this idea held by some journos that people would just ‘come out and tell him a news story’ was daft. Mainly because not every Joe Bloggs knows what a news story actually is, or can be. No, it had to be teased out of them. He got many of his scoops from just speaking to everyday folk.

His network was incredible. He was a one-man social network years before Twitter and Facebook were even thought of.

Barrie didn’t rely on press releases coming in. He treated a splash and a village pars/nib story in exactly the same way – he knew even the smallest story, such as the latest whist drive results from a pensioners’ group, were important to someone. And that he might need those same ‘whist drivers’ for a bigger story further down the line. To his credit, he seldom missed a story in the five years I was there – how could he, with this incredible network supporting him?

I guess he served the community he represented. How many journalists still think that way?

I left ‘The Wharfedale’ about 11 years ago. Barrie sadly passed away after a courageous battle with cancer not long after, but I’ve never forgotten him.

I know local journalism has changed – staffing levels often mean journalists are tied to their desks and don’t get out as much as they did. But Barrie’s principles should still apply today.

And here’s the key message of my nostalgia-ridden ramble. Too often modern digital tools are hailed ‘the future’ of journalism by techies. Equally, some more tradional hacks might argue that their importance is overstated and that they appeal to journalists’ vanity.

My thought is this. What if you took the essence and ethos of Barrie Pennett and combined it with using these fabulous digital tools?

What if it wasn’t a case of doing everything digitally or, ergo, dismissing it as a ‘vanity’ or ‘distracting’ but combining the two disciplines? What if it doesn’t have to be one or the other? What if the changes in the way people consume news (and the platforms they consume it on) allows you do do more?

Take the Periscope won’t change the world – but it appeals to journalists’ vanity post.

The author makes some valid points about the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘source material’ and rightly says livestreaming is compelling only when the thing you’re pointing the camera at is also compelling. And he’s also right to have a go at some of the over-excitable techies.

But my point would be to take the points he makes one step further – ie why not do both? Why not as a journalist stream, say, a protest march through town live via Periscope? Allow people to be there and see the event as it happends? Or a public meeting or a council meet? Let’s credit the reader with some intelligence that they can actually follow what’s happening. Heck, it might even be exciting too, to watch a protest live in your community. Throw in some social media coverage and you’ve got a real-time experience for your audience.

I don’t understand why only a ‘small subset’ of journalists should be thinking that way.

And after the live element, why not let a bit of Barrie Pennett join in the fun? Get reaction from the marchers, the police, the council, your contacts and every other source a journalist should be speaking to, and put that together as a fact-filled detailed report or analysis afterwards? (and heck, even have some video/audio interviews in it as well).

Why should it be one or t’other? Let your audience decide how they’re going to consume your media.

If I Storify that march (or a council meeting or public meeting), does that mean I’ve done my job as a journalist? No, of course it doesn’t, but a Storify can compliment and add value to my report. Again, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.

Modern journalism isn’t about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it’s about keeping the most important traditional practices and supplementing at the right times with the best digital resources we have. It’s not about journalism being about tech it’s about doing your job well, just as it’s always been.

When I worked for the Guardian on its Leeds blog I tried to do both. You might find a combination of bit of Barrie and a bit of tech goes a long way…


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