One of the myths swirling around Hackademia these days – and among many commentators who have exited day-to-day life within the regional press – is that focusing on audience analytics somehow undermines quality journalism.
And of course, there is a risk of that being the case. It depends on how you use the metrics. But a point made by Ian Carter, the editorial director of Kent Messenger group this week, reminded me that in many ways, there’s nothing new under the regional Press sun.
Yes, the platforms have changed. Yes, the audiences have changed. Yes, the habits of readers have changed (something many of the naysayers overlook). But the risk of being too internally focused at the expense of serving readers is no more likely than it was in the days of print.
The theory – most recently published by Leeds-based academic Sean Dodson this week – is that if you focus on audience metrics, you do journalism a dis-service because you aren’t staying true to traditional news values.
Ian, like me, disagreed. Unlike me, Ian managed to get his point across in far fewer words. He also spoke to the editor behind one of the string of articles Dodson sought to criticise as he built up what I felt was flimsy argument, based largely on recycled anecdotes.
Unlike Dodson, Ian actually sought out the background to one of the examples used, and spoke to the former editor of the Folkstone Herald. His paper has been maligned regularly for a story about an out-of-date pasty on the front page. FIVE YEARS AGO.
- A final word on the reheated pasty story. The Folkestone Herald editor at the time was Simon Finlay, one of the industry’s most entertaining characters. I spoke to him today and he recalls it as ‘a crap splash in a crap news week.’ He’s as bemused as me that it’s being held up as anything more than that all these years on.
In short, the process of putting a newspaper together requires journalists to fill a certain number of slots each week. Some weeks that means amazing newspapers jam-packed with stuff journalists would consider to be important news.
Other weeks, less so. But a front page still needs to be produced, and a newspaper still needs to hit the stands. In those circumstances, and with the pressure of newspaper sales figures always lurking nearby, newsrooms have to become creative and experimental, and at times hope for the best.
The same applies online. When half of Manchester is under water due to flooding, the Manchester Evening News knows it will get a big audience – if it produces content in the way people want it. When it’s not, the MEN still needs to reach people to remain relevant, both to advertisers but also to the community it serves. In that sense, nothing has changed – and the creative, experimental and pragmatic journalists remain the heroes of our newsrooms.
If the local press’s role was solely to publish the news which fitted in with an academic theory, print books would vary massively in size each week. And they’d also have gone out of business a long time ago. Because what we consider to be news often isn’t considered news by our readers, and vice versa.
What critics of the Gloucestershire Echo’s ‘who dropped their KFC?’ article earlier this year forget (or choose not to mention) is that while the Twitter world was shouting ‘CALL THIS NEWS’ the chap who dropped his dinner got in contact, and was subsequently fined for littering in the street. Litter remains one of the most talked-about issues on the letters page and comment threads of local news publications.
So the idea that audience analytics somehow introduced a new opportunity to undermine journalism is a nonsense. As any editor faced with filling a print book on a slow news day knows, creativity and pragmatism are essential skills if local journalism is to survive.
Just as an editor who sent his paper to press with blank pages on the grounds of there ‘not being enough REAL news’ wouldn’t have a paper for very long, the local newsroom which fails to pay enough attention to what the audience is telling us through audience data and feedback won’t make it very far into the future either.
It’s easy to be a news snob from the outside. It’s just a shame no-one – until now – stopped to ask for the background to each of the infamous examples of ‘non news’ that get thrown around the internet at will … until Ian brought a the skill of a journalist to the cases in point this week.