Last week, a Cardiff-based academic shared with Twitter a screengrab he had assembled while apparently preparing for some teaching.
He clearly likes a pasty more than most, given his desire to go into the archive of a website and search for Greggs in it. The upshot – and screenshot, for that matter – was the usual critique of digital regional journalism: It’s not as good as it used to be, it’s not real journalism, it’s national, not local, it’s PR in disguise, it’s advertising not marked up as such. And so on.
For a Twitter post which claims to lament the over-promotion of Greggs, it’s a shame Andy Williams chose to essentially reheat a similar argument about Greggs which emerged in Press Gazette a few weeks ago.
And, like the anonymous Press Gazette story, it didn’t take long for this one to get taken apart. The vast majority of the links posted are from the days when we used to upload entire newspapers automatically to the web. Greggs, as a national business operating across Wales and I daresay employing hundreds of people in Wales, used to get coverage of its financial performances when announced to the stock market.
In that sense, it’s no different to any other employer which might not be headquartered in Wales, but which employs a lot of people in Wales. Because – and this won’t come as a shock to anyone in journalism – stories about things which are relevant to people’s lives tend to be quite well read.
We knew that in print, and we know that online for sure. In short, there’s nothing new here.
This was all pointed out to Andy on Twitter quite quickly. Conversation quickly turned to this piece from the Daily Post in North Wales, in which reporter Zara Whelan went on the Greggs diet for a week to see if you could lose weight. The answer: You can, but it’s not easy!
In many ways, no different to any diet road test article which has been the bread and butter of feature pages in newspapers local and national for decades. The article is as much about Zara as it is Greggs, and the fact it was picked up by WalesOnline was testament to the fact it was proving to be a popular article.
And proved to be a popular article on WalesOnline, which serves a very different audience to its sister site in the North. In fact, the average reader spent more than two minutes reading it, around three times longer than time spent reading the average article online or, indeed, print.
In the space of a few tweets, WalesOnline was accused of failing to mark up an advertorial (which it wasn’t – an obvious fact for anyone who knows you don’t tend to get brand-critical advertorials), and then of effectively costing itself money by running an article someone should have paid for.
I think this is called the have your steak bake and eat it logic.
(The popularity of the article actually guaranteed revenue from a feature from which no other money would have been forthcoming – revenue which helps fund journalism).
Why does this bother me? Well, for one, I worry about what journalism students are being taught if this is the basis of research for teaching … unless the lesson is to try and prove that ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’ is still alive and well in academia.
But it’s also alarming that those involved in the teaching and supposed scrutiny of the media are so loose with their facts – and the damage it causes. Last night, the same screenshot was used by an assembly member in Wales, an ex-journalist called Lee Waters, who like others was confusing ‘advertorial’ with ‘content I don’t believe is journalism.’
I find the rise in the number of public servants happy to vocally stand in judgement on what constitutes journalism rather worrying. In my experience, they often lobby to be scrutinised more by the media, but generally really prefer compliant coverage which reaches a wide audience.
Does that screenshot and associated commentary paint a fair picture of a website which publishes 3,000 stories a month and covers more political and Welsh national affairs stories every week than anyone bar (and maybe even including) the BBC? Of course not.
Does that screenshot aid the academic debate around or scrutiny of the media in Wales? No, because it’s just a knotty mess of confusion, inaccuracies and missed opportunities to check basic facts, which left others confused:
Rather like the difference between a story in the public interest (ie important the public know about it) and one which interests the public (ie popular), there’s a world of difference between ‘branded content’ (ie paid for) and ‘content about a brand’. Which is what this was.
Journalism faces many challenges. It deserves to be scrutinised by people who share the same appreciation of the importance of facts as those working in the industry.
Journalistic decisions should be debated, but debated with the facts. It’s worth remembering that journalism did try for a long time to only give people what journalists thought they needed – and readers turned away. Is that the future we want?
Or do we want to be able to speak truth to power in the knowledge that those being spoken to know those doing the talking have a large audience of voters and taxpayers listening to them? If the answer here is yes, lets get off our high horses about popular content and work towards engaging readers through lots of different types of content.
There are plenty of people ready to do the industry down, and some would argue plenty of legitimate reasons to do so. Shoddy screengrab sharing achieves nothing beyond a momentary flurry of retweets and helps no-one bar those looking for a reason to do the media down,
Surely we should all be better than that? Comment might be free, but it doesn’t need to be fact free.