Why journalists everywhere should be paying attention to #tellali

Monday morning brought with it one of the most interesting newspaper front pages of recent times:

tellali

A blank front page, save for hashtag which was explained inside. Editor in chief (and colleague) Alastair Machray is leading a project to revamp the Echo, which, perhaps more than many other regional news brands, has an audience never backward in coming forward to tell him what they think of the Echo.

It’s prompted a lot of debate – including two radio phone ins and hundreds of Tweets discussing it. And, in a sure sign that it’s a good idea, the grumpy brigade on Holdthefrontpage have been quick to condemn it.

But it’s not because I work with Ali that I think it’s a good idea. Or rather not just because I work with Ali. The front page, and the ethos behind it, sums up the change journalism is undergoing, a change every journalist needs to understand and adapt to if they are to enjoy the attention of an audience in the future.

Readers, viewers, listeners, commenters … they expect to be heard these days. In many ways, it’s remarkable that for so many years the audience was content with just receiving their news, selected by journalists, and restricted to joining in via a call to the newsdesk, or a letter to the editor which might be considered for publication.

Only the reality is that they probably never were content with that. The difference between years gone by and where we are now is that we hear the conversations being had about what we’re doing, and if we don’t join in, we find ourselves becoming irrelevant. A moan about incorrectly spelling Brindle (a village near Chorley) Bridle (curse the early versions of spellcheck) was a common conversation in the village’s Cavendish Arms pub, yet now anyone can join in via a thread on Streetlife.

So as journalists, we need to get used to opening ourselves up to our readers and saying: “What do you think?” And the Echo has done that in quite spectacular style. In many ways it is brave, but it’s certainly not foolhardy. In several speeches over the years, Ali has referenced the fact that he considers himself a custodian of the Echo, but the owners are the people of Liverpool.

In a digital age, to feel a sense of ownership, you need to feel you can make a difference – just ask any football fan who feels constantly ignored by their owners. Over time, their affection for a football club dwindles. The same is true of regional news brands. We used to do the telling, we now need to be just as good at doing the listening.

For many journalists, that’s a giant leap to make. For others, it’s the most natural thing in the world. But it’s easy to be critical, as those on HTFP proved today. One example:

Asking the average Scouser to write your news list is tantamount to abject surrender.
It’s an editor’s job to come up with the ideas and engage journalists good enough to bring them to fruition.
Sorry, but true.

Sorry, but wrong. There is no surrender in asking readers to tell you what they want, what they think and what they feel. And to do it in public encourages a debate which can only result in bringing readers and journalists together. Journalists have often been suspicious of reader panels and market research – the less crime v crime sells conundrum – so why not subject ourselves, and such research,  to the same public scrutiny we expect of those we hold to account?

Any journalist who fears that is really fearing the future – a future in which we have two choices: Do an Ali or become irrelevant.

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