Burgers or politics? To be relevant, local newsrooms need to be experts in both

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One of the claims frequently made about newsrooms which are seeking to grow the number of people who read their websites is: “Oh, they’re just chasing clickbait now.”

Clickbait, as I’ve written before, appears to cover a very broad church of content, roughly characterised as “Not what we’ve always done in the past.”

A more recent trend amongst journalistic commentators has been to try and contrast two types of journalism, and to argue that the quality of journalism is reducing as a result. Press Gazette – a publication which is no stranger to the changing habits of readers  – recently cited the Nottingham Post liveblogging the opening of a new KFC as proof that journalistic standards were being sacrificed in pursuit of page views.

And last week, the National Union of Journalists leader at Media Wales – home of WalesOnline, the largest Welsh news site around and our fastest-growing website in the regionals stable at Trinity Mirror – turned to the BBC to express his views that serious journalism was being sacrificed in favour of “lifestyle type journalism.”

On the face of it, Martin Shipton’s allegations are concerning. And indeed, they would be, if facts backed up the allegations being made. Putting aside quite why the NUJ now feels it acceptable to denigrate one journalist’s work while praising the work of another, you don’t have to spend long looking at audience data to realise that what is being said simply isn’t accurate (perhaps something for the BBC to consider too).

There isn’t a single editor I work with who would be prepared to sacrifice the sort of journalism which created trusted brands over the decades in favour of something which meant less to readers.

But it’s not enough to say ‘we are journalists, this is serious, we must write about it’ and assume the rest of the world looks after itself. If a story is serious enough for us to feel that readers need to know about it, it is also our job now to make sure we do all we can to get that story to readers. The days of simply publishing a story and assuming every reader buying a copy of the paper read it are long gone.

That involves reporters building up strong networks on digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook, knowing the different ways to tell a story – liveblogging planning meetings, for example, has given a very dry aspect of local government coverage a new lease of life in several newsrooms I work with –  and understanding the different ways to promote that story. The more people see a story, the more powerful that story is likely to be. Audience is everything.

And the audience cares about more than serious news. They want football news, they want to know if their train is late, they want to know why the M4 is shut, they want to know what is happening this weekend and yes, we know from audience data that if we publish a guide to the best burger bars in Cardiff, tens of thousands of people will read that.

We stand a far greater chance of getting an ‘important’ story out to readers if we are playing a useful part in readers’ lives already. Who are you more likely to talk to in the pub? Someone who is engaging about a variety of subjects, or someone who just sticks to one or two subjects which they think are important at the expense of everything else?

The audience plan we have at Trinity Mirror is about being useful to people in many ways, using our skills as journalists to build a loyal, local legion of readers who then pay attention when we say that we have something important to report which they may not have previously realised is important.

And it’s an approach we think is working. In May, 385k people read articles about politics on WalesOnline, with the most popular article being the live blog coverage of the Welsh Assembly elections, followed by the area-by-area breakdown of votes. Coverage of the stalemate over who would lead the Assembly followed, along with analysis of how the Tories and UKIP would work together.

Elections are always exceptional months, but in May there were 264 politically-related stories published on WalesOnline, an average of 8.4 a day if you include weekends. Combined, they were the third most popular content theme on WalesOnline, behind only stories about Cardiff (and there is a degree of overlap between stories about Cardiff and stories about politics) and the Welsh Rugby Team (where there is, to be honest, less overlap).

Last week’s EU referendum coverage is another case in point. Across the network of sites I work with, up to a third of local people spent time with our coverage on Thursday or Friday. A third – when was the last time we could honestly say that? And that’s despite one of the top Google search terms on Friday being “BBC referendum results” – proof in three SEO-friendly words of how important it is for regional news brands to become better-known to readers through day to day contact.

The very fact there arguments about the value of different types of content shows a disregard for the reader, who will choose to read based on what is valuable to them. Our job is to provide readers with the content they know is valuable to them (and that’s generally the useful stuff) and then tempt them with the content we know should be valuable to them.

We stand the best chance of doing the latter if we make sure we are focusing on the reader whenever we write something. In football coverage, this has resulted in us moving away from the news agenda set by football clubs to a more fan-first approach with a greater emphasis on discussion, analysis and debate.

With political and council coverage, we need to spend more time with voters, and less time with politicians. If events of the last week in Europe have taught us anything, it’s that large swathes of the political elite are further removed from a large section of the voting public than any of us thought possible. Do we want to be seen as part of the establishment, or the media which delivers reliable news and runs with the issues which actually mean something to readers?

The best example I’ve seen from this today comes from Tony McDonough, a journalist on the Liverpool Echo, who has written an opinion piece on the EU Referendum, tagged around 40 people in it and got a real debate going on about it on Facebook – because he’s regularly debating weighty issues with people Facebook anyway:

So it’s wrong to say that we no longer care about ‘serious journalism’ or the skills its takes to deliver such journalism. There is no job description which says it’s more important to get the metadata right on an article, or to get a picture out of the archive, than it is to get a story (as the NUJ also suggested). There is no plot to just focus on the ‘trivial’ – quite the opposite.

What we care about – and what we should all care about as journalists – is having loyal readers, and that involves more than just dispatching the news we think is important to them. In an age where there’s no shortage of people ready to challenge our journalism, it’s essential the debate about what we do is rooted in facts.

In that sense, the audience data we study every day is very revealing – we’re reaching more readers than ever before with the stories that matter, largely because we’re asking ourselves what other things matter to readers too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Thanks for your interesting post, David – it’s good to debate these issues. Firstly, I did not “turn to the BBC” to express my concerns. BBC Wales’ arts and media correspondent turned to me for comment after the Daily Post decided to make redundant its reporter based at the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. Today is her final day at work. Given the Assembly’s unique role as a democratic national body which legislates in a range of devolved areas including health, education, housing, transport and economic development, and that it is about to take on tax-levying powers, many people are understandably shocked by the Daily Post’s decision, and believe it confirms an anti-politics trend there. The idea that the Assembly can be covered remotely by a reporter based 110 miles away whose primary responsibility is writing North Wales traffic stories stretches credulity to breaking point.
    I have not argued that lifestyle material has no place in a newspaper or on a website: my concern is that some news outlets are placing too much emphasis on less challenging content and not enough on more serious stories that help readers understand how their tax money is spent. Your reference to the high level of readership of politics stories on WalesOnline proves my point. If WalesOnline can make a success of such coverage, why can’t other titles?
    One of the most important functions journalists can perform is to explain the implications of decisions taken by politicians – and, yes, that does involve getting to know politicians, talking to them and questioning them. If we want our communities to be well-informed, they deserve more than just vox pops writ large. We have the expertise and are uniquely qualified to provide the information and analysis our readers need. If we don’t step up to the plate, who else will? Holding the powerful to account by asking the right questions does not make us part of the establishment.
    I am not the only one to find it worrying that, in the words of a Trinity Mirror editorial redundancy consultation document, “traditional roles” are regarded as expendable. Call me a dinosaur if you like, but I am worried when reporters are displaced by “beat bloggers”, whose responsibilities include writing about bars and shops but not holding to account the public bodies situated on the beat.
    It’s not my intention to denigrate the work of any journalist – far from it. I am sorry if my comments have unintentionally given that impression. The focus of my concern is the generals, not the foot soldiers. As the Daily Post pays off its Assembly correspondent, it’s important to celebrate and defend public interest journalism when it’s under threat from ill-judged redundancy decisions.

    1. Hi Martin. Your commentary to BBC Wales gave the impression that the websites I work with don’t take ‘important’ issues seriously any more. That simply isn’t the case, and the data backs that up. As you know, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the Agenda writer role which aims to combine the sort of important accountability journalism you reference with the need for us to make sure people appreciate we are the place to turn to for that content.

      You say it’s important to celebrate public interest journalism – and I agree. It’s a shame the you and NUJ have placed such focus on what you term ‘clickbait’ recently, because that has distracted from the public interest journalism which we have always done, and as far as I can see, will always need to do to remain relevant.

      That said, we can’t just say ‘this is public interest journalism, we must do it’ and expect everyone to appreciate that. It might be more comfortable for us to do things the way we always have, or for politicians to know that we’re focusing on what they are saying and then sending it out to the wider world, but I believe our role is much wider than that now, and the audience does too.

      Our strength comes from our audience, and our audience is more likely to engage with ‘important’ content if we are relevant to them in many different parts of their lives.

      Making comparisons between different sorts of journalism is always going to cause offence to someone, especially when referencing that one type is more important than another.

      You’re right it’s important to debate these issues, but it’s also important that such a debate is based on facts. To that end, your comments to the BBC weren’t aiding a debate, so much as providing a rival with the chance to criticise our content.

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