Call this news? If the readers say so, then sure!

I suspect I wasn’t the only person to work within the regional press who sighed when Buzzfeed popped up on Friday with their annual critique of local newspapers.

It’s hardly new, wrapping a mixture of headlines which either fail an individual’s ‘call this news?’ test or which seem utterly bonkers. The latter often looks like this:

While the former can be like this:

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Big news? No. Important enough for someone to have contacted the local newsroom to mention it, or for it to be documented on parish council minutes? Probably. That’s local news – never really been designed to appeal to everyone, but in the days when print commanded the attention of a majority, newspapers were built in such a way as to ensure people felt they got enough of what they wanted to keep buying;

And then the internet came along, and made it easy for people to read just the bits they were interested in, rather than paying for the whole package. And then along came social media, creating filter bubbles for people with no guarantee that actual facts and balanced information sources would be part of a conversation at all.

Is local news really summed up by Buzzfeed’s annual review of the stories it seeks to gently mock? Of course not, but there’s only one reason Buzzfeed write it –  if indeed curating tweets and photos constitutes writing! – and that’s because people read it. So fair play to them.

On the same day, Bureau Local, the Google-funded project from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism to add new dimensions to data journalism in regional journalism, shared on Twitter its list of local journalism which had impressed its team:

I like the list they’ve produced because a) it includes a bunch of work from titles I work with therefore dispelling the myth that the titles I work with only write ‘clickbait’, b) it shows the regional press is doing important journalism and c) Good journalism comes from a variety of sources locally, including the Press, but also local BBC and hyperlocal websites.

Both Buzzfeed and the Bureau’s lists show that the regional Press in the UK – under challenging circumstances – has successfully migrated a lot of what it stood for in print online. None of the content in either list is the product of being digital publishers, but the product of trying to cover journalism which matters to people locally.

Ensuring such journalism – generally content people don’t know they want until they see it – is sustainable is local journalism’s big challenge, and requires us being more audience-centric than ever before, not just at publisher or title level, but on a journalist-by-journalist basis.

That involves writing what people do want to read about – the stuff they search for and the stuff they share which hopefully becomes the stuff they seek about – and building relationships with readers so that they know when a reporter says ‘I’ve been working on this, it’s important’ they know it’s worth clicking on.

A nib about a new vacuum at Carnforth village hall will never have looked out of place in the paper, but the fact it makes a Buzzfeed list of the bizarre is testament to the way every article now has to work in isolation. It’s our job as journalists to join the dots for readers, and re-establish (or establish) the relationship we always believed readers had with news via newspaper – ie an open mind and open half hour to read an open newspaper.

Newsrooms now cover a broader range of subjects than ever before, driven in part by a greater understanding of what readers want. One of way of judging what readers want is to see which ones they react to on social media – very much the recreation of seeing a news bill on your high street, only with the ability for the reader to tell a lot of people what you think about it.

Using Crowdtangle, Facebook’s analytics tool for publishers, I looked at the articles which had captured attention over the past week or so. I filtered them by ‘overperformance’ in the eyes of Crowdtangle, to a) focus on the articles which had attracted more attention than a brand’s average posts and b) ensure that the list reflected a cross-section of the UK, not just the titles with the biggest social media followings.

Here’s what a top 10 looks like on Facebook:

  1. Missing from home < Carlisle News and Star

3. From the Glasgow Evening Times, proof that good news stories are wanted by reader

 

4. In Cambridge, almost 180k views on a video of it snowing in Cambridge. If people say we write about the weather too much, it’s only because they read about it too much!

5. Jon Snow selling a Christmas tree in Aberdeen? Go on then…

6. Snow in Scotland? Yes, that’s news!

7. And Robert the Bruce is still news in Scotland

8. The prospect of direct flights to London from Carlisle has attracted a lot of attention

9. Stories about homelessness always get a reaction from readers – especially ones which challenge stereotypes

10. Another missing from home story – but one with a sad ending 

11. A wise woman once told me you should never finish a listicle on an obvious number. And also number 11 in this list is further proof of the power of uplifting stories:

What does this list tell us? To me, it’s that audiences still respond to the stories we’d consider ‘bread and butter’ within our industry – but it’s essential to monitor audience response, behaviour and analytics to ensure those stories reach as many people as possible.

And that, along with the Buzzfeed list and the Bureau list, stories are now seen in isolation, rather than as part of a bundle. A challenge for newsrooms everywhere – and one which can be overcome if we pay attention to what readers, rather than our peers, consider news. Get that right, and the sorts of stories the Bureau rightly celebrates can become ones which have impact through their mass reach.

A work in progress for sure.

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