Two charts which show the regional press has challenges – but credibility isn’t one of them

Another week, another academic popping up to shout ‘CLICKBAIT’ and ‘LISTICLES’ and heralding the end of local journalism as we know it – or perhaps how they remember it.

Maybe I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but then again, I’m quite opinionated. And I’m happy to debate the approach the newsrooms I work with take to local news in the 21st century with anyone who cares about the role of the local Press in challenged times.

But when I see Holdthefrontpage leading with the claims of an academic – this time a chap called Sean Dodson, of Leeds Beckett University – which are so outlandish (but I guess make for a good headline) I think it’s important to respond with facts. He’s published part of a chapter he’s written for a forthcoming book about how the local press survives as print declines.

Given gravitas because of his position as an academic, Dodson uses website The Conversation (where people from universities go to share their knowledge) to run with a well-worn argument.

It goes a bit like this: Here are a few examples of stories that people criticised that don’t fulfil the pure mission of journalism as I see it, and therefore I can conclude that the regional Press is losing its credibility. And I make quite a jump from an article written by a journalist that I don’t think was very well written to the rising use of UGC [user generated content] which is also bad news because it’s not done by journalists.

The key sentence is here: “Fewer journalists, fewer scoops, fewer hard questions, less topicality and weaker attribution. It all contributes to the falling credibility of Britain’s regional papers.”

At this point, it’s worth noting Dodson couldn’t even get the name of one of the papers he sought to criticise right (it’s the Gloucestershire Echo, not the Gloucester Echo), and sought to blame Trinity Mirror (who I work for) for something he didn’t like at the Gloucester Citizen three years before it became part of the company (The article was also in the Echo, not the Citizen).

The evidence Dodson uses to build his lack of credibility argument is based on a series on unconnected criticisms about individual pieces of content, all of which have been subject to lengthy debate in the past anyway.  The fatal flaw in his argument is that he has based his conclusion on the Twitter storms which engulf certain articles every now and again, rather than the relationship brands have with their regular readers.

If credibility was such a problem for the regional press, then why are we experiencing record audiences online? Why are we seeing people coming back more often, and reading more content, at a time when there is more competition for attention on mobile phones than ever before? Why do we have thousands of people every month downloading apps so that their local news brand is among their most-used tools on their mobile phone?

When the Yorkshire Post is winning praise for its campaign to combat loneliness, the Manchester Evening News can collect 40,000 signatures in 48 hours to keep a museum open, the Nottingham Post can lend its considerable voice to help a group of friends raise £25,000 for a man to get a bionic hand in a matter of days and the Liverpool Echo live blogs the Hillsborough Inquest for two years – which readers followed for an average of 27 minutes every day – I don’t think the credibility of the regional press is really at stake.

The Birmingham Mail’s campaigning for the families of the pub bombing victims, the campaigns of not one but two newspapers in Coventry to sort out the mess that is Coventry City FC, WalesOnline’s remarkable coverage of Aberfan 50 years on – I could go on.

Readers have always had the right to ask if something is news, or why we are leading with one thing over another. In the past, it came via a call to the newsdesk or a letter to the editor. Now it’s done in public. And I think that’s a good thing.

So, about those charts I mentioned…

The clickbait and listicles argument doesn’t stack up. Anyone who publishes clickbait – stories which don’t live up to the headline billing, therefore disappoints the reader – is on a hiding to nothing because you lose trust that way. No different to over-spinning a quiet news day splash to make a minor crime look that little bit worse than it really was. It wasn’t right in print – and doesn’t work online either, for the same reasons.

But is it really a bad thing for a journalist to think: “How can I make people want to read this?” The evidence suggests not.

Listicles have their place alongside maybe a dozen other content formats which audiences appreciate when used at the right time. How do we know this? Well, here’s a chart from Buzzsumo for one of the brands I work with. It breaks out the average shares per type of article:

 

shares

Lists average more shares than any other content type. That doesn’t mean do them all the time. It means if you do them for the right ideas, people respond to them. That probably doesn’t conform to any number of journalism theories, but I quite like the simple theory of: “Local journalism works best when it’s read by lots of people.”

Here’s another chart, for the same brand. It shows the average shares based on article length:

lenght

So this idea that readers only want short and snappy is clearly wrong – 2,000 word articles aren’t run of the mill, but they do get a response when deployed at the right time. Which they normally are.

It’s all well and good to pick a few examples of stories you don’t like and build an argument around them, but what purpose does it serve? It doesn’t paint a true picture of the regional Press. Titles I work with push out around 100 articles a day. A quick trawl through the most-shared articles for brands I work with shows a remarkable mix of stories interesting people.

Council, courts, national politics, health, human interest, transport, death, crime and calls stories are all in there. Plus stories which make people smile. All make people want to share when they are written in a way which makes people want to share them.

To suggest clickbait and listicles are killing the regional Press is nonsense – as any sensible analysis of audience data focusing on engagement metrics will tell you.

Don’t get me wrong, journalism faces many challenges. But wouldn’t we all be better off if ‘the widespread academic consensus’ Dodson bases much of his argument on actually tried to deal with those problems, rather than working so hard to prove things aren’t as good as they used to be? 

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5 thoughts on “Two charts which show the regional press has challenges – but credibility isn’t one of them

  1. An interesting read and good to hear alternative viewpoints… although you may want to correct the typo “quite news days” given you’ve criticised a slip in the original report.

    Think there’s definitely a debate to be had on the issues in the report and your response, particularly in relation to what works and what doesn’t and the relative merit of alternative ways of storytelling. On a personal level with my reader hat on, the type of content isn’t a particular concern and stories should be told in the best way regardless of what that might be – it’s the duplicated and syndicated content that really grates.

    Also think the industry and the academic observers need to forge greater understanding of each other to help define the industry’s future. It happens in so many other sectors, where universities are a testing ground or used to find ways of solving problems,, but journalism seems to be keen for industry and academia to continually lock horns – even though it’s surely in the interest of both parties to work together? We won’t – and shouldn’t – always agree, but as someone who has sat on both sides of the fence, the mutual mistrust achieves very little.

  2. What really interests me in this debate is that I think the concerns raised by the naysayers are often centred on the printed version of the newspaper, not its online equivalent. I’m really interested in the differences between online and print audiences…as an old hack (pre-analytics) I’m currently trying to catch up with the changing newsroom by doing an online journalism Masters (so hanging out with some academics too!) At morning conference we used to base our decisions on news judgement, allied to the mythical pub test. I understand there is more information available now, much of it incredibly valuable. But it’s also my understanding that loyal regional newspaper buyers tend to be older and more traditional in outlook, while online readers are across the age and background spectrum. What works brilliantly online might not work as the front page you see on the shelf. So, for example, my local Worcester News chose to lead the daily edition earlier this week/late last week on planning permission for a new KFC. When the naysayers took sarcastic umbrage, dep editor John Wilson came back in similar tone to you above, saying what they don’t understand and he knows for sure is that that particular story was deemed to be the most audience-friendly/community-minded of the day and was what people most wanted to read – as evidenced by it being most read story of the day and receiving lots of comments and shares. I could argue that the prominence of the story would have impacted favourably on the number of reads/likes etc – but my point is that I’m not convinced that we should be so quick to abandon our sense of newsworthiness and the old ‘pub test’ when it comes to putting together the core representation of the newspaper. I think this is what is worrying some people when they talk about a loss of integrity.

  3. Incidentally, if you follow my link above you’ll end up on the blog of a psychotherapist who shares my name for reasons best known to WordPress! My penultimate point is badly phrased – please substitute diminish instead of abandon.

    1. But that argument discounts the fact that the Westmorland Gazette has campaigned very hard to help get the area back on its feet after last year’s floods, and is one of the best regional local papers in the country. The story you link to was probably a nib, and, whether we like it or not, it may well have been of interest to a small number of people in one of the many small communities the Gazette serves. Does it work so well on the web? Maybe not, but we shouldn’t seek to judge content by the reaction of people it wasn’t intended for. Knowing the most important audience, and what they want, is what matters.

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