How social changed journalism for the better (a presentation I gave to BeyondSocial)

Last week, I was asked to speak at an event called Beyond Social, organised by CrowdCrontolHQ, at the brilliant Electric Cinema in Birmingham. It was, I was told, to a room largely of marketing professionals. I was asked to talk about how digital had changed publishing, but as I pulled it together, it became clear this should really about what social did to journalism…

When I was asked to come and speak here today about the impact digital had had on publishing, I wasn’t sure where to begin. After all, I’ve got 20 minutes, a rather flat voice and a tendency to talk fast. So perhaps the best thing to do first is to wish you good luck.

There’s so much to go at. Round-the-clock-demands. Social media. Mobile. Tablet. Paywalls. Circulation declines. I could go on.

So instead I’ll start with a statistic. The largest brand I work with is the Liverpool ECHO, a titan of a title which has a connection with its public that any brand would kill for and an editor who you never stop learning from.

If you listen to the headlines, it’s in decline. If you look at the numbers though, it’s a different story. The other Wednesday the Echo sold just over 80,000 copies. Circulation performance on the Echo is one of the best in the regional press, but it’s still down on last year.

Yet by the time we’ve added in the number of people who logged on to the website, or opened the app, or clicked a link on social to find our mobile site, and then taken a lump out for de-duplication purposes, we actually have more people reading the Echo than at any time since 1984.

And that’s the impact digital has had on publishing. We’re now read by more people than at any point in the last 30 years. It’s not just in Liverpool either. I work with titles in Newcastle, Manchester, Cardiff, Coventry and here in Brum – all are noisier than they ever have been before.

In Manchester, it took 24 hours to collect 40,000 signatures from people opposed to the closure of the museum of science and industry. 24 hours. 10,000 are backing the Coventry Telegraph’s Stay in the City campaign aimed at Coventry City’s owners. When North Wales was under water last year, the police asked people to follow our website for the latest news.

So that’s the good news, and I suspect some of you are fearing that I’m embarking on a sort of ‘keep calm and carry on’ propaganda exercise. Hopefully, I’m not. Because keeping calm and carrying on actually causes problems.

I believe our industry was too slow to spot the disruptive threat and benefits of digital. We spend our careers writing about change but when we started seeing change around us, it was more comforting to ignore it. Big mistake, but not one exclusive to the media.

Some journalists will tell you paywalls are the only way to keep publishers like the one I work for going. Paywalls may serve a part in our future but it’s not the main part. The argument goes that because there’s a cost to what we do, there has to be a value at the other end.

But it’s down to the consumer to determine value, not us. In that respect, two things go against the traditional publishing model.

The first is that digital brought an end to the bundling of content to suit the publisher. Like Aston Villa? There are over 400 sites to go at in the UK for Aston Villa content.

I’d argue our site is up there with the best, because of who we employ to cover them, but if we stuck Mat Kendrick’s content behind a paywall would there be queue as long as the one at the Holte End turnstile waiting to pay for it, and the rest of the content we produce?

It’s a bit like Tesco telling you that if you want to buy a carrot you have to buy it in a pack with several swedes, a couple of potatoes and a bottle of WKD. You just wouldn’t do it, would you?

The second reason? The competition. The BBC never produces as much content on Birmingham as the Mail does, but for many people, it’s enough. Digital swept away the high cost barrier to compete for people’s eyeballs and competitors are everywhere now, all chasing a slice of the same revenues we’ve always considered ours. We now have to work harder than ever for that money, and have to demonstrate we’re connected with the audience like never before.

For me, that brings so many benefits to journalism. Minute by minute we know what’s the most popular story on the websites of the Birmingham Mail, Newcastle Chronicle and Manchester Evening News.

Daily, we can see trends on what’s working for us and what isn’t. Weekly and monthly, we’ll use Hitwise and other tools to spot trends within our marketplaces. We still apply journalistic judgement to what we do, but we do it with the benefit of actually knowing what works for us and – more importantly – what people are looking for within our areas too.

Last November was a busy news month in Birmingham, from memory. 500 jobs going at Hovis, a huge fire in Oldbury, a possible bin revolution and a policeman shot. They all did well on the Birmingham Mail website – but the top story in terms of page views was our guide to the German Christmas Market. Identified on search trends – no-one looks for the Frankfurt Christmas Market online – and produced in advance, it never fails to top the charts.

That’s a publisher responding to what users want and using its reputation as a trusted source of information in a new way. And social takes it to a new level. Second by second we know how people are responding. Today, for example, there’s a debate on Twitter about a Ched Evans poster in the North Wales Daily Post.  We used Trendspottr, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, Buffer, Spundge and a variety of other tools to monitor and engage in social. We’re not prescriptive: If it works for the journalist and helps them respond to the audience, it’s fine by us.

And it’s that sort of audience-centric approach which has been the biggest change in publishing. Tony Parsons recently moved from the Mirror to the Sun as a columnist, talking about how he wanted to work somewhere which charged people to read his content. Good luck to him, he’s a writer of a quality I’ll never be … but that mindset is the biggest risk to journalism.

We have to provide the audience with something they value – even if they aren’t prepared to pay for it. Our job is to find a way of making money from it, and we are doing. And those revenue streams will keep changing, keep evolving, and we must keep moving with them.

That’s how we build new reputations online which make us stand out from the crowd. People don’t really care who breaks a news story these days, as they’re just as likely to hear a big news story from a friend on Facebook as they are from a media source. It was Stan Collymore on Twitter who told me Margaret Thatcher had died. I then turned to the first media source which came into my head to check out the details.

When Preston North End sacked Graham Westley, I learnt about it from a fellow northender on Twitter. I turned to the Lancashire Evening Post website knowing they’d have something on it. They did. That’s a rewarding experience, and that’s what we as publishers are in the business of providing: Rewarding experiences. Fail to deliver on expectations and people will go elsewhere.

And that’s never more true in a mobile age. Our industry was supposed to die because we were stuck with the infrastructure costs which others didn’t have. Now we’re supposed to die because we don’t have the infrastructure in place to give people free wifi, or so the naysayers will say.

Mobile changes things, sure. It places less emphasis on search and more on social and brand recognition. The average user of the Birmingham Mail Apple app views 30 stories a session. They have us on their phone because they think we provide a service to them. Search is still important, but we’re now in an age of loyalty.

We need to be the place people think of when they want to know more about a story they have heard about.

It could be a chat over a watercooler, a reference on Facebook or a clever link on Twitter – whatever it is, we need to make sure people know that we’ll have what they want. And that’s the big opportunity for us. That’s the change digital has made.

People won’t wait for the 500 word all-bases-covered article, although they want that too.  We have to provide the information for them as it comes in, verifying as we go.

Trinity Mirror was the first regional publisher to live blog events. Back in 2008 we liveblogged election night in Liverpool. 3,000 dropped by, including several unsuccessful candidates. I guess it hurts less to see you’ve lost on a screen rather than in the counting hall. We then liveblogged a day in the life of the newsroom. 

Later that year, 100,000 people followed our live coverage of the trial of the killers of Liverpool schoolboy Rhys Jones. Every cough and spit went on the live blog. That 100,000 was over eight weeks. When the riots broke out in Manchester, 200k people a day followed live coverage there, and similar numbers in Birmingham in Liverpool. It’s interesting to hear the police talk about why they don’t call riots riots – we hesitated because we were aware of our position as a trusted local brand and didn’t want to stand accused of inflaming the situation. That probably cost us in terms of SEO, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the weekend before last, over 60,000 people followed our coverage of a stabbing here in Birmingham. We aggregate information and share it quickly to an audience which knows it can trust us.

That’s why I don’t believe any PR person who tells me they don’t need the media anymore because they can talk directly to the public. What they can do is talk to the public that is prepared to listen to them. Through us – and the independent scrutiny we still bring to bear here – they can communicate with a much wider audience.

Digital has also swept away many of the barriers journalists faced. The days of the local police sergeant going through all the crimes overnight have long gone. Every policeman tweeting about his beat is providing information for our reporters to develop. That can only be a good thing.

Digital publishing has made brands out of our best-known writers. A sports headline with the name of a football writer in it will drive twice as many page impressions as one which doesn’t. People inundate live webchats with writers of all disciplines seeking their advice. It’s an exciting time for them, too.

And we’re kept on our toes by  new publishers out there. Birmingham is a hub for hyperlocal activity. Some are done for the love of it, some with a financial goal in mind. We try to work with many of them – initially they were wary of working with us, and who can blame them? Hopefully, over time, that’s changed.

You may have seen the superb success of Birmingham Updates, the Facebook page which grew out of one man’s desire to keep people updated during the Birmingham Riots. It now has in excess of 130,000 fans – way more than any established media in Brum. We, as journalists, need to look at success stories like that, and hyperlocals, and ask ourselves what we need to do as a result.

Paul Dale can create the same ripples writing for a blog as he did when he was at the Post. Richard McComb can build on his reputation via his own site, just as he did at the Post. Think Guido Fawkes, Iain Dale, the Huffington Post … all examples of brands which have come from nowhere in a short space of time, because they listened to what people want.

It’d be bonkers for me to stand here and say journalists have never had it so good, thanks to social. It can be tough and there are downsides. It’s one thing to be held to account by the public, another to be a sports writer who has his address posted on a forum because fans don’t like what he says.

But, to sum up, the single biggest change to publishing from digital has been the way it’s handed power to the audience like never before … and provided us with the ability to be closer to them than ever before. If we talk, we also have to listen. Do that, and we’ll be ok.


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