Can one christening cake (and the absurd reaction to it) change the way we think about local journalism?

bolton news 2

Can a story about a christening cake encapsulate one of the biggest challenges digital journalism has delivered to the regional press? I think so, and here’s why.

You probably saw the story about the woman who complained about a christening caked including bears with ‘naughty bits.’ For what it’s worth, I thought she was talking bunkum. Many others did too, but I’ll come back to that.

It appeared on page 13 of the Bolton News last weekend, a straight forward 350 words with a picture. At a guess, one of those ring ins which raises a smile in the newsroom and finds its role as a bit of a lighter article for a newspaper (and with a picture which is a contender for the Angry people in local newspapers blog surely) .

The cake story in print

The cake story in print

Online, however, it was a different matter. The story had legs – not literally, for the avoidance of confusion given the matter in hand – and soon spread via agencies to national newspapers, then on to a variety of digital news organisations and, finally, to the overseas press.

Such is the lot of the local newspaper online – anything with an element of the quirky, or which carries the sniff of a page view spike soon finds its way on to a multitude of websites, although many did link back to the Bolton News.

But it’s the reaction of readers to the story online which got my interest – and what it potentially means for us as journalists.

In days gone by – pre-internet days – the story would have been published, and probably forgotten. It would have been of passing interest to readers, very few you would imagine would be inclined to ring the paper and say what they thought about it.

Crucially, it would have been one of maybe seventy or eighty stories available to that print reader who had bought the paper, and probably quite unlikely to prompt many readers to actually do anything in response to it.

Online, however, the story takes on a very different role. For a start, the nature of online news consumption means that every single story has the potential to be the one – the only one – on which a reader decides whether they like your brand, and whether they will return again.

That makes it essential to factor in the potential reaction to a story, alongside gut instinct on what makes a good story and the audience data which tells us whether a story is well read or not.

On one hand, you could argue this was just the sort of story a local paper needs to do to get page views to generate revenue to generate the profits needed to stay in business. It was huge on social, topped the Bolton News’ most read list and was quickly copied by dozens, if not hundreds, of other sites.

But for local newspapers in an online world, the primary challenge has to be to build up the number of users who visit regularly, and who think the local news site has to be part of their daily reading. This is where monitoring reaction becomes really important as we seek to build up an understanding of what readers think about what we do in the future.

In true Upworthy style, you’ll never guess what’s coming up. Actually, you probably can.

The comments came in thick and fast on the Bolton News website, most critical of the lady for being so daft but a fair smattering of ire pointed at the News for giving the lady a platform in the first place.

occasion cakes

One of the comments on the Bolton News website. Note the score of approval in the bottom left.

Which brings us neatly to the other big change between print and digital publishing – the ability of the reader to react instantly to what they see, and in a very public way.

As the story gained traction on social, so did the page for Occasion Cakes – with dozens, if not hundreds, of people posting comments of support. Some were from happy customers, some from people so appalled by the complaint they intended to be customers, and some from people who just wanted to say they supported the cake makers.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that the Bolton News was wrong to run that story – that’s not for me to decide. Nor am I seeking to criticise what is an excellent newspaper.

A selection of comments on the Occasion Cakes Facebook site. There are many more like this

A selection of comments on the Occasion Cakes Facebook site. There are many more like this

The point here is that the ability for people to comment and respond to stories is made infinitely more easy thanks to the internet, and newsrooms as a result can see how people are responding to stories.

If you read a story about a woman criticising a cake maker and feel compelled to go to the cake maker’s Facebook page as say ‘well done you’, does that make you more or less likely to visit the local news site again? Audience data – studying users who visited the site for the first time that day went on to do on the site in the days to come, for example – will give you that answer.

As six-day-a-week print readership has been replaced by a more casual digital relationship, it has become more important than ever to find reasons to persuade people that they need what we provide in their lives online more often.

How to best do that remains to be seen, but thinking about the reaction to a story will need to play a key part here.

Perhaps this didn’t matter so much in the past, but it certainly used to exist. Get a detail wrong and the person involved would tell his friends, and his friends would remember that. If the fact offended them, they might stop buying the newspaper. But where else would they get their local news?

The answer now, of course is: Facebook, national media (covering local stories in a depth they never did when they only had 64 pages to fill), Twitter, forums or any number of non-traditional news sources. Blogs, for example, or hyperlocal sites.

This challenge will only get bigger as news brands seek to convince readers that their brand is the one readers need to take the trouble of downloading as an app to their mobile phone in the near future. 

Does this mean we don’t run stories which we think will meet with the approval of the masses? Not at all – we just change the way we write things.

So the story about the lady with the perfectly wonderful cake (in my opinion) who is seeking for a refund moves away from being 350 words outlining her upset and including a quote in response from the company, and instead becomes a simple: “This lady thinks these bears have naughty bits – what do you think?” before outlining both sides of this unusual article. And then reporting on the reaction.

So the question we have to ask isn’t just: “Is this a great story?” It’s also: “What will people think of us for telling it?” Because it’s their reaction which will define whether they keep returning. Studying audience reaction through advanced audience data isn’t about chasing clickbait, it’s about understanding readers.

And that’s how thinking about this christening cake helps to change our approach to journalism.

PS: And the final word probably should go to Occasion Cakes, with a Facebook post many news brands could learn from:

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