Many tens of thousands of words have been written about the pending transformation of the Independent into a digital-only product, and the sale of its little brother, the i, to Johnston Press.
Columns and posts by smarter people than me have attempted to answer whether the Independent can thrive in an online world, what Johnston Press will do with the i and what it means for JP’s large stable of regional publications.
I’m not going to attempt to cover any of those, because I don’t really have anything worth saying which hasn’t already been said – and besides, it would be just speculation on my part anyway.
But if there’s one thing newsrooms everywhere should take from the sale of the i, it’s the way i editor Oly Duff has ensured readers have been kept informed since the announcement, and encouraged readers to get involved with a debate about the implications.
When the i launched, it tried many new things, some of which have become standard across print since. Things like matrix-style briefing pages, shorter and punchier articles, the curation of content from elsewhere and crediting correctly – the latter a great example of how digital best practice can really add something to print when applied there too.
But the editor’s letter, which sits on page 3 of the paper, strikes me as the most important break from tradition the i introduced. Unlike leader columns, which compel newspapers to pass judgement on matters every day in a kind of ‘we know best, challenge us on the letters page if you want’ sort of way, the editor’s letter when written properly helps build a relationship with readers.
I’m a reasonably regular reader of the i, and while the editor isn’t always writing the page 3 letter – sometimes it’s handed over to someone else within the newsroom when a subject demands it – the slot creates a window into which readers can begin to understand the thinking that goes into a newspaper.
So last Saturday, Duff used his letter, and a full page further inside, to answer the questions he assumed readers would have. The fact part of the deal with JP involves creating dozens of new roles to ensure the i has enough copy and content provided an opportunity – perhaps inadvertent – for readers to place requests on what they’d like to see.
By Monday, Duff cleared more space to answer questions which had come in. Judging by the comments from readers, there’s a sense of ownership being displayed publicly which perhaps all news brands enjoy, but which few share so openly.
But it’s also a sense of ownership – and positive ownership at that – which has to be worked on. So often, brands do things without talking and consulting with readers. On on hand, news brands strive to build a sense of loyalty, but so often don’t engage with readers to build that loyalty. From a sense of ownership comes loyalty.
Why is it that when in a supermarket, a checkout assistant will be more likely to pass comment on a cover price increase to a newspaper than they will on, say, a chocolate bar? I’ve yet to encounter a checkout assistant passing judgement on shrinking chocolate bars (and they are!) but have encountered many who say ‘ooh, the News has gone up in price again.’
Explaining to readers why the price is going up doesn’t sweeten the pill for readers, but does at least give them the chance to understand the reasoning. And how many news brands would open the cover price debate up to discussion, as i has done over its change of ownership?
I’ve known newspapers be very open about the decision to move to overnight printing – it is, after all, partly driven by audience shopping behaviours – but others try to hide the fact altogether, and act like nothing has changed. The latter route only leads to readers wondering why on-day stories are being ‘missed’ in their paper. And in an age where anyone can take to social media to voice a view on your brand, being anything less than open and engaging with readers is a dangerous strategy.
You could argue that Duff’s job in engaging with readers last week was a positive one. He’s taking on more staff, has access to more content than ever before and is launching a new website. But that approach to being open has dealt with trickier issues too.
Type ‘staplegate’ into Twitter and you get the tail-end of what appears to have been a long-running debate about whether the i works better with or without staples. The i’s Twitter account engaged with that debate, and it made it into print too. Indeed, it resurfaced during one of Duff’s follow up Q and As.
News brands will live or die in the future based on their ability not only to provide a service, but to connect with readers in a way which makes those readers feel like they are part of something. The i has on its side the fact that many readers have been with it since day one, so feel they have been part of something which has grown over the years. We see something similar with the most loyal readers of BelfastLive, the digital standalone site Trinity Mirror launched last year.
For editors seeking to manage their brands into the digital age, it’s essential they lead from the front. A letter from the editor might sound very old-fashioned (you could just as easily say blog), but it demonstrates a commitment to getting readers involved in newsroom life, and understanding why we do what we do. That sense of involvement, when delivered from the top and built into newsroom life, will be critical to keeping readers with brands into the future.
The i has demonstrated how that works in spades over the last seven days.