Done right, digital first is good for print – and great for audiences

What’s in a name? Enough to dominate a full page feature in a trade mag when it comes to talking about the future of regional journalism, apparently.

In the most recent edition of inpublishing, former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson interviews Matt Kelly, chief content officer at Archant, about the work he is doing to transform Archant into a digital content operation.

It was a fascinating article and one in which I found myself agreeing with much of what Matt is doing, turning newsrooms which have moved to a print production rhythm with digital added in where it can be into places where newsrooms put the reader at the centre.

It’s an incredibly tough ask, and not helped by the volume of people on hand to say you’re getting it wrong. The starting point is to show the scale of the change required – which is why I especially like Matt’s decision to rename newsrooms ‘content rooms’.

Much is made in Dyson’s article of the difference between ‘digital first’ and ‘audience first’ – the latter being the phrase Matt is building his reinvention of Archant’s newsrooms around.

Dyson uses the phrases to construct some sort of conflict between Trinity Mirror’s approach and Archant’s approach:

He [Matt] referred to media companies who “relegate their printed products to the margins of their business in so-called ‘digital-first’ strategies”, saying they “often pay a price in accelerated circulation declines” and “a worrying decline in the standards of journalism”.

To many observers, this was an open dig at Trinity Mirror.

Ah, those anonymous observers! I can see why some observers might think that. But that’s because they spend too much time observing, and not enough time seeing. Having spent a fair bit of time with Matt over the years discussing how regional newsrooms need to change, I don’t think it was a dig.  What Archant is doing is similar, but also different, to the work Trinity Mirror (my employer) is continuing to do.

My main frustration about the article is that there’s so much more about what Archant is doing that could and should have been shared, but instead an article about Archant references Archant just five times, but Trinity Mirror 10 – only twice in quotes from Matt.

Both approaches boil down to this: Unless we put attracting and engaging with readers at the heart of what we do, we’ll have not future. Journalism for journalism’s sake will only succeed in ensuring the demise of local journalism. 

Of course, ‘digital first’ can mean abandoning print, and its readers. But that’s not what ‘Newsroom 3.1’ – the digital first project Dyson is trying to draw a battle with here – was about, nor was the follow up ‘The Connected Newsroom’ which sought back in 2015 to place a greater emphasis on engagement with local readers having achieved a growth in absolute scale required to be relevant in the digital world.

Proof? There is none

It’s become common among observers – generally hackademics who haven’t visited a newsroom recently – to say the newsrooms I worked with abandoned print in favour of audience growth. There is no evidence to support this, either in terms of print trends, or in terms of how our newsrooms work. Our newsrooms have dedicated print units, staffed by people who build the best possible newspapers from the content we are producing.

There is no analysis of newspaper sales trends which can conclude us being digital first as a newsroom has resulted in a more rapid decline in newspaper sales. There are too many other factors at play to ever prove that. The evidence we do have suggests it’s much more likely that communities move at different paces away from choosing to buy a newspaper to the experience of picking and choosing what they want to read online. I can point to newsrooms which have seen exceptionally strong audience growth online and strong print performances, and also weaker print performances coupled with weaker online growth, and every variance of those two points inbetween. It proves little.

What isn’t up for debate – hopefully – is that the future of local journalism lies with being relevant to readers, as Matt says. There will be a debate about the importance of national vs local audiences, but what that will boil down to is how we best generate revenue from those audiences going forward.

Our industry spent far too long doing what it could to try and sustain newspaper sales. Holding back stories from the internet in the hope people might buy the paper (never changed a sales trend), publishing three pars online and instructing people to buy the paper for the full story (never saw someone put on their shoes and go to the shop as a result) and obsessing over print traditions which everyone was convinced improved newspaper sales, but for which no proof of such could ever be offered.

And it’s that realism which underpinned Newsroom 3.1 in 2013 at Trinity Mirror.  ‘Audience First’ was a phrase littered throughout the presentations and research we shared when creating Newsroom 3.1. Being digital first was – and is – about responding to where readers are choosing to read content (note I say content, rather than news) and making sure we are there. It’s why we were the first regional publisher to push into Facebook Instant Articles last year.

I would go so far as to say it has helped improve newspapers, making sure we’re putting into them stuff we know people are interested in, while ensuring our newsrooms have dedicated staff to put those papers together. It’s meant breaking all sorts of golden rules along the way, but that wasn’t a bad thing either.

Some facts

The brief from our bosses at the time was:

  • Reinvent newsroom to ensure we make the most of the digital audience opportunity
  • Create a ‘centre of digital excellence’ in the North East which is rolled out across all our newsrooms
  • Bring in new digital talent, and build a newsroom which is led by the audience ambition
  • Hit digital audience targets – while seeking to improve print trends

That, once implemented meant:

  • Evaluating everything we did and asking: Is it right for the online audience, and if not, does it really help sell newspapers (eg spending 20 minutes on a cut out of a headshot for a page 6 lead)
  • Making sure we were publishing the right content for readers at the right time. So we created audience spikes (deadlines) to refresh the site at certain points of the day.
  • Not being bound by the traditional ideas of what our content should be. So reinventing the way we cover news, broadening our what’s on and informational content and opting for a ‘fan first’ approach to sports content
  • Identifying the skills gaps in our newsrooms and seeking to fill them either through new hires or through (lots of) training and support
  • Ensuring the phrase ‘Because we’ve always done it that way’ wasn’t enough to continue doing something.
  • Learning from audience data and doing more of what people want to read, and less of what they don’t.
  • Having a team of staff dedicated to taking digital content and turning it into strong newspapers which print readers will still love.

We plumped for digital first as a term because we wanted to show what our aim was: To ensure our newsrooms operated to a beat determined by our digital readers, rather than one which was based mainly around our time on the printing press (which, in turn, has nothing to do with serving print readers).

Talk about local

As with everything, our approach has evolved since then. We focus more on local audiences, and have put an emphasis on building meaningful relationships with readers so that if we have something which is important to our communities, we have the authority amongst our readers to be able to say so and ensure that important story is read.

Many of our critics – none of who ever offer a sustainable solution – will point to one-off examples of ‘clickbait’ or a calamity in print to support their belief that we’re somehow failing, and it’s all ‘digital’s’ fault. But calamities happened in the days when we didn’t give the internet a second glance, and we also wrote stories to sell newspapers.

Indeed, when academics and observers – like Steve – focus on debating whether contend being digital first means letting print down, they fail to remember that we were still losing readers hand over fist when we were print only. That surely, wasn’t being audience first either.

Local journalism is surely more important than constructing debates about what’s in a name? I think it is, anyway.


4 thoughts on “Done right, digital first is good for print – and great for audiences

  1. A good read, David, and a fair enough riposte to what you felt was a critique of Trinity Mirror. Don’t get too sensitive though! With TM being the largest regional publisher in town, it’s inevitable that any interview with another publishing chief is going to mention their opinion of TM. That’s especially the case with MK, given his TM background and development role at Local World before it was taken over by TM. I know how things can be at TM, and how upstairs dislike anything off-message. But like any big organisation, they/you need to accept that people have opinions and that they will be expressed if asked. Otherwise we’d have pretty bland media coverage. Again though, I welcome your views on your blog in response. Always a good read. Best wishes, Steve

    1. Thanks for reading Steve. Just my view, but I read that the parallels between TM and Archant were being drawn by you, not Matt.
      I think another problem is that you don’t know how things can be at TM, because it’s a very different company, in many ways, to the one you left in 2010. The outlook, the focus, the inclusiveness, the cross-department collaboration, and, of course, the size.
      Am I being sensitive? Maybe. But then again, I know what we’re trying to achieve and don’t like to see it misrepresented without any attempt at a counter-balance, the onus of which is on you as the author to deliver.
      I know how passionate you are about local journalism, I just wish you’d seek to celebrate some of the many things which do work, and present a more balanced argument on occasion. Or focus on solutions to the challenges we face, which go way beyond ‘print v digital’ or ‘what’s in a name’ (answer: not a lot). We all want the industry to survive with the things we value still at the heart of that industry – and I think we have a lot to shout about on that score. Which is why I write response to your musings so often!

      1. Your comments are always most welcome, David. You’re reading is interesting. Given what MK had to say both when I met him and elsewhere beforehand, the parallels were very much there to be drawn. In fact, believe me, they were diluted! But you must have your perspective, and I respect that. That aside, do have a think about what you say sometimes. You’re absolutely right that my first-hand inside knowledge and experience of TM in 2017 is zero (except for a very small, part-time freelance experience for a company half-owned by TM, but that’s another story). But that ‘zero’ matches what I know from the inside of Newsquest, Johnston, Iliffe, Archant and others. That doesn’t stop me criticising – and sometimes praising – those other publishers. The fact is, as the bigger publisher, you’re likely to be scrutinised more often, so you need to get used to it. And as for balance, TM had just as much an opportunity to tell me about what they were doing in a previous feature for InPublishing, which by chance happened to be with yourself. When you eventually take over at TM, I may well revisit!

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