If you were to list the changes digital media has ushers into newsrooms across the UK, the list would quickly become long.
The one I want to focus on today is the change in audience expectation and behaviour. Gone are the days when post-publication interaction with readers was confined to conversations with those who had the motivation to ring the newsdesk, visit ‘front counter’ or get their pen and paper out.
Since the victory by Donald Trump in the American elections, many millions of words online have been devoted to how the media Stateside got it so wrong, and what that means for the future of journalism.
I feel that’s coming at the problem from the wrong end. Digital platforms have given everyone a voice. Personalisation on those platforms – primarily through algorithms – has created a bubble-like experience for many people. I’m convinced the shock of the ‘exit’ vote in Brexit for many was worsened by that platforms like Facebook so effectively target what you see that Brexit-supporters were all but banished from Remainers timelines, and vice versa.
That bubble-like environment, and the ease with which people can now publish a view, puts a new spotlight on what people are thinking about what they are reading. This isn’t a Facebook thing. Any football writer whose club is also served by a fans forum where every story is analysed, reacted to and commented upon will know what I’m talking about. Everyone has a voice, and many are critics.
Overall, this is a positive thing. At least people care enough about what we’re writing to talk about it. Irrelevance-induced silence must be worse.
So our challenge isn’t to ask how newsrooms miss things (eg Trump) or get things wrong (although that is important) it’s to work out how to ensure the debate around what we do has our input. The obvious first step is for journalists to engage with the communities they are part of.
For brands, it’s essential that news decisions and judgements are explained. In America, the role of ‘readers’ editor’ or ‘public editor’ – a kind of reader ambassador in the newsroom – is firmly established. Less so in the UK.
Two examples in the regional Press this week demonstrated the importance of explaining to readers some of what was going on behind our journalism, and the decisions which shape what readers see.
The first is in Yorkshire, where the trial of killer of murdered Batley MP Jo Cox concluded this week. Yorkshire Evening Post editor Nicola Furbisher tweeted a link to an article on the YEP website explaining why the print edition would not be carrying a picture of killer Thomas Mair on the front page:
We make no apology for choosing not to put a picture of Thomas Mair on the front page of your newspaper tomorrow. No doubt there will be publications which choose to permit his image to glare from the news stands, but to us, to the people of Jo Cox’s constituency, to her family and friends, he is not important. He is forgotten. He has no power.
He has been jailed for the rest of his life. And good riddance. Instead of focusing on the hatred that caused Jo’s death, we choose to focus on the ‘outpouring of love’ that followed it.
There were many, many Tweets of support for the YEP on this. It didn’t change what they reported – the facts are the facts – but explaining the tone, approach, and particular angles the YEP had chosen helped bring readers into the newsroom decision-making process.
The Tweets of support are, in one sense irrelevant. The simple act of explaining the journalistic thinking is what matters. The more we do that, the more we can shape the conversations which go on out about our work and, most importantly, be more relevant to our readers.
To an extent, we’ve always done this – sort of. Papers and editors will explain why they are positioning a title behind a certain campaign or political party, but these are exceptions rather than norms. Bringing people into our editorial decision-making, in a public way, on a regula basis, is essential if regional brands are to build a relevant, local audience online for the long term.
The second example this week was in Manchester at the Evening News, which dominated headlines with its exclusive on the maternity scandal which is engulfing several hospitals, and the desperate, pathetic attempts by hospital bosses to keep it a secret.
A big story in its own right, but of crucial importance was the battle to get the information out of the hospital, which warranted its own piece on the MEN website. In much of the media follow-up coverage, reporter Jennifer Williams’ fight to get the information, and the (at best) informational incompetence by hospital bosses was given as much weight as the failing the covered-up report had in turn uncovered.
For readers, such explainers behind our journalism are essential because it paints a picture of what we’re doing, and in turn helps to strengthen the justification for what we’re doing. Is it possible to think less of a hospital trust which allowed such appalling failings to occur on maternity wards? When the ‘new broom’ management team sent in to sort it out try to cover it up, yes, it probably does.
In a digital world, everyone is just a click of a button away from expressing a view on what we do. Explaining what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it – and listening to the reaction – is essential if we are to remain relevant. It won’t prevent us from getting things wrong, but it will make it a lot harder for our critics to demean what we do, something Donald Trump did very well – and something he sadly found a vocal audience for.
We’re far more powerful with an audience behind us – getting that audience to be behind us is perhaps the biggest challenge in our new online world.