Local Transport Today is the authoritative, independent journal for transport decision makers. Analysis, Comment & News on Transport Policy, Planning, Finance and Delivery since 1989.

Steering a path through controversial times: content is king, but what should it be?

LTT editorial director Peter Stonham concludes a three-part series of special articles marking the 800th issue with his thoughts on the publisher’s challenge in shaping the magazine coverage and putting it in its wider context

Peter Stonham
14 July 2020
Just some of the content expressing different responses to climate change that LTT has published in recent months
Peter Stonham, Editorial Director, Landor LINKS
Peter Stonham, Editorial Director, Landor LINKS
Andrew Forster, Editor, Local Transport Today
Andrew Forster, Editor, Local Transport Today

 

In the latest of our series of special features related to the publication of our 800th issue, my article this time is designed to share some thinking with our readership about how, as a publisher, we decide upon what the magazine’s remit and content should be. Both in individual issues and, as the professional landscape changes over time, new topical subjects arise.

Things have certainly changed a lot since we began publishing LTT in 1989, in an era when ‘the trade magazine’ played a very significant role in bringing all those involved in a sector together as a regular noticeboard and agenda-setting vehicle, and as the main medium of information supply at a time before the dominance of the internet and all the digital information sources we now take for granted. 

For the first 20 years, our economic model was a strong one, but much began to change in the early years of the new century. For some time now, the magazine on its own as a freestanding publication has become uneconomic, and would seem unlikely to ever generate sufficient subscriptions and sales revenue to cover its preparation, printing and postage costs – our main expenses on it. But the directors have taken the view that it is the flagship and the most visible and iconic element of the wider LTT activity portfolio, and a key means by which we collect the highly important material that drives our wider information-led business, and so resolved to support it continuing as a print publication within the wider mix. We believe the market now deserves a broadly-based and interrelated service of information, discussion, feedback and sharing, which can partly be covered by the magazine, but must, these days, inevitably embrace online activities, face-to-face get togethers and other forms of networking and specialist interaction.

We welcome vibrant, civil and informed discussion in LTT, recognising the media’s vital role as a place for the free exchange of ideas. 

Indeed, as you will have noticed from the past two issues, Rod Fletcher and I, as the founder directors, have recently decided to re-pitch the LTT magazine subscriptions and advertising message within a bigger envelope of membership activities addressing the professional information and knowledge-sharing needs of those involved in local transport. Part of that will involve LTT very soon being delivered digitally as an app, as well as in print.

Our highly regarded, proudly delivered and staunchly defended independent business position and role in the local transport market has in any case been continually developing with social, economic and technological development changes since we launched LTT 31 years ago as the voice of the specialist transport planning and professional community working within the UK in the local and regional transport field. 

It’s been a highly rewarding, and sometimes daunting, role.

Over the years we have taken a number of ‘thought leadership’ positions that have reflected the challenges facing our professional community. But we’ve always vigorously avoided any sense of supporting specific businesses or sectors, or taking entrenched positions on specific issues. We have nonetheless happily encouraged sometimes controversial debate on a range of matters, for example in the beginning to question the need for the amount of road building that was taking place back in 1989; exploring the case for more multi-modal and integrated transport planning and funding approaches; reflecting the need for safer local neighbourhoods and streets by calming and reducing traffic levels; then giving considerable space to those advocating the increased use of softer modes (walking and cycling); and most recently recognising the potential damaging consequences of climate change and carbon dependency, and the significance of this issue in decision-making.

Up to now there’s been no real controversy about what might loosely be described as the magazine’s ‘balance of coverage’, or its airing of opinions by those challenging ‘conventional wisdom’. Unfortunately, of late, that does seem to have become an issue over the matter of climate change. 

This subject deserves some comment, I believe, and offers a useful example of the difficult balancing act a publisher and information intermediary must strike.

Climate change was not a dominant issue when we began publishing LTT. It was only starting to appear on the global policy agenda, with then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher making, a perhaps surprisingly since overlooked, reference to it in a speech at the United Nations in 1989. But in those early days there were only lone voices speaking out on the subject in transport. Voices such as Mayer Hillman, who deserves huge credit for being willing to stick his neck out and court criticism and vilification (within our columns and elsewhere) years ahead of those sounding the warnings of climate change now.  

It’s important to state that the vast majority of LTT’s coverage of climate matters today concerns the formulation and practical application of policy. We’ve provided in-depth coverage of every report from the Committee on Climate Change and the DfT, as well as those of wider government and other bodies. We’ve reported extensively on the decarbonisation plans and policies of local authorities. Technology developments such as electric vehicles and hydrogen power make up an ever increasing proportion of our news coverage. We’ve reported the calls for transport appraisal to be revamped to reflect the Government’s Net Zero target. And we’ve also provided extensive coverage of the work of environmental pressure groups, for instance, the series of transport reports by Friends of the Earth last year, and more recently we’ve covered in-depth the legal challenge to the DfT’s  road investment strategy on the grounds that it is contradictory to the binding commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement.

We have also reflected upon the fact that the size of the decarbonisation challenge is such that there are many potential pitfalls on the path to successful delivery. This includes public engagement and support for policies that may well inhibit personal freedoms in terms of travel, choice of mode and vehicle, as well as the economics and practicalities of delivering zero emission transport. In large part these challenges have still to be confronted, but we feel it important to raise the issues now because if one thing 30 years of reporting has taught us, it’s that implementation of transport promises and programmes doesn’t always go according to plan. 

On the science, we recognise that in-depth scientific discussions, let alone judgments, are beyond the remit of a specialist magazine seeking to cover a vast range of issues in local transport.  

For some people, our approach may not go far enough in getting on board with the climate change crusade, and the demands of campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion. Their message is heartfelt and passionate, but to some, unjustifiably all-consuming, and perhaps alarmist (they headlined their press release on last week’s Committee on Climate Change report ‘CCC advises Government to prepare for the apocalypse’). Their tactics of protest and direct engagement have certainly been very effective, and have caused politicians, public bodies and some businesses to burnish their green credentials. But verbal endorsement and engagement does not necessarily represent committed and radical public policy or business practice. Campaigners’ clamour may well create a situation where their message is seen as unchallengeable, and negativity towards them is almost taboo, but the practicalities of ‘saying the right thing’ and those of genuinely embracing the true implications of their agenda and doing it, are two different things. 

Whilst there’s a pragmatic critique to be made of the more assertive climate change campaigns, and their appropriateness and realism, there’s also a case to be made for being even more radical than most of them. 

As editorial director, I made it in an article I wrote in this magazine (LTT 3 Apr) looking into the viewpoint of those who think humans are fatally disrupting the Earth’s ecosystem, and unlocking problems beyond climate change – to include the circumstances in which viruses such as Covid-19 can flourish, through overpopulation and densification of urban areas, hyper-connectivity, over-dependence on technology, experimenting with bio science, and profligacy with resources, to name just a few.

A range of opinions are fundamental to our role as a publisher, and fortunately, in this country – unlike some others – we all have our personal rights to express them. We welcome vibrant, civil and informed discussion in LTT, recognising the media’s vital role as a place for the free exchange of ideas. 

But they can sometimes become very stridently expressed and repetitive, so we felt it time to bring the climate change science debate in the letters pages to a halt, as we feel the participants have now made their points very clear, and there is no benefit in helping them bludgeon each other into submission! We’ve done the same in the past on other issues where things have got overheated, such as on speed cameras.

Yet we do defend the right to allow different viewpoints to be aired on this subject from time-to-time. A contrarian opinion articulately and emolliently expressed will never be excluded from our columns on the grounds of its difference from the majority view!

Such debate is, and will remain, at the core of what we do. At its heart LTT exists to play the role of providing a specialist insight into the way the transport agenda is changing, and the various propositions and positions being put forward by different experts, interest groups and decision-making bodies. And to address how decisions on competing policy priorities are played out. In a word, we like to give our readers the very best understanding of the local transport ‘plot’!

We staunchly defend our independence, and our ability to present a range of opinions and perspectives. Not every one that we publish will be popular with all our audience, but as long as they’re presented in temperate language, we will continue to include a diversity of opinion that reflects the real world in which those dealing with transport must work. 

There’s recently been talk of the risk of there being ‘an echo chamber’ or ‘bubble’ amongst people who agree with each other, and don’t want to hear the views of others. Another potentially dangerous further step is the actions of those who want to shout down, or worse, shut down, the voices of people who they disagree with. 

Not hearing or seeing things does not mean they don’t still exist, and hardly helps balanced decision-making and implementation by the professionals who work within government, local government and other agencies and which we exist to support in their demanding but fascinating working lives.

That’s our challenge, and we’ll continue to rise to it to the best of our abilities.    


Judgments, choices, decisions and deadlines – all in the editor’s job every fortnight

We asked LTT editor Andrew Forster to explain some of the challenges of putting together the magazine

It was in the early 1990s while doing a research degree on urban transport policy at Leeds that I had the idea of pursuing a career in transport journalism. The PhD, sponsored by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (one of the predecessor bodies to the Local Government Association), involved looking in-depth at how policy was formulated. I became fascinated by the question of why policy is as it is – what are the ingredients to decision-making and how do they interact: evidence, experts, personal experiences, pressure groups, societal values, party politics, and such like? Journalism was an obvious route to continuing to ask these questions, and an opportunity arose at LTT as I?neared the end of the four-year project. After a couple of years as a reporter I?left to work in a council transport team for two years, returning in 2000 as editor. 

As a person, I bring a few things to the job alongside an interest in transport: being inquisitive helps, so does being a bit nerdy – you have to be, really, because the detail of policy and practice is often where the real interest lies. I also believe that society – and public policy – is improved by the free exchange of ideas. As Peter relates in the main article, that latter point has been quite a challenge when it comes to reporting on climate matters. 

You don’t become an editor if you want a regular 9-5 job. Two big changes have made the task even more of a challenge in recent years: first, the explosion in the volume of raw news material, due to changes in the transport sector such as new technology developments, new forms of transport service, and new governance units such as combined authorities that have big transport agendas. Second, the editorial resource to process the material has shrunk in line with the challenging economics, which is not unique to LTT.  

The fortnightly production cycle goes from a cold start to a very intense last 72 hours in which a mass of activities have to be completed, including prioritising and grouping the stories, sub-editing every line, writing headlines, checking facts, sourcing pictures, ensuring all the late news is incorporated, and then writing an opinion column! 

Overall, I?think we do a reasonable job of pulling together and presenting everything most of the time. The worst feeling is realising after the pages have been sent to the printers that you’ve made an important factual omission or error in a story. All you can do is hold your hands up, correct it online, and apologise next issue. 

More common is the thought that you could have worded something a bit differently and better. More often than not this comes with the more creative writing of a feature or editorial opinion, which are quite different writing styles from the news. Most journalists do not have to switch styles so much as those of us who are the main custodians of a small specialist magazine. 

It’s been said that journalism is the “first rough draft of history”. We do our best, but perfection comes along rather later after more leisurely reflection!

 
 
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