Regional journalism’s digital tipping point: Are we there yet?

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It’s been a back and forth journey, but has regional journalism reached its digital tipping point?

When people speak to the digital tipping point, they tend to be talking about revenue, of the moment when digital revenue growth replaces fully the loss of print cash. Definitions of what that looks like, and what is contained within each pot, vary widely.

I’m not looking at that in this post – but instead journalism’s digital tipping point. As in that moment when digital journalism is so second-nature to people within regional newsrooms that it isn’t a special thing anymore, but just the done thing.

How you evaluate that obviously is open to interpretation. You will find editors who point to the long journey their newsrooms have been on, and will say their newsrooms are indeed digital. You will also find editors who point to the things they still need to become truly digital.

And then you will find many people playing in the shades of audience first/reader first/digital first/print last and applying labels to what they do.

For me, the platform is irrelevant. Journalism’s biggest challenge isn’t around being digitally-savvy, it’s around being audience-savvy, and making sure readers sit at the heart of everything we do. After all, without them, we’re nothing.

To that end, being smart on digital isn’t about being able to show you’ve got skills for the future, it shows you’ve got the most important skill of all: Understanding where the reader is and how to engage with him or her.

So the Regional Press Awards last Friday were fascinating. I’ve long grumbled they are too print-focused, with just two awards dedicated specifically to digital activity.

But through osmosis or by design – I’m not sure which – I get the sense the RPAs are becoming more reflective of the fact that they should be celebrating great journalism, and that great journalism is all the better if it actually engages people.

One of the newsrooms I work with, WalesOnline, scooped both of the digital categories. Its stunning work around the anniversary of the Aberfan disaster was recognised in the digital award category, while it also won website of the year.

For the website of the year category, it was praised for setting a new standard in long-form storytelling. While that is no doubt true, I think there’s a bigger story to tell about WalesOnline (and indeed other titles in the stable at Trinity Mirror, the company I work for).

WalesOnline has shown how a regional newsroom can reinvent itself with a new identity which is built on what audiences want.

It has shown that tablet-of-stone-journalism – the delivery of the content we choose, the way we want to deliver it – can’t hold a candle to a newsroom which is seeking to have an equal relationship with readers, listening, caring and sharing in the things which matter to readers to they listen, care and share the things we as journalists think matter.

But that approach was also evident in other categories, which might be still seen as a bit print led, not least in that they are judged in part on how the stories turned out in print.  Take, for example, the Birmingham Mail’s campaign of the year win.

Its justice for the victims of the pub bombings victims campaign has been remarkably successful, which I think is in part down to the Mail’s ability to harness the power of the city behind its fight. The Mail’s coverage of the 40th anniversary of the pub bombings was second-to-none and embraced digital storytelling not for the sake of it, but because they added to the way an important story was told. From the recreation of the warning phone call to the Mail’s office through to the re-telling of the events through an emotional liveblog, the Mail used multiple tools in 2014 to remind, and in some cases reawaken, people to that fact as justice was still to be done 40 years on.

That provided the platform for the campaign, which has used video, audio, live blogging and social media as standard – as and when they are the best ways to tell the story. The campaign got results, and goes on today.

Manchester Evening News political journalist Jennifer Williams won specialist reporter of the year for several investigations and in-depth pieces, including the maternity hospital scandal in North Manchester, in which the hospital trust sought to cover up the fact babies had died due to poor care.

While solo reporter categories are often judged using the physical manifestation of stories – ie the paper – the coverage was broken first online, and designed with the question of ‘How do we get this to as many people as possible?’ at the forefront of thinking.

The audience data behind the story is fascinating. While the main story was the most read, click throughs to the article explaining the hoops which had to be jumped through to get the story was also strong. Follow-ups came thick and fast, and it set the national agenda too.

A cynic may argue at this point that the scoop doesn’t sound particularly digital – and maybe that’s the point. It was a scoop which was strengthened by understand how to deploy digital tools to reach readers, and which used the understanding that to engage readers we don’t just tell, we also explain. And listen, through channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

The reaction to that story was overwhelming. It was a reaction which proved that our journalism is far more powerful when a big audience is taking it in. That big audience is reached through digital platforms now, and the fact at least two winners of the regular awards at this year’s Regional Press Awards had digital elements woven through their work as standard maybe tells us that digital storytelling is becoming a way of life in the regional press.

And that digital platforms are perhaps the best aid to quality journalism we could ask for – when used in the right way.

 

 

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