The other week, I tried to explain some changes we’d made to the way we cover football in London. It was in response to a post on a Brentford FC fan site by a journalist called Jim Levack, who was annoyed that the titles I work with no longer send a dedicated reporter to every game.
The reason for doing this was simple: The audience being generated from Brentford FC coverage wasn’t big enough to cover the costs of covering Brentford home and away. It’s not the first time such a situation has arisen in journalism, nor will be it be the last.
I also argued that being present at every game, home and away, is not the thing which makes your coverage of a club credible. There are journalists up and down the country, and plenty of people doing the jobs of journalists in non-traditional ways, who prove that. It’s important, of course, but not THE defining attribute of credible club journalism.
This view generated howls of protest from journalism’s online commentators, some still working in the trade, some not. Very few, if any, were typical readers – as we know, real readers rarely enter such debates.
In various debates on various platforms, I was told I didn’t believe in sending people to football matches (wrong), wanted all journalists to copy and paste from a desk (wrong) and that I clearly didn’t have a clue about journalism to think such thoughts (again, wrong, I hope).
I was also told, on more than one occasion, that journalism shouldn’t be about money. That some things are more important than being able to afford doing it.
The irony of being scolded for damaging journalism by folk who openly admit not researching what I’d said, or going to the source, probably got lost somewhere.
It’s really easy to virtue signal about journalism if you are capable of just ignoring the small matter of how to pay for it. Of course journalism is important, of course it shouldn’t just be about making the money to fund it or from it… but if you don’t fund it, all that’s left is a hobby for those who can afford it.
When I first became a journalist, the newsroom relationship with money I first experienced involved little more than moaning about the ad volume, and moaning even more when the local Renault dealer rejected the third rewrite of his ad feature about discount MOTs.
The whole church v state view of the world between sales and newsrooms worked when there was more than one revenue stream supporting journalism, and only one show in town for advertising locally. As advertising revenue in print and newspaper circulations have declined, that church v state relationship has become more complicated.
That’s where working for a larger company hopefully has advantages. It’s far easier to ignore a client threatening to pull his advertising because of a story he doesn’t like when you’re working in a bigger company than if you’re working for a company which is smaller and maybe only has a handful of advertisers. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it helps.
In 2018, it’s possible to argue that editors wield more commercial clout – and have a greater influence on the financial success of a company than ever before.
With a great front page we’d always hope to shift more copies, online we know that the more page views we generate, the more money is made. It’s a very simple equation, and one which should inspire, rather than only worry, journalists.
Of course, there are two ways you can go when it comes to the page views = money discussion. You can just pile on page views from any old content and hope for the best. That’s the clickbait route which ultimately leads nowhere because people stop clicking when they see you on Facebook, Twitter or in Google Search.
The second route involves taking what you know – in the case of the newsrooms I work with, local journalism – and finding ways to get it to as many people as possible, so that it is sustainable in its own right. Important journalism works best when it’s read by lots of people, because it means people are aware of it. The current online model means it’s also more likely to be sustainable long-term if it’s reaching more people.
That’s got to be good right? It should be empowering for journalists, encouraging journalists to build audiences around their work, and telling stories in the way people will most likely respond to it.
The days of editors being prepared to accept a lower sale for an ‘important’ front page – eg a campaign launch – need not apply online. Making the important well read is the route to sustainability.
There’s a third route to go, of course, and that’s to dismiss the finances underpinning journalism as somehow unimportant. Ironically, the people I encounter who do this will often have argued that websites shouldn’t carry all of the newspaper ‘because the internet doesn’t have any money in it.’ Thankfully, that pearl of wisdom is long-consigned to the history books.
But what do you do when you can’t make a certain topic cover its costs in its own right? The options are A) to carry on regardless because ‘it’s the right thing to do,’ B) try and find another way to sustain it because it’s important, or c) try and find a new way to make it sustainable.
Option A doesn’t lead anywhere good, as far as journalism is concerned. So that means options b and c are the only worthwhile options to pursue, which brings us back round the Brentford FC discussion. When it’s not working for enough readers, you have to find a new way of doing something.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a large PLC or a hyperlocal, the BBC or an independent publisher, if you can’t cover your costs, your journalism can’t survive.
Reach an audience, generate the page views, build a new revenue. It should be empowering, and used to build a stronger future for journalism.
To that end, maybe we should spend less time lamenting the importance of the page view, and instead embrace it for empowering journalists and newsrooms to have a greater control of their future, and the future of their local journalism.
But you can’t do that by ignoring that without money, journalism isn’t sustainable. Journalism isn’t too important for the money that sustains it to be discussed openly. Journalism is too important for the debate about how it is funded to be treated as a side show.