Local journalism’s mission: Becoming obviously relevant again

If you read just one piece of journalism-related stuff this weekend, make sure it’s Mary Hamilton’s 13 learnings from working at the Guardian.

One of the most successful digital journalists to have begun their career in the regional press, Mary’s article on Medium is rightly winning plaudits, and deserves the widest possible audience.

For me, it’s point 7 which is the one our industry still has the furthest to go to crack:

7. Platforms are not strategies, and they won’t save news.

Seriously. If someone else’s algorithm change could kill your traffic and/or your business model, then you’re already dead. Google and Facebook are never going to subsidise news providers directly, and nor should they. Stop waiting for someone to make it go back to the way it was before. If what you do is essential to your audience, so essential that their lives wouldn’t be the same without it, then you should be able to monetise that. If it’s not, your first priority should be to admit that and then get on with changing it.

Facebook and Google are as successful as they are because they’ve found a thing that people want every day, and use it. And audience research I’m currently looking at suggests many local media readers visit the same sites every day via these platforms. But when did we stop being essential to readers?

A harsh truth which still isn’t widely accepted is that journalism – especially local journalism – had started losing this battle long before newsrooms started becoming interested in the internet. Indeed, the time it took for regional news to become interested in the internet probably exacerbated the problem.

Determining why newspaper sales were falling used to be, if not an art form, then a subject which prompted many hours of debates. Maybe cover prices went up too quickly, maybe people didn’t like what we were writing, or the way we changed our writing in response to falling newspaper sales.

The truth is, we’ll never know. Hindsight in this case can’t be 20:20. But what we can see is that the future of journalism – locally – depends on being a relevant part of people’s daily lives. And at some point in the past, that stopped.

To this end, the scale v engagement argument is a red herring. You need both. The former re-connects you to as many people as possible, the latter made possible by reaching people who appreciate what you do as they discover it.

Jim Brady, the man behind a new generation of city news sites in America, such as Billy Penn, described it well when, as reported by Parse.ly, he told a gathering that scale and loyalty aren’t mutually exclusive – but that loyalty holds the key to the future.

I think he’s right – and it takes us back to Mary’s seventh point. If people aren’t becoming loyal, why not? Melissa Gilkey, from Upworthy, speaking at the same event as Brady, said audience engagement [and therefore loyalty] “comes down to really, good, quality content.”

Which shares a spirit with another of Mary’s 13 points:

8. Quality journalism can be a strategy.

Making good stuff that people want to read — or watch — is a valid strategy, if it also includes monetising that attention effectively. So is choosing which platforms to focus on based on where your intended audience is and what you can do with them there. Good journalism — especially good reportage — gives people something important for which there is no substitute. (So does good entertainment, of course.) Many people value it enormously and, if you’re known for providing it, they’ll come to expect it and trust you more as a result. There’s no law that says people will only read celebrity news or stuff you’ve nicked off the front page of Reddit.

The vast majority of the Guardian’s most read pieces of all time are high quality journalism on serious topics. Many of them are live blogs of breaking news. I remember very fondly launching a 7,000-word piece by the former prime minister of Australia at 10am on a Saturday, when the internet is basically empty, and watching it smash our local traffic records. I remember the day when a piece about the death of capitalism went viral. Not every big hit is a long read or a deeply serious bit of journalism, of course, but if you write for the audience you want, and you respect people’s attention and intelligence, you might be pleasantly surprised by the long term results.

For a while now, commentators on the regional press have regularly highlighted examples of what they call clickbait or dumbing down. Conspiracy theories about three-line whips to report on Gregg the Bakers because it gets clicks abound. What they fail to do regularly is acknowledge the volumes of in-depth reporting which also appears on sites too.

If as an industry, we see scale as the way to get to a meaningful level of engagement – there’s no point boasting about 100% loyalty from readers if you can count the number of readers on ET’s left hand – it results in newsrooms being set up like this:


In other words, reporters need to be aware of what people are interested in (and the clue generally here is that if it’s about something obviously relevant to their lives, they care). If you get that right, then we stand a much better chance of making readers interested in the stuff we think they should care about, but which they don’t perhaps see as obviously relevant to their lives.

The Guardian’s ability to unleash a 7,000 word article on a Saturday morning by a former prime minister of Australia and then make it grab people’s attention is proof of this in action. You can’t just shout ‘this is by the old Austrialian PM and it’s important because we, The Guardian, are publishing it’ and get success. Pre-existing relationships between readers and the brand and its journalists are required to get that success.

Discussions of ‘shouldn’t this be advertising’ or ‘is this what journalists should be writing about’ or ‘this isn’t local, why are you writing about it’ may regularly appear on social media and comments boxes on Holdthefrontpage, but they are sideshows to what really matters.

What those debates show is that newsrooms have to  ride several horses: Reaching as many people as possible, engaging with as many people as possible from those who you reach, and retaining the relationship with as many of those you’ve engaged with as possible.

Underpinning that is a very basic principle: Understanding what people are interested in, and building your newsroom, and indeed your journalism, around it. That doesn’t mean sacrificing journalism as the altar of popularity, but simply understanding that the journalism we cherish is far more powerful when we make it popular … and asking ourselves how we make that happen.

The good news is that what I’m describing is happening daily right across the UK – and those who will be most successful in achieving this future for journalism are those who don’t use the past to judge the success of the present.

Local journalism’s future depends on being obviously relevant to readers. Increasing scale inches us in the right direction towards relevance, but the obviously bit only becomes present when you look at how engaged some of those readers are. Obviously.


One thought on “Local journalism’s mission: Becoming obviously relevant again

  1. You can’t do any of this without a substantial skilled experienced staff.
    Thousands of years worth of knowledge have been thrown away in job cuts. It takes time to learn a craft – how to read between the lines, question authority, to know what to ask and not be fobbed off so that vested interests such as government bodies, hospitals, industrial conerns and developers can be held to account.
    Complex issues need to be understood and then explained clearly.
    We are a long way from having quality local journalism.

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