Making ripples in 2017: Why we need to learn to listen to each other more, and make decisions based on fact, not hope

ripple

One of the great things about my job is I get to meet great people, every week, who care deeply about regional journalism. They are people who aren’t blind to the significant challenges the industry faces, but are trying to do something about it.

The risks of writing this post are multiple. I could offend colleagues who I don’t mention. I may mention someone who thoroughly disagrees with me generally and I end up looking a bit silly as a result. This could end up as a the basis of an article on Holdthefrontpage, thus inviting its commenting community to chuck metaphorical cabbages at me along the lines of ‘who does he think he is?’

And then there’s the risk to the people I may mention here. I wrote a similar post last year, largely in response to Holdthefrontpage blogger Steve Dyson’s annual ‘regional heroes’ list, which I felt focused very much on the negatives within our industry (in fairness, they do dominate the headlines). Dyson later referred to this list being ‘the corporate speaking.‘ So apologies to anyone who loses their street cred from what follows!

Having said all that, perhaps it’s odd to start with arguably one of the darkest moments of the regional press this year, in August when the Oldham Evening Chronicle became the first daily newspaper in the UK to go into administration in recent times.

ChronicleThere aren’t many managers in journalism who have avoided dealing with the complex issues triggered by redundancies and restructures, but very few will have found themselves in the same situation Chron editor David Whaley did, as his newsroom was told not only was that day’s newspaper their last, but also the entire staff had lost their jobs.

A sign of things to come? I hope not. But perhaps the industry wouldn’t have been so surprised had it paid more attention to comments made by Whaley at the Society of Editors Conference in Carlisle in 2016, when he warned:

“We need to find a funding model that is sustainable because the cash cows of cars, jobs and homes have long-since gone.

“In Oldham we’ve had an evening newspaper for 157 years. I’d like to think we play a big part in democracy.

“With the pressures on the pension fund deficit and other things one day we could walk in and the door won’t open, that’s the reality.”

I think one of the biggest challenges journalism faces is listening to voices which say things we don’t agree with. In the same speech, Whaley spoke out in favour out-sourcing print subbing to another company, of challenging reporters to get copy right first time, and warned that small wasn’t beautiful when trying to find savings to mitigate for declining revenue.

All these things go against the perceived wisdom within regional journalism. Disagreeing with the perceived wisdom shouldn’t always be seen as going against journalism, not least because such debates are required for our industry to adapt and survive.

To that end, the interview Dyson conducted with former Trinity Mirror chief operating officer Mark Hollinshead for inpublishing, contains comments which the industry should take note of:

“On the commercial side, the industry has continued in a Canute-like way trying to stop the decline of property, motors and job advertising.

“They’ve got to realise that it’s gone. Publishers should concentrate on the things they can influence, not on the things they can’t. They should turn their attention to the categories that are in growth. The clue’s in the type of journalism that’s attracting large audiences online such as holidays and travel, health and fitness, food and drink, hobbies and pastimes, fashion and entertainment.

“In the newspaper business, without stating the bleeding obvious, it’s still about creating great stories that attract an audience. An audience that’s relevant and appealing to advertisers. It’s the same online as it is print. All businesses have to start with the customer and work backwards.”

Sounds simple when said like that – only it’s hard to pull off. So can 2018 be the year journalism stops holding debates about the value of online journalism, and focuses on making sure readers get what they want, and journalists have the relationships with readers to push out the news which really matters? 

It’s good to talk

If you want an example of what happens when journalists sit down and put traditional views to one side for the good of journalism, then the emerging BBC Local Democracy project is the one I’d point to. The idea of local BBC and local publishers working together three years ago would have been laughed at. The professional rivalry between the two sectors was deep-rooted to say the least.

Departing BBC director of News James Harding started the process three years ago, and people such as Jeremy Clifford of Johnston Press, and Santha Rasiah from the News Media Association on behalf of the regional press and Matthew Barraclough for the BBC have sculpted out a project which will see 150 journalists covering local councils from early this year. Our industry has been rife with skepticism – much of which could be resolved if the skeptics sought answers rather than sharing personal conjecture – but it’s an example of what the industry can do when it works together.

Much of the focus is on the local council coverage, but I think we’ll come to see the creation of a shared data team, combining BBC employees and journalists on secondment from within the regional press, as a game-changing development. The strength of the content being created already is testament to that. Much credit is due to the BBC’s digital executive editor Eileen Murphy for turning this idea into a reality.

Classroom calling

Hack-ademia is regular bug-bear of mine. A flourishing £9k-a-year industry for degree courses which often seems to be hopelessly out of touch with the needs of modern newsrooms and the skills they need to provide the students incurring debts to do their courses. If only they spent a bit more time working with us. In 2016’s list I mentioned several journalism experts I enjoy working with. Two more to mention this year are Paul Wiltshire at the University of Gloucestershire and Hilary Scott from the University of Northampton.

Despite only being a couple of years out of the newsroom daily grind, Paul spent time during the summer in various newsrooms seeing what had changed and understanding what his students need to know to get on.

Hilary, meanwhile, was often the sole academic voice on the BBC local journalism working group. I may not have always agreed with what she had to say, but at least Hilary made the effort to input into such an important project, rather than just offering views from sidelines, as so many within journalism’s academic corridors do.

Then there was Manchester

So, 1,000 words in, where to next? If anything proved the role digital regional journalism can play in society, it’s the Manchester Evening News’s coverage of the Arena bombing in late May. (Disclaimer: The MEN is one of the newsrooms I work with).

The MEN’s coverage reached, over the course of the first 48 hours, north of 70% of the Greater Manchester population. Its daily local reach peaked, but has remained higher that it was at the start of the year – perhaps the surest sign that during Manchester’s darkest hours, it got its coverage very right, something readers appreciated.

The MEN is one of a number of titles which has worked hard to disprove a journalistic myth that if an issue is important it therefore won’t attract audiences. MEN political editor Jennifer Williams has led the way here, attracting large audiences to a range of important issues, most notably (and by no means an isolated example) the Spice epidemic expose which set the agenda and kept going. Big stories about failing schools and homelessness also had impact because they written to be read by lots of people.  Think you can’t captivate an audience with a feature on social housing? Think again.

Pick an audience, an interested audience

Josh Parry’s investigation in the Liverpool Echo about a church offering a ‘gay cure’, Liam Thorp and Paul Philbin’s probe into cabbies selling ‘package deals’ for prostitutes in Liverpool, and more recently the exhaustive coverage of the pay and perks of the Unviersity of Bath’s vice-channcellor, led by Sam Petherick of the Bath Chronicle are also all examples of what the audiences which can be achieved to stories about important issues if you constantly think about how you interest people in those issues.

WalesOnline also blazed a trail with a different sort of journalism, setting out to uncover issues by answering questions such as: “What’s it like to live on a Welsh council estate?” By Gemma Parry, it was a powerful and very well-read piece of journalism. Pushing stereotypes to one side, real people seeing their views in the mainstream media is surely an essential part of journalism in 2018.

Talking of investigations, there’s a lot to be learnt from Johnston Press’s group-wide investigations unit, which results regularly in titles across the country setting the local agenda with big stories.  Archant’s investigations unit continues to deliver big stories led by investigations editor Tom Bristow, while Emma Youle from Archant’s London titles bagged several big awards, most notably the Paul Foot award for investgiative journalism.

Show them the wires

2017 was a big year for politics for obvious reasons, and within the regional Press the familiar tune of being largely overlooked by the party leaders was once again played. Plymouth Herald reporter Sam Blackledge (now at ITV) caused a stir – and embarrassment you’d hope for the Prime Minister – when he documented his ‘three minutes of nothing’ with the PM during a visit to the area. Sometimes it pays to ‘show the wires’ and this example, the most shared article on Twitter from the Herald this year, is a great example of that.

Jacqui Merrington at CornwallLive also caused a stir when she revealed her team had been banned from filming a Theresa May visit on the grounds her team were ‘print media’ and then kept in a room away from the PM. It’s this preparedness to ‘show the wires’ which builds trust with readers, and also causes embarrassment to those seeking to stage-manage elections. A study by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism on the attitudes of the major parties towards the regional press at election time made for grim reading.

The hills are alive with the sound of digital

When people want to see digital newsrooms in action, they tend to look towards the titles at the top of the ABCe league tables.

Fair enough, but 2017 was a great year to help titles like SomersetLive, run by Emma Slee, DevonLive, with Patrick Phelvin, CornwallLive with Jacqui Merrington (mentioned above) and GloucestershireLive, the website run by Jenny Eastwood after the two Gloucestershire newspapers went weekly in the autumn.

I mention these titles in particular because of the scale of their audience growth in relatively rural areas … and the fact they are clearly watched by regional newsrooms using Crowdtangle, given the speed their Facebook success stories are quickly replicated across the UK.

Print, innovation, and…

What of print in 2017? Of course, circulations continue to decline, as did revenue in print too, leading to the closure of titles which were no longer viable as businesses. And while Toby Granville, the editorial director of Newsquest, raised eyebrows when he told the SoE conference this year that ‘print was our innovation’ following a series of new title launches, there is certainly innovation to be found in the regional press.s of

Take the Sheffield Star, under the editorship of Nancy Fielder. It’s been a mainstay on HTFP this year with new ideas which appear from afar to be about the title playing a greater role in shaping the future of the city and ensuring readers know they individual parts they can play too. It’s an exciting approach which has generated many strong splashes.

In Norfolk, The New European (on my list last year) has surely outlived its pop-up publication tag as it heads towards its second birthday, led by Matt Kelly and Steve Anglesey. There’s a lot for the regional press to take from the success here – most notably that the more you know your readers, and the more your readers know you share their concerns, the greater your chance of success is.

The hyperlocal space seems to focusing more on print too, perhaps fuelled by the on-going success of the Hackney Citizen which continues to be a thorn in the side of the local council. There is talk of further hyperlocal launches in print in 2018.

2018…

So what to expect in 2018? Well, audio should be front and centre of minds in the regional press. Podcasts are a natural extension for many newsrooms, and are a huge opportunity to engage with readers. The Liverpool Echo is leading the way here, with football podcasts listened to by hundreds of thousands of people every month.

I also hope that long-form journalism continues to develop regionally too. One of my 2017 highlights is the long list of immersive story experiences newsrooms I get to work with embarked upon, often keeping readers engaged for up to 10minutes a time in big stories.

Increasingly, it feels as though the newsrooms which understand their readers the most are the ones which have the brightest future. The success or otherwise of any brand or publication can never be solely put at the door of the newsroom, as commercial viability ultimately decides what survives and what doesn’t. But commercial viability – be it from programmatic advertising, local sales, third-party distribution, events, sponsorship or related sales – will surely be far more likely if newsrooms focus on knowing what their loyal readers want, and setting out to find more loyal readers along the way.

Of course, local journalism is more challenged than ever before, not just by revenue changes but also by the value local people attach to their news. But it’s important to celebrate those making a difference in an industry I think we’d all agree is vital to the communities we serve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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