Like many journalists no longer reporting, election night brings with it a pang of envy. The long hours waiting for something to happen, the many tells of what might be about to happen (counting voting stacks, judging body language, noting who has suddenly left the room) and the snacks. If you’re lucky, the council provides them. If you’re not, well, thank goodness for 24-hour petrol stations.
This year’s local elections were dubbed ‘Super Thursday’ due to the volume of elections which took place. Last year’s – cancelled due to Covid – were rolled over a year so we had perhaps more elections on one day than ever before.
And there’s been plenty of drama. The quotes have been amazing. The interpretation less so. No local election should be an assessment of Keir Starmer’s performance as Labour leader (a byelection, on the other hand…), nor should the Tories taking Nuneaton be a mandate for Boris Johnson’s policy agenda (that would be the 2019 general election, of course).
That too often, the Westminster bubble annexes local elections to support particular narratives, or local politicians who’ve failed to win favour hide behind ‘the national picture’ is a huge worry – and perhaps explains why fewer than 40% of adults in Greater Manchester bothered voting at all. And Greater Manchester is far from alone in this regard.
The audience data I’m seeing suggests that interest in local government is growing – year after year, more people see the stories about who is standing, who has won, and what they’re promising. Is this because more people are actively seeking it out or because they’re stumbling across it while reading other stuff? It probably doesn’t matter – that it’s being read is surely a good sign.
What election night reminded us of is the importance of the industrial nature of local journalism.
We often debate whether journalism is a profession or a trade. Wags throw in “calling” too. Truth is, it’s all three/four. Most importantly, however, it’s an industry that is at its most powerful when it has an industrial strength.
Within that industry there should be all sorts of ownership models – non-profits, memberships, small businesses, large businesses. Any organisation that is committed to the future of journalism should surely be welcome.
What election night demonstrates is the importance of an industrialised journalism, one which succeeds if its journalism is read, and appreciated, by readers. A journalism which seeks out people, rather than waiting for readers to seek out the journalism.
The real-time Tweets from thousands of local journalists, on the ground and in the room, and paid to be able to provide both fact and instant context, is made possible by an industrialised journalism. Election night is both a niche pursuit – how many ‘normal’ readers stay up any more? – and a demonstration of the power of local journalism’s ability to inform at scale.
In the case of Reach, Chartbeat has been remarkable to watch this weekend. Alongside the established brands such as WalesOnline, the Liverpool Echo, ChronicleLive and the MEN, huge numbers of readers have been getting local election coverage in counties like Yorkshire, Hampshire and Northamptonshire. That’s important civic journalism reaching more people than ever before.
These are newsrooms which are always on, which have strength in depth, and can get important stories in front of readers who might not be looking for them. Newsrooms which write for anyone and everyone, and which are relentlessly reader-led.
Scale matters in more ways than one. Larger companies, especially under the umbrella of organisations such as the News Media Association, can make a louder noise about the support the industry needs. Against the huge tech companies that have become the gatekeepers of reader attention, they can make a stronger impression. In the face of councils who’d rather do without the hassle of public notices being seen, they can make a noise. Against councils and the press offices who constantly try to control public debate about civic issues, they have the ability to by noisy.
Every newsroom has stars – the reporters, or editors, whose work is publicly known, whose byline stands out when it leads the website or the front (or back) page of the paper.
Every newsroom also has heroes – the people whose contribution is every bit as important but whose work often goes uncelebrated.
It was ever thus – only, as local news has migrated online, a new type of unsung hero has emerged. The nature of digital publishing is that every article carries a byline, and as a result, previously unheralded hero roles are now firmly in the public spotlight.
The role of trends writer – sometimes known as SEO writer too – is one which divides opinion. Journalism being what it is, we’re an industry not short of opinion, but too often, I see the work of trends writers being used to criticise a newsroom’s digital strategy, or, sadly, as a negative reference point to help celebrate other, different forms of journalism.
But without the trends writer, local journalism would be in a very different place today. This isn’t a scale and page view argument, this is a local relevance argument. Asking yourself “what are local people interested in today” and then working to fulfill that need is the key to being relevant.
Trends writers have the same goal as any local, digital, news journalist: To write stories which will engage with readers. The advantage they have is that their brief is more flexible: Find stories which appeal to local readers away from the things already being covered by other journalists.
They have to play by the same rules as any other journalist – everything they write has to be accurate, and they carry the same accountability for their work as any other journalist.
In old money, their role can be similar to that of a news editor tasked with managing the news wires and changing content between editions. Having done that roles, it would not be uncommon to handle 50 or 60 stories a shift. The difference between then and now is that the trends writer will likely see their byline on the digital story – and quite right too. Readers need to know who to go to if they have a problem with a story.
It’s also at the same time similar to the old community editor role many newsrooms had, one of those backbone-of-the-newsroom jobs which rarely got plaudits at journalism awards, but which probably had a greater sense of what really mattered to readers than any other role. Again, such roles would handle dozens of pieces of content a day – stuff that people really appreciated.
Their content may not be overtly local, but (in my experience) it is written to appeal to local people. The nature of the internet is that stories can be read anywhere – Jeff Bezos describes it as the ‘gift of the web’ for journalism – but no local newsroom builds its future on reaching readers outside of its area. The challenge for local news titles is to be relevant to local lives, not just a news source which (lets not forget) readers spent two decades turning away from before local journalism really embraced online news.
I’m regularly told such roles, and such stories, exist solely to drive page views. “It’s not the fault of the writer,” I’m told. “They just have to do it.” The blame-the-company-not-the-person criticism is intentionally misleading. It also ignores the fact that local journalism is an industry where jobs are constantly being advertised. Indeed, at Reach, where I work, so far more than 50 local news jobs have been created this year. Newsquest is regularly advertising on journalism.co.uk too.
As with the community news editor, or the wires editor role, the trends writer helps generate an interest in a brand which helps underwrite other forms of journalism in the newsroom. Previously, that was through providing reasons to buy the paper. Online, it’s about attracting attention. And as MEN political editor Jennifer Williams pointed out on The Media Show recently, all journalism works best when it’s read by as many people as possible.
But the stories written by trends writers also help discovery of content readers aren’t looking for. I’ll regularly have a story Tweeted at me saying ‘why are you writing this, it’s not local’ (because local newspapers only ever did local news, it seems) or ‘I thought you said you didn’t do clickbait’ (we don’t – but when we err, we correct).
Invariably, when I then track the story in question, it turns out that thousands of the people who read it subsequently went on to read something which would be seen as ‘true local news’ – because once you convert a reader from a ‘searching state’ to a ‘reading state’ you’ve a much better chance of saying ‘while you’re here, have you read.’ Quality trending content affords local news that opportunity.
We also shouldn’t lose sight of how trends writers help shape journalism generally. The best heroes, the ones whose bylines make the powerful quake, are the ones who constantly try and work out how to get their work to a bigger audience. Frequently, they’ll build on the ideas of trends writers, formatting stories differently as as result, and building bigger audiences for the stories readers need to read, as well as the ones they want to read.
It’s all about balance. Too much of anything isn’t a good thing – and the same applies here too.
Trends journalism isn’t a means to end – it’s a role which has helped empower local newsrooms to become more relevant. Ultimately, the reader, not our industry, decides what is valuable, and what is quality and what is relevant to them. Interest in the work of trends writers in news and sport across the country’s local newsroom speaks volumes in that regard.
Within the fuss of Facebook’s heavy-handed temporary ban on fact-checked news in Australia last week, the company also answered the question it has constantly sought to ignore: Is it a platform or a publisher?
When pressed, the organisation always argued it was platform. It provided a space for people to share stuff, but it wasn’t responsible for what was shared. But when you pro-actively stop people sharing stuff because they are professional information sharers, then surely you’re a publisher – or at the very least, a very, very proactive editor!
Semantics aside, perhaps the best way to view to Facebook’s actions in Oz – and the results of their actions – in the last week as if they were a publican – after all, don’t all social media analogies rely on a pub at some point?
The job of a publican is earn an income by attracting people to his or her venue, and finding ways to keep them there. To that end, Facebook’s actions are entirely in keeping with a pub landlord’s personal interests.
But what of the landlord’s community responsibilities? It’s for this reason that pubs and restaurants are subject to licensing and council laws in the UK. The publican needs to ensure he or she is operating a safe space, and one which doesn’t result in damage to the community. That involves the publican setting out to create a safe space, and attracting a clientele which help create the safe space, plus ensuring they behave.
Worryingly, what we saw last week was that, when push came to shove, Facebook was happy to be the publican which didn’t pay attention to creating a safe space. Leaving this ever-so-slightly tortured metaphor alone for now (although not as tortured as the one from Nick Clegg which follows), Facebook at a stroke created a space which was fundamentally dangerous for local life throughout Australia.
It locked out journalists from sharing their work. It locked out fact-checking, creating a world where any old rumour could take hold. It took the gamble that its users wouldn’t notice, and that its revenues would therefore be unaffected.
The assertions — repeated widely in recent days — that Facebook steals or takes original journalism for its own benefit always were and remain false. We neither take nor ask for the content for which we were being asked to pay a potentially exorbitant price. In fact, news links are a small part of the experience most users have on Facebook. Fewer than one post in every 25 in your News Feed will contain a link to a news story, and many users say they would like to see even less news and political content.
(I’ve kept the link in because if you read the actual research, it doesn’t mention news at all, it talks about political content. Once a politician….)
Clegg is basically pushing the ‘big society’ model he and Tory PM David Cameron promoted in the early 2010s: Only it’s not Government relying on volunteers to pick up the services it wouldn’t fund anymore, it’s journalism somehow voluntarily expected to make the Facebook Newsfeed a reliable source of information, when, to be frank, Facebook can afford to fund much, much more.
Then it got a bit weird:
“It’s like forcing car makers to fund radio stations because people might listen to them in the car — and letting the stations set the price. It is ironic that some of the biggest publishers that have long advocated for free markets and voluntary commercial undertakings now appear to be in favor [favour] of state-sponsored price setting. The events in Australia show the danger of camouflaging a bid for cash subsidies behind distortions about how the internet works.”
If Facebook is the car maker, it’s one which also found a way to hoover up shed loads of the revenue regulated radio stations relied on to keep going, by installing its own methods of getting advertising to you in the car. Sounds crackers doesn’t it?
Ultimately, it’s the job of a car maker to keep those driving it as safe as possible – and that is what Facebook should be worrying about, too. The fact Facebook chose to ban fact-based information from its platform (the safety), at almost no notice, is similar to a carmaker installing its own speakers and running constant noise at your ears while you are driving.
Only, of course, that would be annoying. What Facebook does so well is create experiences people enjoy. Thinking about it from a safety point of view, would Facebook-the-car-company decide those pesky brakes companies were realising their worth to the auto industry, and therefore a brake-free world was the way to go?
Back to the publican again. The difference between a publican and Facebook is there are laws in place to ensure publicans aren’t causing a greater harm.
The fact Facebook gives the impression that journalists are somehow uninvited on Facebook to share news, and are only allowed there because Facebook says so is a sobering moment to reflect upon.
Real news, properly-researched, makes Facebook a better, safer, place. Facebook commands a huge amount of online time every month – and like a pub (sorry!) it has to take a responsibility for the influence that time spent on Facebook has in other aspects of life too.
Too often, I draw on my experiences of reporting on the rise of the BNP in East Lancashire in this blog. But they thrived because they targeted low-information communities. They did it through leaflets and door-knocking in pre-social media age. And it was effective, for a while – until scales dropped from eyes and many, including alarmingly some BNP councillors, realised that the propaganda they flogged didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Without the free flow of journalism on Facebook, the platform risks becoming the largest low-information community in the world – and potentially a very real risk to civic society.
That’s why the logical response to events in Australia in the last week is to obligate platforms which allow people to congregate to support journalism for the good of society. To ensure that journalism is support to improve the knowledge held by users of that platform.
Journalism has benefitted in many ways from Facebook. It has forced us to look at ourselves and understand the disconnect between what we believe is important and what our readers instantly find important. It has, on many fronts, been a force for good – more voices, more sources, more chances to connect with people. And many, many people at Facebook care about journalism. I know that.
But that, at the very top, it fails to recognise that the benefit journalism brings to Facebook goes beyond the transactional click for the publisher is very worrying – and should alarm law-makers around the globe.
The short version: When racist comments flooded threads underneath Black Lives Matter protests stories on Facebook, some newsrooms felt they had no choice but to stop posting those stories on social media. With 1 in 4 of the population said to be unsure about the Covid-19 vaccine, newsrooms are taking a different approach – using facts to dispel fear, and allowing people the space to express their concerns. We’re here to inform the public, not police public debate.
Over the summer, I heard from an editor I work with who had some grim news: Their newsroom had taken the decision not to post stories about Black Lives Matter protests in their area, on Facebook.
The reason? The volume of racist, abusive (and frequently both) comments being posted under stories about people showing solidarity for a movement which gained worldwide momentum in a matter of weeks. It was clear many weren’t even reading the articles before venting. How do you rationalise with people for whom racism is something they are happy to literally put their name and face to?
It was a sobering moment. Like many publishers, Facebook is an important source of audience for this newsroom. But more worrying was the fact that for many people, Facebook is their primary source of news – so if they aren’t reading about local protests from Black Lives Matter from us on Facebook, are they reading about it at all?
Local newspapers have long not only spoken truth to power, but truth to readers too. Sometimes, that can be an unpleasant experience – but when does that become too much for the journalists involved? We had to consider the duty of care we have to the journalists whose job it is to oversee social media activity, and report back to the newsroom as the voice of the reader – what was coming back from a small number of readers was just too much.`
How to solve this problem?
There are ways around the commenting problem on social media. Facebook groups, if run by us, allow us to share information and control which posts have comments on them – but at the expense of a wider audience seeing the story as presented by us – thus limiting its impact and reach.
Other editors suggested Facebook empower publishers to determine which posts made by brands had comments or not – Facebook have said they would look at this. Indeed, Twitter has now introduced such a function.
But given that success (ie visibility) on Facebook relies on engagement of previous posts, such a move would have unintended consequences.
Many big brands use agencies to monitor and manage reaction to their social media posts – to protect the brand. That’s great if you’re Pepsi, Sainsbury’s or Persil – social media is a means to a promotional end. The relationship between local publisher and local reader is different – to work, it has to be conversational. Simply deleting comments to curate a thread which represented a brand-safe view of the world feels wrong. And as any savvy social media brand manager will tell you, if you close down an angry conversation on your brand page, it’ll likely just emerge elsewhere – and be far more damaging.
Then, of course, there’s the financial dilemma. How to fund such agencies at a time when local news is financially challenged. Do it in house? Of course – but do we really want to divert resource away from newsgathering to managing conversations?
The solution isn’t to remove our stories from social media. Our duty of care to readers, and staff, is to surely to keep giving factually accurate information about the pandemic all the oxygen it can find. A minority of the one-in-four unsure about the Covid vaccine may be true anti-vaxxers, and noisy to boot, but we can’t allow them to shape how we cover the biggest global story of the century. A global story which is intensely local too.
Shooting the messenger
Public sector comms expert Dan Slee asked ‘What the heck are Reach doing’ in the headline in a blog post which looked at commenting activity around vaccine-related content. He noted a lot of anti-vaccine comments below articles from Reach publications in the Midlands, and implied this could even be an intentional move on our part. Worried enough about it to blog about it, not so worried about it as to ask Reach what was going on.
Policing opinion is not what we do
His solution was that Reach should spend more time policing – his word – what people said under our stories when we posted them on Facebook. By his own admission, he has no idea of the level of resource needed to make this happen. I’ll give it a go: A lot, to the point of too much. The only way of doing that would be at the expense of other newsroom activities – ie newsgathering. A surefire way of making sure true anti-vaxxers win is to divert resource from original story-gathering to fighting falsehoods.
It’s not the job of journalists to control the conversation around our work. We didn’t dispatch reporters to the Lonsdale pub in Jesmond when I (briefly) worked on the Journal to ensure people were saying the right things about what they read in the Chronicle or Journal.
The difference between 2004 and 2020 is that we do have much greater visibility of the conversations going on around our work, thanks to social media. As a publisher, Reach puts a greater emphasis on ensuring this debate is heard in the newsroom than any other organisation I’ve encountered. We are informed by it, but not led by it. Challenging it is part of what we do – through journalism. Social media provides a legitimate connection into the (virtual) pub conversations taking place about our work the world over.
A lesson in futility
But even if we did police what appeared under our articles on social media, we’d only be policing a sliver of it. For every time an article is shared on a brand account on Facebook, it is likely shared many times more by individuals in groups, on their feeds, on their own pages. People may disagree with what we are writing, but they can’t change the way we assemble the stories: Based on facts, attempting to inform the public.
(And in most cases, what the policing would say would be little more than: Have you actually read the story? – a prompt Twitter helpfully has added recently)
Dan’s blog post draws a distinction between the lack of anti-vaxxer activity on public body Facebook accounts and those of publishers (and indeed, he draws a distinction between Reach and other publishers – which is simple to explain: Scale and reach of Reach brands means they are seen by more people). Anti-vaxxers don’t tend to go near sources of truth for fear of their views being challenged. In America, it’s easier for Trump diehards to attack CNN than it is the actual ‘authorities’ – we’ve seen that for four years or more now.
No-one likes a know-all, and no-one likes being told they are just wrong, and nobody likes just being deleted. For local journalism to do or be any of those three is a retrograde step – and to that end, my preference during the Black Lives Matter protests to be able to pick and choose which stories we allow comments on within Facebook, falls down here.
The BNP problem
Attempting to silence, or publicly correct, those we believe to be wrong, when they believe they are right does no good. I saw this in the early 2000s with the rise of the BNP in East Lancashire. They were expert at propaganda which ran parallel with the truth so as to be believable:
Asian communities being prioritised for regeneration funding in Burnley, was actually an abuse of deprivation data which was being used to prioritise where need more money, first.
A former council care home in Blackburn to be used as an asylum seeker centre was the BNP jumping on a Government demand for councils to provide more accommodation for asylum seekers.
Plans to recreate Saddam Hussein’s Victory Arch in an Asian part of Blackburn was actually the BNP’s interpretation of a plan to reinvent the area inspired by Rusholme’s Curry Mile, and drew on Blackburn with Darwen Council’s love of odd public art at the time to make it sound plausible.
That was a few council elections, after which the BNP somewhat burnt itself out. The vaccine debate is, in many ways, far more important – and local journalism must focus on what it does best.
To function, local journalism needs its readership to be a broad church. Remember one in four people in the UK are unsure about the vaccine at the moment – that’s a lot of people, a lot of readers.
Local journalism will fail if it just closes down worried conversations about a vaccine. Our time is best spent making sure we’re reporting stated science, sharing the facts – and allowing people to come to their own conclusions. Just as we would if it was three in four people who were unsure about the vaccine. Our job isn’t to tell people what it to think, it’s to give them a source of trusted facts and analysis on which to form their own opinions.
We even have an editorial policy on how to report on the vaccine. That’s what the heck we are doing. It’s not easy – and we accept as the messenger, we will always be there to be shot at.
If I was working in public sector comms, I’d be asking myself how I could get involved in the conversations around the fact-based stories journalists are writing, and understanding why such a chunky proportion of the population are worried.
Sadly, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, we were unlikely to change the views of people happy to post racist comments next to their face and real name on Facebook. To that end, we risked doing more harm than good. Now, however, when one in four of the population is unsure about a vaccine, we can change minds through fact-based journalism and a determination to listen to readers, rather than police them.
For as long I can remember, there has been a very simple debate about whether local news should be paid for online. One based on practicalities.
On one hand, those who felt that yes, we could ask people to pay for it. The logic is simple: People paid for their news in print, why couldn’t they do the same online?
Then there were people who felt that no, we couldn’t ask people to pay for it. Various reasons were given, including lack of evidence people will pay for news, people will just swap news on Facebook instead, the BBC makes it impossible to charge for news and, of course, that when people paid for newspapers, they weren’t just paying for news.
In essence, it’s been a practical debate: The coulds argue in favour because news needs to be paid for. The couldn’ts argue against because they don’t see that it would work.
I’ve never been opposed to people paying for new online, but I’ve never believed that people would pay for local news in the numbers needed to keep local journalism at the scale it is today. Many in our industry like to cluck in disgust when we talk about the number of people who read local news in the UK for free, making sniffy comments about the state of local news, but precious little evidence is offered up of a meaningful future for local journalism if we sacrifice scale for fewer people paying for it.
But maybe we need to change the question – from could, but to whether we should charge for news. Stop seeing in practical terms, but in philosophical, meaning-of-life terms.
Surely the last couple of weeks in America, where it’s much more commonplace to see local news from historic publishers of record locked behind a paywall, should give us pause for thought.
Like many people last week, I’ve was absorbed by the US Presidential election. Philadelphia has been a key battleground, and I’ve been reading the Inquirer a lot. It turned out, a little too much:
Maybe it’s fine for me, as someone not from Philadelphia, to get this message. But what if I’m someone living in Philly, in the eye of the political storm, wanting to know what’s going on? In a country when almost half of voters have endorsed the man who has built his political success on trying to diminish the media, is it smart for journalism to lock out people seeking for information?
Maybe philosophically it doesn’t matter in Philly – there are plenty of other places to get in-depth information, not least the plethora of local TV stations who have become like-for-like competitors for many traditional print publishers online. But where does that leave the Inquirer’s journalism, especially in an era of misinformation?
That takes the idea of people choosing news based on their broad world view to a new, frightening level: That’s people rejecting honest news based on their world view. Can society really afford for news to be put behind a paywall then?
Elsewhere in the USA, local news sites have made a point of dropping their paywalls for stories related to the Coronavirus pandemic. A laudable (and in my opinion, correct) thing to do. But what message does that send to readers? Hey, we don’t think you should pay for the really important stuff, but you’ll need to for the less important stuff?
Above all, as a trade which is relies on the public good we do for to justify the access and privileges we expect to take for granted – from reporting on court through to having access to political leaders – is it not a contradiction in terms for us to then say to the same public ‘ah, but you’ll have to pay to see it.’
The notion of getting readers to pay is very neat: It replicates where we’ve come from, and appeals to the natural desire of not wanting to be overly-reliant on a single revenue stream (Referencing back to our over-reliance on classifieds back in the day, which at the time, masked the gradual decline in interest in local news anyhow). But there are two outcomes if publishers put too many eggs in this basket.
News enriches, when you’re rich enough.
We would essentially become a service for those who can afford to pay for news. We live in a country with record usage of foodbanks at the moment. Do we really want to be saying to readers that our news can only enrich their lives if they’re rich enough to be able to pay for it? Or that the news which campaigns on their behalf isn’t available to them?
Recent research for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport suggested that voter turnout improves if there is a daily local newspaper operating in the area.
The data methodology is up for discussion, I think: For example, I’m more likely to get detailed information about my local elections from my local weekly newspaper than I am from my daily, and the data used in the research makes no reference to digital-only brands which can be every bit as dedicated to council accountability as a 150-year-old daily newspaper.
But I want to believe the conclusion: That journalism does a good which makes your local world a better place, and makes you want to have a say in it too. But what happens if the local journalism we’re doing is less available than, say, political propaganda, intentional misinformation or honestly-held, loudly-shared but fundamentally poorly-researched opinions?
On one hand, we pay for water, don’t we? We pay for our bins to be emptied every week (maybe)? But we don’t have a choice there – and would end up in court if we didn’t.
If we truly believe in the impact local journalism can have, we surely need to make sure it reaches as many people as possible. Charging for content prevents that from happening, and starts to make it exclusive to those who can afford to pay for it.
The second result is that we become diminished
What would happen when local news gets locked away from the wider public in 2020 Britain? Disinformation would thrive. Back in the USA again, and how wonderful that when Donald Trump starts talking about a fixed election, free-to-air media like CNN can forcibly explain to a global audience why that is nonsense. Indeed, how remarkable that Fox News even cuts away from his press conference on ‘election fraud’ to say it can’t be proved.
This plays out at a local level too, and on social media: Forget the ‘Facebook killed the ad model’ argument and think more about the Facebook group dilemma: The constant swapping of news and opinions is a real threat to the perceived value of local news, even when local news is freely available. Often, conjecture is instant, researched news is not. At 3am when I hear a helicopter above my house, someone in a Facebook group can tell me it’s a robber on the loose. Sounds plausible. It could be hours before local news reports the fact – that the helicopter was looking for a vulnerable person. We can never compete … but at least when free, people freely share what we’ve created. Put it behind paywall, and something else will fill the gap.
Unintentionally, but the focus to date on the practical debate about whether to charge for news online or not has helped us increase our relevancy. It turned the tide of our declining readerships and audiences (the collapse in classified revenue forced us to ask difficult questions about why readerships were declining).
For anyone with any sense in power, local journalism has become more powerful as a result. A council press officer who tells the council leader in 2020 they shouldn’t worry about their ‘local paper’ any more because no-one reads it shouldn’t expect to remain in work for much longer. Our news has impact, because it freely informs.
Advocates of charging for news talk of The Times as a success story. It is – but it also isn’t the primary source of reliable news for any one given location in the way local news brands are. Or the FT gets referenced. It is unique, and provides content which can’t be replicated easily. Or the New York Times. An amazing brand, but also not a local one. And, indeed, the outlier, rather than the norm in the States – and one many, many people consume for free still.
Quality Street? Quality cul-de-sac…
The idea the stories you pay for are somehow better than free ones is a nonsense. You don’t pay for Channel 4 News. You don’t pay (transactionally, at least) for Sky News, BBC News or even Times Radio. Free papers in 80s and 90s also proved this point. Indeed, arguably the most important newspaper investigation in recent years was the paedophile ring uncovered by the Yellow Advertiser.
Tindle closed it (it’s since returned online) due to it becoming unprofitable – but it’s an example of knocking for six the argument that you have to pay for quality. Equally, the Manchester Evening News slashed its price on Fridays to 10p in the 90s – but did the quality of the paper fall as a result? No … MEN journalism reached far more people as a result. It then went free in the city centre on certain days, again reaching far more people than would have thought to have bought the paper.
I began my career in free weekly newspapers – and we absolutely set out every week to give the local paid fors a run for their money (and maybe let readers keep their own coins in their pockets too).
But how to make it pay?
It does raise the question that if journalism is too important to be locked away from all who just want to and/or can pay for it, then how do we fund it? To go back to the tortured water metaphor, it’s highly unlikely the Government is going to order the public to pay for news. Nor is a form of long-term state subsidy particularly appealing.
Corinne Podger, below, argues the front 5 pages of the paper never paid the paper’s bills (no matter how much we want to think otherwise) … and cites Damian Radcliffe’s list of 231 ways to fund journalism:
None of this is to say that people shouldn’t pay for news services. Curating the news in 24/7 media world is a powerful proposition – indeed, the enduring sales of newspapers even during lockdown speaks to that. There will be areas and niches which you can charge for because interest is so deep.
Archives too, could be an area charged for. Or interactive experiences.
Paying for a better reading experience is another way. Or for membership. Or for services which trade on trust – reader holidays anyone?
In hindsight, I’m guessing there was a reason why the reader holidays desk was the first you encountered in the reception of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph in the early 2000s. Journalism has always been underwritten by the activities which go on around it.
Reliable sources still exist. The ones which have embraced being free, and challenged themselves to be part of people’s lives are the ones which help keep communities informed most effectively.
Do more people vote if they are local news consumers? I’ve no idea – but there’s no doubt they arrive at the polling station better informed if they do.
That feels like something we’re too ready to sacrifice in favour of demanding readers pay for news. Not because readers want to, but we because we want them to.
The 2016 EU referendum was supposedly won on the ability of the Brexit camp to reach beyond the Westminster/media bubble and speak to real people.
The history being written about the 2019 general election suggests the Conservatives won because they spoke more effectively to the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies across the North of England than Labour. What the ‘Red Wall’ responded to remains unclear: Was it ‘Get Brexit Done?’, was it ‘Can’t Trust Corbyn’ or was it the promise to ‘level up the North,’ whatever that odd last phrase means.
My guess – and it’s just a guess as anyone who claims to speak for the North on the grounds of living in the North (I do), or having lived there is normally wrong, given the North is actually 15m people – is that it was a combination of the Brexit/Corbyn arguments.
Whichever it was, events over the past few weeks have suggested that far from being in tune with the country at large, the current government is more out of touch with life beyond the M25 than any other in recent history.
But perhaps a more stark example of the Government ‘losing the country’ is the free school meals fiasco. At its heart, it’s not a complex situation (unlike the response to Covid): In a time of national crisis, should the government step in to help ensure the most vulnerable children are fed?
The emotional, and human, answer is of course: yes. There is an argument which allows some to reach the answer of ‘no’ but it’s a very complex one, and requires cartwheels throughout government policy. In short, in a world where soundbites often carry the argument, the government is on the wrong side of this one.
(Or of a large number of newly-elected Tory politicians who never really did the groundwork to connect with their constituencies, and instead rode the coat-tails of ‘Get Brexit Done’. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the Government to blame backbenchers for not raising the pitfalls, if they really didn’t already know.)
The pandemic has shrunk many people’s immediate worlds. It has made local more relevant than ever and has, I think, played a part in such a strong reaction to the free school meals vote – both in terms of anger but also in working together to solve the problem within communities.
It’s one thing to say you’re in tune with life outside the Westminster bubble, but actions, often, speak louder than words. On that basis, this Government is wasting a golden opportunity to reset relations with the regions, by failing to take regional press seriously. And in the process, missing a chance to cure its chronic case of cloth ears.
To an extent, this Government has done more than others to engage with local press. The sight of local reporters at PM briefings has been very welcome, but it risks being tokenistic if nothing more substantial emerges.
Daily briefings, virtually, for regional political reporters would be a start. Not only does it help get the Government message beyond a Westminster-centric press bubble, it also would help the Government understand what matters in different regions of the country.
This would have been clear were Government engaging effectively with regional media on a daily basis, across the country. Local news via the regional press reaches more people than ever before. It is not a media you can dismiss as being politically biased or irrelevant ‘because no-one reads you anymore’ (copyright: local councils everywhere in the early 2000s) because neither point is true.
This could work via a lobby-style briefing/q and a via videolink for a different region on a given day of each week, for example. Or weekly ministerial briefings specifically for the regional press. It might not always be comfortable for those answering the questions, but they’d get their message to more people, and a real sense of the issues which are resonating locally too.
It’s easy for regional media to be dismissed as parochial, or put to one side because its diversity makes it difficult to manage centrally from a government department press office. But both are actually strengths: In tune with what people in a local area are thinking, and therefore worth engaging with properly.
Local news has to be representative of local priorities and views because if it’s not, it can’t survive – be that in print, or online. For any Government, that must be worth engaging with daily.
To be fair, the Government has done a lot to help keep regional media upright during the pandemic, with a major advertising campaign. Now the spirit which made them step in with advertising needs to be applied to the way Government deals with local media on daily basis: The government might have lost step with large parts of the country, but local media hasn’t – as borne out by the relative reslience of print sales during the pandemic, and the remarkable loyal online audience growth seen in many places too.
In times of crisis, it’s easy to become enchanted with a simple solution. Faced with a pandemic which has devastated local revenue at many local news organisations, the idea of a paywall can be attractive. And so the argument has gone: “Local journalism would be much stronger if news publishers hadn’t started giving stories away for free online 20 years ago.”
The logic is attractive: Had the industry insisted people pay for journalism online – as they did in print – then we’d be more immune to market forces (and recessions), and wouldn’t have to pay such attention to scale metrics which influence decision making in newsrooms.
In other words, the good old days would have continued. We’d have written, people would have read. Everything would be fine.
This isn’t a new view. Coronavirus has given this view its latest lease of life, but it is reborn every few months. It was doing the rounds in the heat of the ONA19 conference in New Orleans last year, under a ‘the reader must now pay’ mantra (there were even t-shirts saying as much). Dame Frances Cairncross also pushed the idea that readers must pay in her review of local media. The words vary, the methodology is tweaked, but the underlying message is the same: You got it wrong 20 years ago. And you should correct that now.
I’d like propose a counter to that: Had local journalism gone behind a paywall in the 2000s, there would be next to no local journalism still functioning in the UK now.
To conclude that publishers made a mistake by not launching paywalls in the early 2000s is to forget why many of those owners entered publishing in the first place: to make money.
If there had been a credible model for online payment which enhanced their business, they’d have taken it. They didn’t because online was seen as a threat to the established business – a business which was worth far more than today, but one which, as history has shown, was vulnerable. Indeed, they did the very thing which some still call for today: Protecting newspapers because that’s where most of the money is. The dotcom bubble bursting made it much safer to retreat.
The print circulation declines were already there. This was in the days before the sort of rounds of redundancies which we subsequently have come to accept as a regular occurrence. Blame cover price increases if you like, but even they point to local news only having a certain value to readers. People were already choosing not to have a daily local paper in their lives at a time when dial-up internet was still very much a thing. A golden era we remember for journalism perhaps wasn’t so golden for readers.
The simple – indeed on some levels, logical – solution was to ignore the internet, or pay lip service to it, and circle the wagons around print. The seismic shocks to the industry caused by the financial crash of 2008-10 resulted in even more circling of those wagons, as the verticals of revenue which had protected us from having to ask searching questions of our relevance to readers as circulations declined, started going south too.
Editors, publishers, managing directors were all doing what they felt was right in the moment – trying to keep people handing over their 50ps for a paper every day. In the moment, it makes sense, but still the internet was growing. Facebook came to the fore, allowing people to swap news without needing a newspaper. Google search exploded as mobile internet expanded. No need to wait for the paper, I’ll just search for it now. And what we should have been finding from our local news site, we were finding from elsewhere. Or better still: “For the full story, just put down your computer, put on your shoes, and go to the shop and spend 50p buying it.” Hindsight, of course, is great.
It does give us insight into what a paywall would have done though: If readers can’t find news on their terms, they’ll keep looking elsewhere. The very fact so many newsrooms have encountered the mantra ‘I can get my local news from the BBC’ speaks volumes.
Paywalls were experimented with in some quarters, but they were soon removed. As with all too-simple-to-be-true solutions, the you’ve-always-paid-for-it-so-do-so-now-online was too good to be true.
Why revisit this all today? As the authors of the first draft of history, we really do owe our profession a hindsight vision which is as close to 20:20 as possible. That involves asking tough questions of ourselves.
Though it wasn’t the intention at the time, keeping us free online probably saved us. A paywalled local Press would have made it far easier for an expansionist BBC to, well, expand. That would have put far more local news at the mercy of Government policy than is the case today. Not good.
But once we got beyond the ‘protect the paper at all costs’ mindset, local journalism started asking tough questions of itself. Or rather, audiences represented in the newsroom through the metrics which record their activity, started making us ask those questions.
That’s led to a revolution in journalism which has profound effects, overwhelming good ones. Newsrooms which embraced local, digital journalism sooner are stronger today for it. The ‘I told you so brigade’ who argue chasing clicks (audience) has led to the job losses we’re seeing this year are merely choosing to see what they want to see.
No industry could come through the sort of revenue declines ours has seen so quickly this year, unscathed. But those reaching more people, more often are far better placed to come through it than those which have been driven by the platform which works best for the business.
And where there’s a disconnect between the stories a newsroom values, and stories readers show they value, the solution isn’t a paywall – it’s to work on making the less-read articles better appreciated by a larger number of people. Don’t rage against click culture, empower your newsroom to protect local journalism by making local journalism valuable to lots of people.
There remains precious little evidence that people will pay for online local news. They may be prepared to support it via contributions – publications as diverse as the Ipswich Star, Liverpool Echo and latterly the Yorkshire Post all believe so, and so do I – but it’s only part of the answer. Contributions could work because you’re tapping into the belief that local news serves a purpose which is worth supporting, rather than selling a service.
Micro-payments, too, make sense in some contexts – for stuff people *really* need to read, and where the value exchange is immediate.
Selling a paywall is far harder. It’s not like a subscription to Netflix, with so much choice there’s bound to be something you’ll want to spend a lot of time with. It’s not like a subscription to Peleton, which guarantees you the chance to ride a bike in your bedroom while a loud chap shouts positive messages at you. It’s something inbetween – neither specific enough to know what you’re getting, nor so broad that you’re guaranteed to find something you like all the time. And that’s problematic.
The challenge with local journalism is it does what it says on the tin. But unlock Ronseal, once you’ve seen the tin, the job is done: the reader is informed. A ‘must pay’ approach is essentially asking readers to pay for a lucky dip service.
For paywalls to also be part of the answer – and that’s all they will ever be – we need local news to be essential for as many local people as possible. It’s a hard sell, especially when people were already turning their back on the need for a daily paper prior to the onset of mobile internet.
Push the paywall view too hard and you end up closing off local journalism to everyone bar a core of super-engaged, civic-minded readers. That diminishes local journalism’s power and relevance, not enhances it.
A paywall will work if your newsroom is in listening, not broadcasting, mode.
JPIMedia’s paywall allows you them to be noisy locally, while targeting readers who read more than a handful of articles a week. Newsquest’s asks the super-loyal, some 40 pages a month I think, to start paying, while encouraging others to take up a subscription much sooner. Both models blend scale and engagement – which is as it should be.
Paywalls in the early 2000s would have all but killed off local journalism by now. A dash for paywalls now will have a similar impact.
With popularity comes relevance. With relevance comes a voice. With a voice comes the ability to articulate who we are, what we do and what we stand for – and why it’s worth supporting.
That was true in 2002. It was true in 2010. It’s true now, still, in 2020. Lets not make the mistakes of the past by trying to get the reader to fit around our needs. Lets keep working on ensure we fit around their needs. It’s not rocket science.
“In Reach’s case, there is a clear desire to prioritise less serious material. It emails newsrooms with a weekly round-up of LDRS “highlights” – those that have attracted the most page views. This runs counter to the ethos of the LDR service.”
There are many inaccuracies in the article by Professors Greenslade and Barnett, which could have been addressed, or at the very least caveated, had even basic research been conducted with those it sought to criticise (mainstream publishers). Instead, it was anchored around an unverified user comment posted under a Press Gazette article.
Both the editor and the chairman of the editorial board reject suggestions of basic research failures, or factual inaccuracies, arguing that the BJR is about sharing opinions, and that any criticism of the article must mean it’s because you don’t like what they were saying.
So a magazine about journalism which doesn’t expect its authors to conduct themselves as journalists. Hmmmm….
But that’s for another day, and I guess, it is ultimately the call of the editorial board at the BJR to determine the standards they expect of their authors.
However, I do want to focus on the trope, because it represents a frequently-shared view that page views and public interest journalism aren’t compatible.
First, to deal with the allegations: We don’t prioritise ‘less serious’ material with local democracy reporters, nor do we send out emails which only report on the stories with the most page views. The emails, which Barnett and Greenslade would have been welcome to see if they’d asked, and which I’ve offered the editor of the BJR the chance to see, cover all manner of LDR stories, based around the principle of sharing and learning together.
Do we celebrate when an LDR story clocks up a large audience? Yes – but not for the sake of lots of page views, or because we are celebrating the less serious, but because it means public interest journalism is reaching a large audience.
And surely the best way for public interest journalism to survive is for it to be reaching, and appreciated by, a large number of people.
The trope – the idea that serious public interest journalism and measurements of its reach can’t go together – is, I’d argue, the most dangerous sentiment in local journalism. It’s essentially giving up, and condemning local journalism to the status of minority civic service. Creating a bogeyman to avoid answering our own difficult questions.
If you follow that path to its logical conclusion, public interest journalism simply exists because it should exist, regardless of whether the public appreciate it, or not.
That’s surely the route to extinction for public interest journalism, or at very least a route to a world of full state subsidy, which in turn opens up public interest journalism to political forces which might seek to use subsidies to influence the news agenda. That’s a scenario the BBC is all too familiar with, as is any local newsroom where the local council chief executive has threatened to pull ad spend after a critical article.
The BBC’s funding of the LDR scheme is guaranteed for 10 years in total. As the last few weeks have shown, a decade of guaranteed funding for anything in journalism is to be treasured at the moment.
But that doesn’t stop the BBC having to assess whether the scheme delivers value for money. The BBC needs to assess the reach of the content being produced. For a company like Reach, which also invests its own money into the LDR scheme above what it receives from the BBC, it would be negligent not to look at the reach of stories produced by LDRs.
The more people who read a story, the more of an impact it can have, and the more lives it can change.
Simple things, like a format tweak, telling the story in a different order or publishing it at a certain time (we will often put articles on the shared BBC wire long before we publish it on our own sites, as we know when stories are most likely to be read) can be the difference between it being read by 1,000 people, or 10,000 people.
What’s the alternative?
For many years, I was a local government reporter at an evening newspaper. Stories from council meetings would be guaranteed certs for the on-day midbook pages. They were important, but not considered ones which would sell the paper, thus kept away from the front of the book. Fair enough – but I’d argue midbook purgatory where you have no idea if something is being read is far worse than looking at the page views an article has generated and asking: “How can we get more people to read this?”
If we don’t ask that question, we’re failing readers, ourselves and the future of our industry.
Of course, as with everything in journalism, it’s about context. Smart newsrooms – such as the ones I work with – judge the audience success of articles based on their knowledge of how similar stories have been received in the past. Remember – there’s a reader behind every page view. We no more judge the success of a council story against the latest trending article about changes to the McDonald’s menu any more than BBC News reviews the success of North West Tonight against the viewer figures for the latest series of Killing Eve.
Time and again, I read about the idea talking about page views is done so at the expense of public interest journalism. Done properly, it prompts the conversations which will help save local public interest journalism. Those conversations can be tough, and we might not like what we find, but they help us find ways to ensure as many readers as possible value our journalism as much as we do. Who do we want to please, ourselves or an appreciative audience?
That’s not focusing on the ‘less serious.’ That’s about making sure fact-based, thoroughly researched journalism reaches the audience it deserves: One that’s big enough, and engaged enough to use our journalism to make a difference. Is that so bad?
But the adherence to conventional wisdom, of what we *should* think about something, of what we *should* consider important in life, has for too long damaged journalism, especially local journalism.
Over the last decade, journalists have been presented with an abundance of new tools which provide the ability to peek into the lives of readers, and the things they are interested in. Social media – or some, at least – give us the chance to eavesdrop into conversations, and try and work out what role we play.
Like everything, too much of one thing is bad of journalism. Set your journalistic compass entirely by riding the Crowdtangle interaction curve, or chasing down the next Dataminr spike, and something gets missed. We all know the trending topic of the day on Twitter is very unlikely to be the main topic of conversation away from there, for example.
But the insight from your Chartbeats, NewsWhips and yes, even your Twitter trending lists does at least mean we have a greater appreciation of what people what to talk about, and spend time reading about.
And I’d argue that such knowledge, acted upon sensibly, has not only helped local journalism in the UK do amazing things during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s also helped keep local journalism afloat.
There are several things to look at here. I’ll start with the most obvious one.
In summary, we have a Tory Party which is undermining critics, a Labour Party undermining the very principle of holding power to account, and the Lib Dems trying to pass propaganda off as journalism. The election of 2019 isn’t good news for those who care about journalism…
Standing up for journalism is never going to be a vote winner. “Extra taxes to pay for a reporter in your town” won’t ever make it on to a placard of a party with a serious desire of winning – if the slogan had ballot box potential, then journalism wouldn’t need the slogan in the first place.
But if the emergency election of 2019 has taught us anything as an industry, it’s that when it comes to friends in high places, we’re a pretty lonely lot when looking in to the upper echelons of the three main political parties.
Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson have all made the right noises towards the media in recent times, particularly local media. But their actions speak louder than words.
It’s a tub-thumping tweet which will appeal to the core of Mr Corbyn’s support which believes that the only thing standing between him and and carried on the nation’s shoulders to have tea with the Queen is the pesky media *with it’s anti-left agenda*.
And maybe we should dismiss it as that. If it’s like most political accounts, the fingers doing the typing won’t belong to the face on the account. But equally, here’s a man who wants to lead the country in two weeks time, telling this fans to discount anything negative they read about Labour in the i in the future because, you know, it’s owned by the same company which also owns the Mail. What with Metro, also published by the Mail’s owner, being so anti-Corbyn too. Only it’s not.
It’s a lazy narrative for Labour which allows it to dodge awkward questions. Dodging awkward questions is nothing new for any political party, but the aim of Labour’s dodging is to cut grown-up journalism down at the knees, to undermine and diminish the role of journalism in holding the powerful to account. Labour does get a raw deal in various parts of the media, but the response shouldn’t be do denounce the i for something which hasn’t happened, and which probably won’t.
I say probably won’t because the i has demonstrated you can build a profitable business from offering news in a new way, one which is underpinned by neutrality. That’s not to say it doesn’t offer opinions – it does – but the starting point in its relationship with readers is that is balanced. Of course, the BBC does this too, but the i has shown that impartiality doesn’t come at the expense of offering informed opinion and personality. The profit-seeking dmg group won’t have spent £50m buying a profitable news brand only to remove the one thing that makes it stand out, and replace it with a right-of-centre bias which sends readers away. Secretly, Labour knows this.
And that’s before you get to Labour’s support for Impress, the ‘official’ press regulator backed by campaigners who say they are pro a free and responsible press, but seem to find a way to blame the press for every one of society’s ills.
To the Tories…
That’s not to say the Tories are any better. While under a Conservative government, it seems unlikely the Press in the UK will find itself shackled and cowed by Impress, it’s hard to argue the Tories will be good for journalism.
At a recent Downing Street reception for regional media, Mr Johnson had very warm words for local news, and promised us plenty of stories (yay!) but there was scant offered around the funding of local journalism – one of the two crises it faces (the other being existential, the subject of a future blog post). When challenged on this by Toby Granville, Newsquest’s editorial director (that’s the pair of them up above this paragraph), Mr Johnson didn’t reach for action against Google and Facebook hoovering up ad revenue but instead chose …. the BBC.
We didn’t hear too much of what he had to say as he was soon booed by a small section of the room, and he changed tack. There’s no doubt that supporting local news in any meaningful way is a long way down his agenda, and it’s possible to speculate whether the word ‘Cairncross’ has even been uttered in Downing Street since he first arrived in the summer. The lack of activity around implementing anything Dame Cairncross suggested would indicate that is indeed the case.
Inertia is one thing, menacing is another. And that’s what we saw this week when Mr Johnson was replaced with a giant ice-cube after he declined to appear on a Channel 4 climate change debate. My personal opinion is that Channel 4’s approach to political coverage in recent times has left the door wide open to attack from the Tories, but that’s not to say they should respond the way they have.
And certainly, threatening to get Ofcom to review Channel 4’s public service licence if they win power again is not a sign of a Tory Party which believes in a free press, or one which appreciates the importance of scrutiny. If I try to be fair to the Tories, they did turn up at the climate change debate, they just sent Michael Gove, a former environment secretary. The Tories claim Channel 4 asked the other participants if Mr Gove could join in and they said no. Imagine if that was the Tories denying another party a podium in a debate?
So one broadcaster being threatened with a licence review, another at loggerheads with the government over its funding – what of the profit-generative, and therefore in theory a little safer from Government meddling, media? Well, aside from inertia over Cairncross, we have a Government party which has banned dissenting voices from their election battle bus, and a prime minister who consistently does his best to avoid scrutiny, especially from local journalists. Mr Johnson had to be shamed in to speaking to the Mansfield Chad after recent flooding.
So two down, what of the Lib Dems? In some ways, the most disappointing of the lot. While perhaps the actions of Labour and the Conservatives could have been predicted, why have the Lib Dems resorted to mimicking local newspapers with their leaflets?
Spot the difference? Well yes, of course you can. One is a professionally published newspaper packed full of local news and information which has been serving its community for generations, the other is a poorly-presented, overly yellow piece of political propaganda.
It would be daft to suggest readers can’t tell the difference, but if so, why do it? Why choose the same name as the local newspaper at the same time? It’s not as if they’ve kept the same name around the country:
The Tories are at it too:
With a masthead locals say resembles an old Pudsey publication of a different name. Labour aren’t above the lets-play-at-running-a-newspaper trick either, here in London:
But two things stand out about the Lib Dems. The first is the passing off as a ‘free newspaper’:
The Hallamshire Herald might be a free newspaper in that it is free and printed on newsprint, but that’s not what the Lib Dems are gunning for here. They are essentially no different than those bank fraudsters who get your number and try and convince you they are from the bank and need your pin number. 90% of people won’t fall for it, but they only need 10% to be convinced for their scheme to have been successful.
A party which believed in the importance of a free Press, and extolled the sanctity of speaking truth to power, wouldn’t be trying to pass itself as a newspaper in this way. There are a million better ways to communicate that message as a piece of marketing (and to be frank, a million better ways to make it look more like a newspaper, but that’s a little self-defeating). It’s impossible to conclude the Lib Dems are trying to do anything other than mislead.
In short, we now have the three main political parties in England speaking warmly about the media in one moment, only to inflict damage on the media’s ability to speak truth to power if suits their short-term political ambitions in the next moment.
They know journalism’s crisis is not just financial, but existential. That’s our problem to solve. We live in a world where promising to respect journalism won’t win an election, but behaving in a way which undermines journalism in the UK very well might. Scary times.