Society of Editors: The most telling statistic of all (and three ways to beat it)

Unusually for a journalism conference, the Society of Editors conference this year was light on statistics and data. In the previous years when I have attended, you couldn’t move for statistics – be it an editor celebrating a success, an academic wheeling out a study or a company promising untold success based on their product.

The only session which didn’t look at regulation of the industry was the last one, which dealt with what the future might hold, based on what editors had said in a survey. Jim Chisholm, the analyst who carried out the study, threw in this gem:

Chisholm then made the following point: Everyone knows who Coca Cola are and what they do, so why spend so much on advertising? Because it ensures we remember who they are and what they do. Newspapers, he argued, have been forgotten by many people.

As more than one regional editor had already pointed out, for all the talk of future regulation, there was something more pressing which was being ignored: A model which would work in the future. Predictably, that led some to the conclusion that it’s time to start charging for content online. It’s a discussion worth having, so long as the basis for the discussion is ‘What content can we provide which people will pay for’ not ‘How do we make people pay for the content we’re already producing.’

But the quote from Chisholm – that a lot of people have forgotten about their newspapers – is one which, to me, has more potential to address some of the current challenge being face by newspaper newsrooms. Of course, it’s easy to compare newspapers with another business – look at the way the NUJ used to compared reporters salaries to that of staff at McDonald’s for example – and not look at the reasons for the difference in actions.

If newspapers are spending just 1% of their revenue on advertising themselves, it’s probably because marketing departments have been shrunk in size along with newsrooms. But reminding people of your existence isn’t necessarily just a job for marketing – it should be part and parcel of the daily life of the newsroom, starting with … the newspaper bill.

Ok, so it’s a bit of stretch to say the news bill can save the newspaper, but it could certainly make an impact. As one senior newspaper man remarked to me at the conference: “If spending an hour of my time is the difference between a -8% circulation decline and a -7% circulation decline, then it’s worth doing.”

When I was on holiday in the Lake District last month, there were bills for the Westmorland Gazette everywhere – and they were all different. When I was in Kirby Stephen, a little Cumbrian town, en-route to Newcastle, I went into a newsagents which was selling the Cumberland News. The bill had, in the corner, the name of that newsagents. Talking about making the most of what is free advertising space.

Better minds than mine will tell you what makes a good bill, but my ideas would be:

1. Make it relevant to the immediate area if possible

2. Don’t over-sensationalise for the sake of it. I saw a bill in one part of Lancashire which referred to a local murder as a ‘slaying.’ That felt quite insensitive.

3. Don’t just restrict it to news and sport. Paul Bradshaw once made the point on his blog that a newspaper is more than just news and sport – it’s everything from the classified to the cartoons too. And even if the number of jobs you carry is down massively on where it was six years ago, it still should be required reading for anyone looking for a job.

4. Don’t make them impossible to understand. I once saw a bill for a sports story, the main back page lead, which was billed as ‘Lucas vows to stick it up Reds.’ Eh?

5. Don’t let the reader down. Over-selling a story – for example, billing a three-par nib – might generate one sale, but it’s unlikely to build up loyalty.

And then there’s this idea on the right: Two headlines for the price of one. The bill was outside a newsagents in Rawtenstall and covered off both the main news story of the day and also the main sports story, about Burnley FC.

Doing more with bills won’t increase – by much – the amount newspapers spend on advertising, but surely they’re our best weapon out there for reminding people that we’re still there for them, day in, day out.

Away from the humble bill, there are other ways to remind the reader that we’re out there. Making our titles useful to people – sadly, news often isn’t enough anymore – should help. There are many ways to do this. The Birmingham Mail’s Race for a School Place series led to a sales rise last year – because it provides parents with useful data on the chances of getting their child into a school.

It doesn’t have to be ‘journalism’ as we know it, though. Take a look at this rather great front page of the Accrington Observer (Disclaimer: Trinity Mirror owns the Accrington Observer and I have worked with the weeklies team there, but have had nothing to do with this great idea). It’s dominated by what is effectively a ‘shop local’ campaign.

More than 50 shops have signed up – all local shops – to offer discounts if you present a loyalty card which you cut out and keep from the paper. Each participating store gets a large poster to put in the window each week to say what that offer is. It ticks all the boxes in terms of reminding people who we are: It provides a reason to buy the paper, it promotes good will within the community and gets the paper’s branding into shops which may have never stocked the paper.

Which brings me on to my third idea: Thinking to ourselves: “Will this get the right people talking if we write about it?” Who are the right people? To me, they are the people that talk to a lot of people – like the shopkeepers taking part in the Accy Ob’s campaign.

It can apply to all sorts of stuff to. For example, if you send a reporter out to do a vox pop, the chances are s/he will trawl up and down a high street and speak to six randoms who are prepared to stop. Will they remember to buy the paper? Maybe, maybe not. But if you took that voxpop into the local hairdressers and interviewed three hairdressers and three customers you’ve effectively created an event, something those hairdressers are bound to talk to others about. They’re bound to get a copy of the paper into the hairdressers to show around. That’s surely job done – reminding people that we’re not only still here, but part of their lives too.

And it doesn’t need to cost much to do it, either.

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