Earlier this week, British Press trade website Press Gazette ran an article suggesting Trinity Mirror was forcing regional newsrooms to write clickbait.
Its evidence came in the form of a anonymous tip-off apparently from a journalist who said colleagues were ‘appalled’ at a ‘three-line whip’ to write an article which said Greggs – the bakers – had no plans to open a drive thru restaurant near them.
The article had appeared on multiple websites around the country, localised. Some newsrooms had pushed the story on social media, others hadn’t. The smell of a story guaranteed to go to the top of Press Gazette’s ‘most read’ was presumably as alluring as a steak bake when hungover for the team at UKPG. It certainly hooks readers in the same way that sausage roll smell does for many at lunchtime at Greggs.
The premise of the story, the three-line whip, is wrong. No such three-line whip exists. Greggs has opened a drive-thru in Greater Manchester, and as such titles around there published a story. Another title then ran a story about the fact Greggs was opening a drive-thru away from their area because they assumed local people (who probably go to Greggs or at least have a view on whether they’d go to a Greggs drive-thru) would be interested. They were.
At Trinity Mirror, where I’m responsible for digital editorial strategy alongside some of the most talented journalists you could hope to meet, we actively encourage the sharing of data between newsrooms so people can see what is working across the country.
We believe that’s a critically important thing to do as we seek to become more relevant to readers than we’ve ever been before. Years of circulation decline in print – which pre-dates the invention of the internet – have been replaced with several years of reaching more local people, more often, via digital platforms than at any point since the 1970s. This has been achieved thanks to stopping and asking ourselves three questions:
- “What do local people want to read?”
- “How do we make important journalism important to local readers?”
- “If people aren’t reading it, why are we writing it?”
Of course, the risk of sharing data in this way is that we take a route one approach to achieving audience growth – writing whatever gets people through the doors for the ‘click.’
That’s a view of the world the Tut-erati, the people who seem to spend a lot of time seeking out stories they think meet their personal definition of ‘clickbait’, congregate around. They are a diverse group but tend to share one belief: “Things used to be better in the old days/my day.”
They rush to share articles such as the Press Gazette one this week, lamenting what local journalism has become in the process. It’s replacing proper journalism, they say (it’s not). Others claim there’s no financial value to writing such articles, as Greggs should actually be paying for such publicity. Because Greggs is ready to spend thousands advertising the fact it isn’t opening in a local area, obviously.
It’s all about clicks, you say?
Generally, critics don’t want to hear about what audience data tells us, and dismiss it all as ‘clicks.’ The fact that a myriad of metrics underpin decision-making, such as single page visits, proportion of local visits, time spent on page, and volume of brand-loyal visitors reaching each article, is either ignored or not known.
My view is that we’re better at knowing what readers want than we ever have been, but still have a long way to go. We’ve got to where we are by experimenting and learning. Experimentation either succeeds or it doesn’t. Editors and journalists learn from data all the time, as well as speaking to real readers daily.
They also know the stories which are quick to write which provide the financial support through advertising to support the journalism which people expect from us, but which we have to work harder to get people to engage with.
However, the fact the Greggs article became a subject for trade debate this week does tell us something. Superficially, I can see why the negative argument holds water – because our journalism these days is unbundled. Any one piece of content has the potential to represent the sum of everything we do. And therefore also be taken out of context and held up as an example of declining standards.
Knowing different audiences
According to the latest Reuters journalism report, up to half – half! – of news consumers who access content via distributed platforms can’t tell you which brand provided that news. For many of the people who saw a version of the Greggs story, it will have been a few seconds of time spent on Facebook, from which the company I work for will have made money via advertising to help fund our newsrooms, but from which our brands may not even be remembered.
I believe that the Greggs story may well have made it into print in a pre-internet era – maybe as a quirky on a national news page, or in a food and drink section. I’ve worked in newsrooms on a slow news days when a national story has been localised to fill a page too. However, it’s the unbundling of all of our content which means every story can be analysed in isolation.
The headline, the promotion, the use of the knowledge gap to hook people into a story are all part of the ongoing experimentation – experimentation which is judged looking at the metrics I mentioned above, not just pure page views, as critics would have those who listen to them believe.
A page view is pointless if it results in someone not wanting to see our brand again. But equally, an article isn’t serving much of a purpose if no-one wants to click on it.
And that’s how we have to judge what we create. We need to reach people, we need to engage people, and then we need to retain them. Within the tens of millions of unique browsers you see reported in ABC numbers every month is a loyal band of people who drive a disproportionate volume of page views and visit almost daily.
And having looked at the metrics around the stories we’ve written about Greggs, those loyal readers were among those reading that story. Journalists who use metrics well learn more about readers every day, and understand more about what readers want.
The websites criticised this week publish between 2,000 and 3,000 stories a month. Pick up a paper and you see that, but it’s different online – and it makes it easier to paint a bleaker picture about the future of local journalism.
Online, a story of nib length can carry as much clout as a four-week investigation.
We shouldn’t be ashamed of being popular, we shouldn’t be ashamed of experimenting. We shouldn’t be ashamed of learning from every piece of content – and we certainly shouldn’t be ashamed of being able to write stories which people want to read, regardless of whether it’s an in-depth investigation or a fun conversation about whether a popular sausage roll shop is moving into drive-thrus near you. Which, for now, it appears they probably aren’t … as we now know.