We need to get better at telling our own story

The short version: If we’re going to thrive as an industry, local journalism needs to become more representative to ensure we reach, and reflect, the lives of as many people as possible. We have a positive story to tell to help us here, but need to be ready to tell it, and also be prepared to listen more.

James Mitchinson, the editor of the Yorkshire Post, last week announced he was looking for a new chief sports reporter. His tweet, which has been much talked about since, said:

That the response from some quarters was predictable tells us a lot about where our industry, or rather those who speak loudly about our industry, is – and probably why editors like James need to shout even louder about their determination to change a business which stands and falls entirely on whether the wider public appreciate what you do.

We stand a far greater chance of being appreciated by the wider public if we are overtly making attempts to appreciate the wider public which we claim to serve. Bluntly, if your newsroom doesn’t reflect the community it claims to serve, you’ve probably got a problem.

Over a decade ago, I remember being sat in a ‘how do we improve newspaper sales’ meetings (back when ‘lets put less on the internet, that’ll win ’em over’ was still considered a viable strategy) and the idea of beefing up the weekly women’s supplement was floated – female readership of this particular title was considered low. Amid approving nods around the table, a marketing executive (a woman in her 20s) asked: “Aren’t we just saying we don’t write news or sport for women then?”

Those are the sorts of discussions we need to be having now, and which I think we are having more – partly thanks to the digital revolution. Digital analytics bring into sharp focus what people want to read, while social media has meant we hear a lot more about what people think about what we’re doing.  But we’ve a long way to go yet.

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A manifesto for saving local democracy (a very, very long read!)

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Last week, I watched in realtime as more people than ever before (in the digital news era at least) engaged with stories about local elections. The number of page views generated from articles about the elections doubled when compared to 2018.

Of course, volume of articles was up significantly thanks the the main variable between 2018 and 2019 – the addition of Local Democracy Reporters, some 50 plus of the 150 are employed by Reach in newsrooms around the UK.

What you won’t find – generally – in this local, on the ground coverage is constant references to Brexit, or what the local elections tell us about Brexit. Local elections are meant to be about local issues … but at times it has felt as though this has been forgotten by the world at large.

Even if voter turnout didn’t shift much between 2018 and 2019, the page view figures we saw showed there was an appetite for detailed coverage of local elections, set in a local context.

Quick stat: More than 2million people used a widget created by our data unit to see how the elections had gone in their area. Based on the areas Reach is in, that quite likely means in many areas more people were checking to see who was their councillor than had actually voted. Worrying? I think so.

I have this nagging feeling that we’re watching local democracy die. There’s an interest in local council activities, but still two thirds of people don’t vote. Council decisions matter to people, but people clearly don’t feel voting makes a difference.

And for the third who do vote, well, all of a sudden your vote on what should be ostensibly local issues suddenly becomes a snap referendum on the government of the day and, as an icing on the cake this year, Brexit.

Of course, it’s quite possible that national issues do influence some people in local elections. But that’s not the purpose of local elections. And if the dominating narrative after every local election is not what it means in one of 400-plus town halls where the votes were counted, but what it hypothetically means for Westminster, what incentive is there for anyone involved in local elections to even try?

Don’t blame Brexit (this time anyway)

Brexit hasn’t caused this problem – but it has exacerbated it. When Andrea Jenkyns, the Brexit-supporting backbencher, stood up in PMQs this week and blamed the loss of 1,300 council seats on Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, the media didn’t go ‘hang on, they’re meant to be local elections.’

Instead, she became the story for calling on her leader to quit. (I’m sure the good people of Morley are delighted she chose party politics and not any of the local issues people really care about as her PMQs question, but that’s another story).

The fact no one narrative can be drawn from the local elections in the context of national government, or indeed Brexit, proves how futile taking one set of elections and trying to apply them to another is futile, and can only be used to support self interest. Quite how a shift to the Lib Dems across the country is a vote for a faster Brexit is beyond me.

2019’s reaction to the local elections has felt like most extreme debasing of local government yet in pursuit of studying the national context. Save for the BBC’s brilliant Chris Mason on Brexitcast, I’m struggling to think of a national news broadcast about the local elections which didn’t mention the fact that local elections are supposed to be about millions of local things.

Time and again on 5Live, Sky News and other national news outlets, I saw the proclamations of politicians about what the local elections meant go unchallenged. Not once did I hear a journalist say: “Aren’t local elections meant to be about local things?”

Westminster’s play thing

Councils have long been the play thing of Government. Labour in the 2000s inserted quangos left, right and centre around councils, making life very tough for councils to get things done. John Prescott was desperate to bring in regional assemblies, but such was his commitment to local democracy that when he realised he was going to lose, he canned the referendum on the issue in Yorkshire and the North West, leaving only the North East with electoral permission to tell him to do one with his third tier of Government.

More recently, elected mayors have been foisted on some areas, and fought for in others. Police and Crime Commissioners have added, well, another chance to vote for someone who then doesn’t talk to the public for four years. But these pale into insignificance compared to austerity.

Across the UK, billions have been slashed from local government budgets, as councils have suffered the worst of the Tory-led austerity measures. Shortly before the general election in 2010, David Cameron praised town halls for being far more efficient than Whitehall, and said civil servants had much to learn from their more cost conscious local colleagues.

He and George Osborne then embarked on a wrecking spree of the like never seen before, and largely, the response was muted. Yes, we’ve seen campaigns around the country over specific closures or changes, but if the NHS, for example, had seen the same scale of cuts, I can’t help but think the protests would have been louder, and lasted longer.

Local government’s weakness in that sense is that it is fragmented. It doesn’t have one over-arching narrative people can get behind, or which can be reported on. But it’s strength is also that fragmentation, that it is local … if only we support local democracy to be local.

Cheap shots

Jenkyns’ ‘it’s all about us’ moment in PMQs is not the first woeful abuse of local elections, although it is one of the most blatant. James Purnell, back when he was in Government, used Labour’s poor showing in June 2009 local elections to try and force Gordon Brown to resign. It backfired spectacularly. Ed Miliband on several occasions urged people to express their dis-satisfaction with David Cameron through the local elections. They then failed to listen to Miliband in the 2015 general election. Oops.

I know a council leader who was running an authority very well, bringing in cash which was helping to regenerate it when he was suddenly beaten in a safe, inner-town, deprived Labour ward. Why? The Lib Dems made the local elections about the Iraq war, in a mainly Asian constituency. The Lib Dems won, the Labour council leader, also then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s election agent, was out. So it’s not new.

The warning signs of this disconnect between people’s interest in council news and local democracy have been there for years. I witnessed the sickening sight of the BNP being elected in Burnley, and then one got in in Blackburn. The national narrative bordered on ‘thick racist northerners’ at the time, and Labour’s response was to send Tony Blair to Labour’s northern heartlands and urge people to vote Tory if they couldn’t vote Labour, to keep the BNP out. Because people love being told how to vote by politicians.

The people who voted BNP weren’t (in the main) racist. They were fed up, and so disconnected from local politics that when a candidate rocked up offering new ideas, admittedly laced with lies, prejudice and undertones of racism which were dressed up as ‘honest views,’ people felt they might as well use they vote to try something different. Time quickly taught those who voted that the BNP were racist, and they didn’t change anything. And that was almost 20 years ago. We didn’t respond to that then, either in Westminster, or the media.

A win win for all involved – but not the voters

The problem with this ‘it’s really about us, you know, us in Westminster’ approach, which has been years in the making, is that it corrodes local efforts to be elected. When a local party loses councillors, it’s very sad for those involved, but increasingly it’s blamed on the ‘national picture.’ Easy excuse.

Friends who are councillors tell me that this is the year when national issues – Brexit – dominated on the doorstep, but how many candidates did you see on your doorstep ahead of May 2’s vote this year? Me: 0. Come to mention it, how many properly local, campaigning leaflets did you get? Me: 1.

If you’re charitable, it’s that if two thirds of the doors you knock at won’t turn out to vote, why bother knocking or killing trees to share your thoughts on paper. If you’re not feeling so cheery, then the defeatist approach tolerated by the understanding optimists serves to just compound the errors of the party leaders who try to make the local elections about them.

Local democracy, not local politics

The next logical step is that, over time,  fewer and fewer people will stand for election, and those who do will come from a narrower section of society, and already motivated by party politics rather than what we’ve seen in the past, which often felt like loose association to a movement rather than a passionate advocate of a political belief.

Truth be told, the most corrosive thing that can happen to local democracy is that is becomes driven by party politics. It needs to be driven by local issues and local people, with candidates coalescing loosely around a party’s broad beliefs and values, rather than joining a party and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with the political rival of the day to be able to say their party took council X.

All too often, full council meetings are lengthened because parties want to discuss political motions on the issues of the day. A council condemning the government for not taking action in Syria, for example, might make those pushing the motion feel good about themselves. It might score a cheap political point and make a headline. It doesn’t, however, represent councillors doing what they’re supposedly elected to do: Make decisions and run local council services.

Across the country, especially in Labour, we are seeing local associations divided between the different factions which dominate the national party agenda. People who share the beliefs of the majority find themselves winning the chance to stand for council over people who have long track records of being good councillors and popular with voters.

Not too far from me, a local councillor with 20 years under her belt on the council was de-selected in favour of someone who more overtly backed the views of Momentum. I know this because he stood in my ward last year and his letter to voters was dominated by national issues, rather than local ones. This year, he landed a rock-solid Labour seat. An ex-Lib Dem, well known in the area, promptly stood against him as an independent. The independent won.

The lesson here? Well without talking to every voter it’s hard to know for sure. But the assumption that people voting for lots of independents this time because they’re fed up with national Government might not be the only story in town. It might just be that voters respond better when individuals campaign on local issues, rather than being part of the national tit-for-tat between parties, which local elections appear to have become annexed to.

How this all began, I don’t know. Did the media over time turn local elections into national snap polls? Was it political parties looking to be more efficient? Did local politicians fail to spot what was happening? Did local media let the side down as newspaper sales slid, which in turn often pushed the less sexy news stories – eg council – further away from the front page? Chicken, meet egg, and so on…

Where do we go from here?

Local democracy needs saving. That doesn’t mean national political meddling, but saving. Politics and the media play a part here. Here’s how it can be done:

1.National parties start respecting the local in local elections

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t have political parties in local councils, as their presence is how we ended up here. But in the absence of a better way of getting councils to function as a democracy, national political parties need to focus on helping their local candidates get elected based on local issues, not as proxies of the national mood.

A national party’s beliefs and principles can of course flow through to local politics (although given Labour’s battle with anti-semitism, I know a lot of Labour activists locally who are keen to distance themselves from such assertions) and influence the manifesto or decisions, but local elections need to be about local life.

2.A democracy fund to ensure voices are heard

It’s one thing to get on the ballot paper, it’s quite another to make an impact. Too often, whole swathes of the country go into a local election having seen nothing from any party. So all they have to go off to vote, if they go to the polls, is party knowledge.

What if standing for election meant you had to commit to connecting with voters, and were funded to send at least one election communication to every house in your constituency. The local council, through the returning officer, would be funded to deliver these leaflets, and they would all arrive together.

The rules of engagement could be that the leaflets had to be about your policies only. No political sniping, no national issues (unless overtly local too), and details of how to contact a candidate.

None of this would stop parties campaigning as well, or even sending more leaflets if they wanted too. But at least every voice would be heard, and every voter informed.

The cost would of course be millions of pounds a year across the UK, but the price of local democracy is surely greater? Just cancel HS2 if you’re struggling

3.Proper manifestos

If registered political parties are standing in local elections, in multiple seats, compel them by law to produce a manifesto which is housed on the council’s website (along with the election material mentioned above). Too often, the same party will argue polar opposites on certain issues in different wards to get the votes in.

Don’t expect these manifestos to be well read – but why should any political party be worthy of running a council if it can’t be bothered to produce a manifesto on local issues?

4.A commitment from national media

Local elections should be about local issues. A link between Labour’s performance in Chorley is no more a sign of national view on Labour, than me going to Nando’s rather than McDonald’s for tea is a damning indictment of McDonald’s – I’m just as likely to have gone because I love chicken as I am because I’m scared of restaurants which have clowns as mascots.

Local elections are a local event, which just happen to take place across the country at the same time. Just like the morning commute – everyone on the road is going somewhere, but not all to the same place, or for the same reason. Forcing it into a national context might create a story, but it lets politicians locally and nationally off the hook.

If political parties treated local elections as 400-plus local events, and the Tories took a kicking, then there would be room for lots of debate on what this says about how Tory values are resonating across the country, but it should never tell me the country is bored of Brexit.

To that end, we as the media are as much a part of the problem of low voter turnout as the national politicians who try to make local elections about them and the local politicians who can’t muster the energy to put a letter through your door.

5. Local: Be local

I would say this, being proud of have been involved in the creation of the Local Democracy Reporter scheme, but we need to make sure local journalism doesn’t just report on local councils, but constantly challenges our local politicians to be put local ahead of politics. And we need to keep pushing to find new ways of our local council stories to be read. The numbers I saw last week show that when you put your audience first, and find engaging ways to tell council stories, people will read them. That’s a good place to be if we want to play our part in saving local democracy.

The LDR scheme was set up to plug gaps in local government reporting. Increasingly, it feels like it could play a key part in saving local democracy overall. It’s showing people care about local council news — but voter turnout suggests not enough enough people care about the democracy which underpins it.

We’re proving people will read council news when it’s put in front of them (especially when it’s promoted and written to be well read). The fact people still aren’t voting indicates a crisis we all need to want to solve. 

Finding your newsroom’s ‘public interest’ metric

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In newsrooms, we can measure things like never before. Page views and active engaged time are the minute-by-minute trading currencies of the newsrooms I work with. On a monthly basis, no fewer than 21 metrics are studied to ensure we’re building a future for journalism which is sustainable.

Those metrics include the two mentioned above, but also volume of high impact articles (those engaging large volumes of readers for more than a minute), video streams, video completion rates, pages per loyal visitor and audio streams. Anyone can chase a page view, but building a sustainable future for journalism takes more than that.

And it’s the sustainability of local journalism which has been in spotlight since the publication of the Cairncross Review into journalism a few weeks ago. The review highlights a risk to ‘public interest journalism’ in a world where the reader is more reluctant to pay than in the past, and where revenue is attached to page views, with little or no value attached to what’s on the page by those advertising on it.

The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme has shown us a way around this – the BBC funding 150 reporters to cover local councils across the country. (Disclaimer: I worked on the project team which created the scheme, and the company I work for, Reach, employs 55 LDRs). The Cairncross Report proposes the expansion of the LDR scheme.

Cairncross suggests the an “Institute of Public Interest News” should be set up, and funded (exactly how is unclear) to provide a certain future for such coverage, including the existing LDRs. Financially, of course, it would, which would be good news, and it would at least guarantee public interest journalism continued.

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How the page view will help save journalism

The page view feels like it has been under attack for years, getting the blame for pretty much, well, everything wrong with journalism.

In digital journalism circles, the argument went that there had to be better metrics to look at when determining what ‘good’ journalism looked like. Time spent, active time spent, pages per visit, local audience visitor numbers, subscriber numbers, return visits, brand traffic … the list goes on.

In wider journalism circles – and especially here in the UK – the page view was (and still is) lamented too often as causing ‘click chasing’ and a general dilution in quality local journalism. I looked at this in my last post on here – if we’re honest, the problem with quality of local journalism has nothing to do with looking at page views, it’s to do with what the page views tell you.

Yet for all the tutting and criticism thrown the way of the page view, here we are in 2019 with the page view as still a primary metric in any newsroom which takes digital content even slightly seriously. Why?

Probably for two reasons. The first is simply this:

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Page views generate revenue, which funds journalism, which in turn enables us to generate page views. The fact our industry didn’t pick up on this until long after others were ‘eating our lunch’ should always be remembered when the next big change comes along.

The second reason the page view has continued to dominate is because we’ve realised there is no perfect single metric which tells you everything you need to know. Digital metrics are lightyears ahead of the ones at the disposal of newspaper sales executives, but I’d argue newspaper sales executives wouldn’t have spent half as long trying to create perfect digital news metric as the digital news industry did. Ask yourself ‘What do I need to know’ and then ‘What can I realistically find out?”

In the absence of unicorn metrics which tell us if something is good journalism, the page view lives on. But increasingly, not on its own.

What we want from readers tells us what we need from metrics

We need people to want our content – and to become loyal to it. Newsrooms which allow their content decisions to be influenced by a platform will always be at risk of a nasty shock when that platform changes tack.

At this point, you go in two directions. There’s content which people want, and there’s content we need them to want. It’s  the difference between searching for content and trusting a brand to tell you what you need to know.

The page view metric is often accused of making newsrooms indulge in content described as ‘lightweight’, ‘pointless,’ ‘not news’ or ‘clickbait.’ Local newsrooms often hear this, even if it remains very rare to see any content produced by a local newsroom that wouldn’t have found a home in a 1990s evening newspaper. If anything, the page view metric teaches us that the stuff newsrooms didn’t consider part of what sold the newspaper – weather, TV listings, adverts even – was probably more important to the reader than we ever gave them credit for.

There’s a very real risk that used in isolation, the page view can lead to the wrong decisions being made.  At this point, the ‘couldn’t get the clicks’ choir often strike up. But our challenge is simple: Make people want the content we think they need.

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The orange line starts with readers seeking what they want. That could be a restaurant review, traffic and travel information or even a story about Gregg’s shared by a friend. They generate the page view, which triggers the revenue, which funds the journalism, and hopefully the loop continues. Note: If a story is clickbait, this line breaks quickly, which is why ‘clickbait’ so often means ‘I’m not interested in that, I’m not going to read it, but I will make a noise about it, because I can.’

At the very least, this orange line is supporting the creation of this content. Done at scale, it can also support the creation of content which journalists would say readers need – but don’t necessarily know they need.

That’s where the blue line begins. We as journalists need to convince people they need these stories. We do that in many ways, including engaging with people, and by learning the lessons of successful ‘want’ content. Get that right and hopefully the the reader’s ‘need’ as we see it becomes the reader’s ‘want’ content in the future.

And, of course, the two sets of content – want content and need content – won’t be read by two exclusive sets of readers, which is why both the orange line and the blue have a link from the bottom row of circles into engagement. The more you engage readers, the more they’ll surely want to spend time with you, the more they’ll generate more page views. And want content and need content begin to merge in the mind of a reader who becomes loyal.

That’s why I think the page view has stood the test of time, and survived being accused of responsibility for so many of journalism’s ills. It’s the start of the story of your newsroom’s success (or otherwise), not the whole story.

Emily Bell’s Tricky podcast had Chris Moran from the Guardian on as guest the other week. The discussion about the page view as a metric is refreshing, but not niave. In other words, the page view is valuable, but it’s what you do with it which determines its impact on journalism

As Steve Dyson noted in his column on Holdthefrontpage this week, it was also possible to obsess too much about newspaper sales, and allow one metric (the sales figure) to distort thoughts on what to put on the front page.

Online, this makes the second tier of metrics critical – the ones which take you beyond quantity towards metrics which give a sense of quality for the reader (although, again, that runs the risk of being over-inferred too).

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Unless you have a paywall model or donation system (and it was fascinating to see the Guardian editor Kath Viner wreck the old myth that scale can’t correlate to engagement and therefore to revenue this week) the metrics you probably need to be looking at are the active time spent per page, the page views in visit (also known as recirculation in many newsrooms) and whether a loyal reader generated the page view.

We don’t live in a world where it’s chasing page views vs creating journalism. We’re in a world where page views tell us whether we’re succeeding in getting people to look at our journalism, and whether our journalism is appealing to people, or whether we need to find a way to make it appeal to them.

The page view isn’t the problem. It’s what you do with the data…

 

Local journalism’s biggest challenge is still waiting to be solved

Here’s my prediction for 2019: We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about how to fund local journalism. Not perhaps the most remarkable of predictions – and certainly in the same league as that of BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan, who says he doesn’t expect the Cairncross Review into quality journalism to save a single local newspaper.

Or this one from Jay Rosen in the US, echoing the thoughts of Rasmus Kleis, predicting that nobody is going to ride to the rescue of journalism:

Cheery huh? But in focusing, as we so often do, on solving the economic problem local journalism faces (actually all journalism, but perhaps most acutely in local journalism), we often neglect to the problem which sits behind it: Whether people care enough about what we do in the first place.

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FOI Friday: How the Local Democracy Reporter scheme is making the most of FOI

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It’s just under a year since the contracts were awarded for the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the scheme funded by the BBC which is aiming to ensure more councils are covered in more depth.

But it’s not just through council meeting reports that authorities are being scrutinised – the LDRS reporters are also making fine use of the Freedom of Information Act.

In a rare return for the FOI Friday blog, here are 10 stories shared with the public via the LDRS based on FOI results:

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Journalism is too important to just ignore the money question

The other week, I tried to explain some changes we’d made to the way we cover football in London. It was in response to a post on a Brentford FC fan site by a journalist called Jim Levack, who was annoyed that the titles I work with no longer send a dedicated reporter to every game.

The reason for doing this was simple: The audience being generated from Brentford FC coverage wasn’t big enough to cover the costs of covering Brentford home and away. It’s not the first time such a situation has arisen in journalism, nor will be it be the last.

I also argued that being present at every game, home and away, is not the thing which makes your coverage of a club credible. There are journalists up and down the country, and plenty of people doing the jobs of journalists in non-traditional ways, who prove that. It’s important, of course, but not THE defining attribute of credible club journalism.

This view generated howls of protest from journalism’s online commentators, some still working in the trade, some not. Very few, if any, were typical readers – as we know, real readers rarely enter such debates.

In various debates on various platforms, I was told I didn’t believe in sending people to football matches (wrong), wanted all journalists to copy and paste from a desk (wrong) and that I clearly didn’t have a clue about journalism to think such thoughts (again, wrong, I hope).

I was also told, on more than one occasion, that journalism shouldn’t be about money. That some things are more important than being able to afford doing it.

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