Perhaps stories about exploding spots actually help important journalism survive

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The page view has had a bad time of it of late. For a while, there’s been a backlash against using it as a metric for success in newsrooms, with a focus on page views seemingly destined to be forever linked with click bait by some.

The digital community is increasingly – rightly – focusing on engagement, and debating the merits of which metrics are the best. Perhaps ironically, few seem to disagree than page views per visit, or time spent per page view are important metrics.

And now that focus on page views is being blamed on an apparent collapse on journalism – with the ‘story’ of one man’s unusual encounter at McDonald’s being widely reported before he admitted he’d actually embellished things for his friends on Twitter. 

Here’s an alternative theory: The focus on page views is actually a good thing, but only if it’s one of a number of things you take into consideration.

At the recent ONA London conference on audience engagement, The Guardian’s executive editor, audience Mary Hamilton argued (rightly in my opinion) that for of the criticism of the page view, it remains the single thing a journalist has the power to influence through their own work.

 

And that’s something we should celebrate, because it should give journalists and editors greater control of their future, because page views are inextricably linked (for now) with revenue.

It’s not the page view that is the problem, it’s how you – or your organisation – interprets the getting of the page view which can be the problem.

So the McDonald’s example above isn’t a failure caused by chasing page views, it’s a failure caused by not applying journalistic rules and rigour to the chase for page views.

That isn’t a new problem for the industry. How many times have editor’s overspun a crime story to make it ‘worthy’ of the front page on the grounds that they know, or believe, that crime sells papers?

One regional paper I know used the phrase Mr Big on the front page so often in the early 2000s it could easily have been mistaken for the Sex in the City fan magazine (bad joke I know). But they will have felt it sold newspapers. Was it the right thing to do? Audience research would suggest not.

In his farewell column as editor of the Northern Echo, Peter Barron wrote recently:

“Local newspapers have a vital role to play in society and my parting wish is that they are given the time and support for quality, campaigning journalism that makes a difference to people’s lives.

“The future of local journalism cannot just be built on ‘click-bait’ – stories which attract the biggest number of hits online. There will be those who call me a dinosaur but if I see another ‘stomach-churning compilation of the best spot-squeezing videos’ on a ‘news’ website, I may well take a hammer to my computer.

“Exploding spots may get lots of hits, and that may attract digital advertising revenue, but it isn’t news.”

All of which makes sense. If that’s what was happening.

It’s easy to raise a fist to stories which the broadsheet journalist inside all of us feels doesn’t meet the exacting standards of the Journalistic Mission, but it’s very dangerous to start pigeon-holing local journalism as just ‘news.’

Local newspapers have always been more than just news – and I don’t mean that they were also about opinion, sport and features too. Puzzles, cartoons, BMDs, classified, TV listings … none of these can be called ‘news’ but they sold papers, so we are treading on dangerous turf if we too tightly define local journalism online as news.

But dismissing the idea of looking at audience analytics – the page views in this case, or hits as they are described above – as nothing more than writing more stories about squeezed spots, is to miss the opportunity to actually write more of what readers want.

With the titles I work with, close attention to audience analytics has resulted in given greater prominence to missing from home appeals from the police, giving more attention to burglaries (rather than assuming that a burglary is so common as to only ever be worth four paragraphs), covering traffic and travel stories in more detail and covering city centre developments in far greater detail than we would have in the past.

We write more stories about when steam trains come to an area, or when new restaurants are opening, focus more on analysis from football matches, share more recent nostalgic memories with readers, provide more Q and As on important issues and seek out things which people are actively campaigning about on social media and get involved.

Yet it remains essential to write the content which might not drive page views instantly, but which we know are important to the community, and what the brand stands for. As journalists, we can either be sniffy and declare it’s important come what may, or work harder to convince readers that what we say is important is actually important.

And the best way to get the breathing space to make sure the important journalism which people claim falls by the wayside when you focus on what is at the top of the page view charts? Focus on what’s at the top of the charts.

Just because you are a local newsroom, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t restrict your content to what’s going on locally. Or to just news.

In other words, if you can quickly gain 10,000 page views from a story about a man squeezing spots, then you’ve probably done far more to ensure we can keep doing the important, but less ‘hit’ grabbing, content which makes local newsrooms so important to their communities,  than any amount of lofty journalism snobbery will ever do. 

What should be most reassuring in all of this is that the editor’s judgement remains as crucial as ever, and journalistic integrity when creating stories as critical as it has ever been.

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