Not for the first time in recent months, a ‘Twitter storm’ has been sparked by someone querying the digital content strategy we have adopted at Trinity Mirror’s regional titles.
As someone who was described when working in our North Wales newsroom as ‘one of the architects’ of that strategy, I thought I’d explain the thinking behind the thing which appears to have caused concern.
I hesitated before writing this because there’s always a risk that people don’t want a balanced and reasoned discussion about where the regional press goes in its quest to survive and remain relevant. Indeed, even Press Gazette felt happy to report the comments which triggered the ‘twitter storm’ without seeking any sort of balance.
But something Paul Wiltshire, former training boss at Trinity’s newsrooms in Bristol and the surrounding area, said to me struck me: There are a lot of people concerned about what they’re hearing. So he goes.
On Friday, former Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies – who recently chose to take redundancy – wrote a series of tweets which denounced the quality of the paper he had just left. The point which attracted most attention was this one:
With this follow up the next day:
Has Trinity Mirror banned stories which will generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No (and in fairness Gareth doesn’t say that, although that’s the interpretation many have given). Has Trinity Mirror instructed reporters to get permission to write stories which generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No. Do we think it’s a good idea for the people who know a story and an area best (the journalists in the newsroom) to discuss how to ensure a story generates more than 1,000 page views? Yes.
There are two reasons for this. The first is cold economics. Much of the revenue which funds our journalism comes from advertising which is dependent on page views. Another rump of it comes from local advertisers who need convincing that our brands have an impact online locally. Therefore, the more people who see a story locally, the greater chance we have of convincing local advertisers to jump on board.
The second reason is about readers. A story which generates fewer than 1k page views will have been read by fewer than 1k people. According to ONS data, Croydon Council covers a population of 264k. So a story generating fewer than 1k page views will reach 0.4% of the local population at most. That’s not a strong place for a news publisher to be when it seeks to hold authorities to account.
So our content approach is to determine that if a story is worth doing, for readers, we need to make sure that readers want to read it. Gareth claims many council and health stories fall beneath the 1,000 page views mark. Lets ask why, and do something about it, as people should care about the council – schools, bins, roads – and health boards – GPs, hospitals, accident departments.
This is why engagement on social media is so important, both by brands and by journalists. There are plenty of journalists who I work with who can drive a spike in traffic just by Tweeting of Facebooking out a link. Why? Because they’ve built up a relationship with people on social networks and can say to them: “I/We think it is important for you to know this.”
The strength we get from a big audience
Away from audience engagement, it’s critical we tap into new ways to tell stories online so more people are interested in them. In his tweets, Gareth is critical of live coverage of events – yet time and again a live blog of a council meeting has attracted more people to our coverage of that meeting and those decisions than the more traditional way of telling the story would.
It’s not enough – any more – for us as journalists to say ‘this is important, therefore we’ll do it.’ There is little point in writing something because we think it’s important for readers to know about, but not to think how to get readers to read it in the first place. That might ensure we feel we’ve done our job, but what difference will we have made?
In paying attention to audience metrics – and page views is just one indicator, although I appreciate that engagement metrics such as time spent on site, shares of an article and repeat visits also unsettle some journalists – we aren’t saying ‘stop doing this’ we’re saying ‘How do we make more people aware of this?’
If Gareth was able to get the law changed based on articles which generated fewer than 1k page views, I suspect that was as much down to his relentless campaigning on issues as it was due to the coverage which appeared in print and online. Print is a powerful way to make a statement, but there will be few journalists who have not experienced a canny press officer or councillor who is quick to dismiss what we’ve written along the lines of ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not like anyone buys the paper anymore.’
One police force I know claims its local news brand is more ‘noisy’ than at any point in the last 30 years. It helps solve missing from home cases faster than ever, and doesn’t half provoke a response when it raises criticisms of the police force. That’s power to the brand in its drive to do what it’s always done – hold power to account.
As journalists, we know the important role we play in local life, but we don’t have the luxury of guaranteed funding to do our work in the way those who we hold to account do – police, councils, courts and so on.
That’s why we encourage conversations about stories which generate fewer than 1k page views. It would be wrong for us to focus solely on the stories which have performed very well on line, and I’m sure many of those condemning an audience-first approach to stories this weekend would be denouncing us if we did that.
Looking at the stories which don’t generate more than 1k page views is no different to a news editor querying why a reporter spends so much time on a story only ever destined to be a second lead or grout on a printed page. We just do it now with an eye on what readers are demonstrating, through audience data, that they respond to.
And I write this as someone who loves the regional press as much as they day I first set foot into the Chorley Citizen offices on work experience in 1996.