Greggs opening drive thrus and the perception problem caused by unbundled content


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.

Reader first?

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:

  1. “What do local people want to read?”
  2. “How do we make important journalism important to local readers?”
  3. “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.

9 thoughts on “Greggs opening drive thrus and the perception problem caused by unbundled content

  1. Absolute rubbish.

    One one hand your saying Greggs would never pay for this kind of publicity as its a non story, yet on the other hand your publishing it. You can’t have it both ways!

    You also don’t clearly explain how, when there are thousands of stories published each week, do some papers mysteriously write the same story.

    You think the public are stupid.

    Basically the more of this rubbish you publish, the quicker your sales will decline. Crack on!

    1. Thanks for the reply. The overall point I was making was that stories such as these have always appeared as a bundle of stories in print, but we have to see that things are seen differently online. However, they aren’t representative of what online journalism is, just part of a mix.

      If you read what I’ve written, you’ll see I explain how story ideas are shared, and then local newsrooms can decide what to publish based on what they think their readers will want. I also don’t describe it as a non-story, just a story for which there is no commercial benefit for Greggs.

      I don’t think the public are stupid – indeed, by looking at audience metrics (as in what readers show us they are reading and what they think of it based on the time they spend with it, how likely they are to return etc) the reader is at the centre of thinking.

      As I was writing about online content, I’m not sure I see the relevance with print sales declining.

      1. You’re missing the point. Go back to basics. The ‘Story’ was about the fact that a Greggs has opened in Manchester and other papers have ran the story in Leicester and Grimsby for example, to say Greggs is open in Manchester but not there.

        Do you actually realise how stupid that sounds? Honestly?

        If you can’t then your the sole reason why there will be more redundancy and more people losing their homes and jobs as the downward spiral continues.

        Did all the separate papers ask Greggs for a comment?!

      2. Hi Thomas. I suspect we aren’t going to agree here. The point I’m making is that this is a piece of content which would equally have made it into print in the pre-internet days as it is quite quirky. It could have appeared as grout on a national page or on a food and drink section. It would have been obvious to ask the question ‘When will we get one?’

        There are dozens of stories a day appearing in our titles where not all the quotes have been sourced by journalists in that newsroom – PA stories, for example, and that’s always been the case.

        The point I’m making is that the hoo-haa here is triggered by the fact every story is unbundled online. That Greggs nib may never have sold a print edition back in the day, but it has the power to pull people into our sites, and we therefore make money from it.

        We have to be careful, in a world where each story stands or falls by itself, that we don’t inadvertently damage our brands with the content we produce. As I mention in the post, looking beyond headline metrics and at what loyal, brand readers did with the story, I don’t we have a problem with this one.

        Your theory about doing stories like this being the reason why newspaper sales are declining doesn’t stack up. The industry is being challenged by a revenue shift to Google and Facebook (where quality of content you’ll appear next to is far less guaranteed than on news sites) and by a newspaper sales decline with dates back as far as the 1980s.

  2. Hi David: I don’t think your points on this particular blog result in clear understanding. It still feels – from looking at how various Trinity Mirror titles ran the Greggs piece – that there was a rush to run a piece with a one-geographic word change. It might be an isolated case, but it came across as the sort click-bait that’s not doing the industry any good. Yes, experiment, but let’s be open about when it goes wrong. And it looks like this one failed because it revealed a cynical attempt at clicks. There are some great things going on with much of your digital strategy at Trinity Mirror, but this ‘unbundled’ example doesn’t feel like one of them. More importantly, it didn’t feel like the right thing to be doing as far as at least one of your own staff was concerned. i realise that some of the ‘failing’ might be considered as perception. But perceptions are important when they look so contrived to the outside (and some of the internal) world. Best wishes, Steve.

    PS: Separately, can I plea for ‘drive-through’? Even if Greggs or whoever call it a Drive Thru, that’s a proper noun and so should only be spelled and punctuated like that if used as a proper noun. No common noun should include a ‘thru’, nor leave out the adjectival hyphen. Grammar pedantry over!

    1. Afternoon Steve. Good point on drive thru vs drive through. The McDonaldsisation of English?

      I think it’s important we make the difference between journalism chatter and readers and their experiences. Will the brand loyal readers who read this article in one place be aware that content of a similar theme appeared elsewhere? I suspect not.

      The fact it has become a talking point is because you can find instant examples of a similar story across the country via Google in minutes. The very same will have existed in print in the 90s but finding it would have been much harder (hence the growth of clips services, I guess).

      The portrayal here by many commenting on one story (one of thousands) is that it is somehow reflective of everything we do. There’s nothing cynical about using popular content to reach an audience, with the flow of £££ which follows being used to support content which takes longer and may not be so obviously popular.

      The key is not to alienate readers in the process, and the assumption many make is that we’ve done that – but the metrics we use suggest we haven’t – single page visits to the article, proportion of visitors who were brand loyal and so on. At the end of the day, audience data is only reflecting reader habits.

      As for ringing UKPG to complain, a journalist should never complain about people who feel compelled to whistleblow, but telling the truth should be part of whistleblowing! It’s disappointing that someone felt the need to do that, especially as we work hard on the ‘heart and minds’ side of thing – personally I’ve always tried to do that ever since we first worked together in 2008 and I saw the difference it made in Brum. I spend a lot of time talking to people about the logic behind what we’re trying to do (in real life and on social, email etc). But as you know, there comes a point where you can’t keep debating and have to expect people to buy into a vision or not.

  3. Okay – I’m from the North East and I live overseas so I’m not your usual reader but I guess in this day and age my clicks are worth the same as anyone else’s. I want to talk about the Chronicle sport.

    Firstly – I am usually lured there (against my better judgement) by a tweet that’s something like “Rafa’s verdict on who he’ll make captain” and I click and the whole story will be built around a quote where Rafa says “I don’t wan’t to speak right now about who will be my new captain”.

    So far, so infuriating.

    But when I get to the page – I am liable to be asked to take a questionnaire first. Then a banner ad pops up. Except it doesn’t pop up straight away – the whole thing stalls until it pops up. So I have to let it go through this and then I turn it off. It normally freezes for a bit again here.

    Then I scroll down and there is always a video at the top. I have to let this load before I can switch it off. Then when I scroll – despite switching it off – 50% of the time it pops up on the right hand side of the screen obscuring words. I have to switch if off again or sometimes I have to scroll back up and turn off the screen again at the top because it has auto played anyway.

    The words – for what they are – are interspersed between plugs and ads and usually one more embedded video that needs dealing with. The page just won’t scroll. I have a powerful Mac and it still can’t deal with it.

    The pages stick constantly and my computer freezes. I sent a video of this to the Chron editor and got no response. I assume he thinks I’m just a crank.

    There are normally errors and the errors are almost never corrected. So firstly it’s not being subbed. Secondly no one seems to care when errors go through – they are almost never changed later.

    Quite often the initial tweeted link won’t send me to a story page but to a live timeline. Sometimes you can scroll up and down this and not find the news because it hasn’t automatically updated. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you just reckon it’s not worth the effort any more.

    Following most local sports reporters I see that The Times, Telegraph and Mail are now always ahead of the Chronicle. The Chron is playing an entirely reactive game. If a story breaks then they’ll have it on their site inside half an hour but they aren’t breaking stories any more. There is clearly no goodwill left at the club because club announcements just go to their own platforms. Again I know of them at the same time as the Chron who then try and pad out a story on them (with pop ups, links, embed video etc).

    In the past when tabloids shared transfer rumours I could rely on the local paper to tell me which ones were true. Now, I guess it’s all just potential content and they share them all – there doesn’t seem to be any further investigation.

    It’s clear that they are shovelling so many stories (albeit each story written only scrapes the surface). Lots of opinions – almost no original news whatsoever.

    You would have to guess that everything above is known to you. You’ve crunched the numbers on each issue and worked out it was all a price worth paying to continue to make papers profitable. The question being, I guess, will it also hasten their demise?

    But, the amount of people who just won’t deal with those pages any more must reduce your potential readership every single day.

  4. Hi Steve, thanks for taking the time to comment. Quite a lot here, but I’ll try to deal with it all:

    Headlines which over-promise: This shouldn’t happen, because it results in exactly the sort of reaction you are describing here. There is a balance to be had with making a headline enticing enough to stand out in NewsNow etc and ensuring that people leave the article feeling their decision to click the headline was the right one. I don’t think this is that common on our sites, or intentional, as we put a lot of stock by time spent on article, volume of readers who click through to another article, and increasingly we ask whether the visitor to an article was brand loyal or a repeat visitor.

    Surveys: You mention you are overseas and as such, you probably are likely to see a Google Survey more than if you were in the UK. This is because of the way the revenue model overseas works at the moment – and is something we are working on. In the UK, you should see a survey a maximum of once a month. We are trying to offer our content for free (as dictated by the current online news economy) so do need to seek revenue in other ways, but appreciate that some of these formats can irritate readers. That’s why it’s important we get the content right.

    Video: Video is something most of our readers appear to want, but we need to make sure it’s delivered in a way which doesn’t distract from the rest of the story. When we introduced the player which moves down the side of the screen, we saw very few people actively closing it, and it is meant to work so it run over the right-hand rail, not the text of the article, although this will in part be dependent on size of screen. Happy to look at this to make sure we can see what you are seeing.

    Other stuff in content: We’re seeking to make improvements here. Traditionally, newspaper editorial and commercial departments worked in isolation to some extent. We need to get better at this so you get a good experience – eg where an article breaks for an ad, put other ‘breakers’ like pictures and links within the same break in the article A work in progress which is complicated by the fact we publish across desktop (your experience I think as you see the floating video player), mobile, FBIA and Amp.

    On errors in content (which I think you’re talking about) we do change errors when spotted, and need to do this more quickly – also a work in progress. I know Darren, the editor in chief in the NE, very well and he takes dealing with reader complaints very seriously – if you want to drop me a DM on Twitter (@davidhiggerson) happy to pass on to Darren, who speaks to me regularly about feedback from readers on some of the very issues you are making.

    I do think the Chronicle, and various other titles I work with, stand apart from other publishers because we set out to be ‘fan first’ – writing and broadcasting stuff we think will interest fans, and constantly asking ourselves where we will add value. The issue of transfer rumours always vexes because fans clearly want it but at the same time don’t just want us to report rumours – they want context as well. This is what we set out to do.

    Football news in the traditional sense is a precious commodity these days as football clubs and licence-rights holders seek to lock down exclusives for themselves, but I know the ChronicleLive football team still excel here. I take your point about opinion, but the insight in these opinion pieces time and time again comes back as the stuff most valued by our most loyal readers.

    So on the type of content, and our position, I have to disagree! In fact, I’d argue strongly ChronicleLive is one of the best in the country for its ‘fan first’ approach and the response it gets from fans. I don’t think any other team of journalists covering NUFC will spend as much time putting fans at the centre of their thinking. We know there is always more we can do – not least around the experience on site and the sell of stories.

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