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:
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:
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?