Series Launch: The Craft of Public Interest News
Producing public interest news takes time, energy and craft. PINF commissioned filmmaker Emilie Flower to make a series of films about the craft of public interest news. We talked to her about her approach to the subject. To view Emilie Flower's series of films, 'The Craft of Public Interest News', click here.
PINF: Some documentary makers put themselves in the frame, whereas you let the publishers speak for themselves. Why did you take this approach?
Emilie Flower: Most people have so much to say when you ask them about their area of expertise, and I like sticking to the way they describe this rather than transforming it into my words. I’m interested in their experience and the insights they choose to put across. I want to understand their perspective, their motivation and reasoning, and I want to set this in context. I’m not really looking for authenticity – I just want to try and represent the best of how someone does something so that the audience see into their world.
PINF: You’ve called this series ‘the craft of public interest news’. What kinds of craft did you see on display at the publications?
EF: I think journalism includes many different skills and products that are carefully honed. The attention that Richard Gurner pays when he’s putting together the Caerphilly Observer is a process of curation. He is crafting a piece that needs to work for a broad cross section of people, setting the words and visuals against other articles to strengthen the meaning. On the one hand this is editorial decision making but on the other it is quite a fine-tuned craft, as is the process of researching the pieces – carefully collecting information, cross checking, taking notes. On a more basic level, shorthand is a beautiful script, many of the publications’ online sites look beautiful and some of the pieces and films they make are beautifully crafted.
PINF: Were there any surprises for you in making these films?
EF: When I spoke to Sam Walby at Now Then he was writing an article about the city centre re-development and taking a tour of the river Sheaf as part of that. Joining him on a research trip seemed a good place to start. I didn’t expect this to be quite so literal, and found myself a week later following a group of archaeologists down a pitch black tunnel wading up to my stomach in the river Sheaf – a perk of the job.
PINF: What were the highlights of your journeys around the UK?
EF: Other than river wading and meeting the journalists themselves, the obvious highlight was visiting the Shetland Isles – which were an 11 hour journey by boat from Aberdeen. Every time I woke up throughout the night we were still sailing north. The filming took place soon after lockdown was lifted, so this felt really liberating. The other stand out highlight was delivering the Caerphilly Observer with Richard. Just a really good day driving around, talking about journalism, Caerphilly, mining, Covid, Brexit, local planning, Brighton, etc… while the green
valleys sped by. I stayed the night in a little B&B tucked beside the train station and thought I’d take a look around Caerphilly that evening. Five minutes up the hill I found a path to a viewpoint where the sun was setting over the valleys. There were people walking, talking, on their own, families and friends, all enjoying the view together, and dowsed in a glowing golden summer sunset. It was a really unexpected moment.
PINF: Has this experience changed your view about journalism?
EF: I wanted to do this job because of my enthusiasm for local journalism and independent publishers, and the experience reinforced my enthusiasm and curiosity. It’s so easy to demonise journalists and believe that those who make the loudest and most sensational claims represent journalists. Making these films reminded me that journalists are a diverse group of people, many of whom love what they do and the people they represent, and hold a genuine commitment to some of the old-fashioned journalistic values – truth, accountability, representation. They don’t do this because they ought to but because they want to. Finding things out is a fascination, a puzzle. It was good to see these journalistic values and ambitions still at work.
PINF: Did you find that the publications were all very similar, or did you see big differences between them?
EF: They all had their own distinct voices and styles which were really quite different. That’s what I was trying to capture. I liked the contrast between the publications that wanted to get as close to representing a truth as they could, and those that weren’t afraid to accept their own bias in their pieces. What came across was the honesty of their journalistic approaches, and the variety of possibilities for how they went about representing their public.
PINF: Do you think that there’s enough public awareness of the work of small, independent publishers like those in the film?
EF: No. I hadn’t realised how many independent publishers there are in the UK. But given that so many of the publishers I visited are sustained by their readership, their readers are clearly aware of the value of these publishers. This model probably makes it hard to start up a publication but does show how much they are valued by loyal readers. People really want to support independent publishers. With a bit more recognition financially they could put more time into more pieces of real local value. Several of the local journalists I spoke to wanted to put out longer form articles, but these were hard with limited staffing. Given how much they know about their communities it would be nice to support them to give us the full picture and put more time into the pieces they would really like to write.
To view Emilie Flower’s series of films, ‘The Craft of Public Interest News’, visit the PINF YouTube channel.