Finding your newsroom’s ‘public interest’ metric

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In newsrooms, we can measure things like never before. Page views and active engaged time are the minute-by-minute trading currencies of the newsrooms I work with. On a monthly basis, no fewer than 21 metrics are studied to ensure we’re building a future for journalism which is sustainable.

Those metrics include the two mentioned above, but also volume of high impact articles (those engaging large volumes of readers for more than a minute), video streams, video completion rates, pages per loyal visitor and audio streams. Anyone can chase a page view, but building a sustainable future for journalism takes more than that.

And it’s the sustainability of local journalism which has been in spotlight since the publication of the Cairncross Review into journalism a few weeks ago. The review highlights a risk to ‘public interest journalism’ in a world where the reader is more reluctant to pay than in the past, and where revenue is attached to page views, with little or no value attached to what’s on the page by those advertising on it.

The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme has shown us a way around this – the BBC funding 150 reporters to cover local councils across the country. (Disclaimer: I worked on the project team which created the scheme, and the company I work for, Reach, employs 55 LDRs). The Cairncross Report proposes the expansion of the LDR scheme.

Cairncross suggests the an “Institute of Public Interest News” should be set up, and funded (exactly how is unclear) to provide a certain future for such coverage, including the existing LDRs. Financially, of course, it would, which would be good news, and it would at least guarantee public interest journalism continued.

But the larger challenge would remain unaddressed. Editors didn’t stop covering every council meeting because they lost interest in council meetings. They did so because they began to have fewer reporters, and had to prioritise where they thought readers would be most interested. This began to happen long before local newsrooms fully embraced digital publishing.

In fact, some editors will point to the fact it began even before they were asked to cut staffing numbers – the sense of council reporting being a ‘duty’ rather than a ‘sales driver’ is deep-rooted.

On the episode of the Media Show which discussed the Review, Dame Cairncross said the presence of reporters in council chambers helped councils to make better decisions. No local journalist would challenge this belief, but equally the Government could simply hire KPMG to fulfil a similar function.

Daniel Ionescu, who founded The Lincolnite website, and has two local democracy reporters, told the programme there wasn’t always the appetite for democratic content.

And therein lies the problem. It’s one thing to secure the future of public interest journalism through guaranteed funding, but wouldn’t it be better to secure the future of the funding by having more people value it, and seek it out?

If we succeed in maintaining the status quo in public interest reporting – providing a service we as journalists think is important, which politicians say they value (although contrast that with the cross-party demeaning of local media from politicians ranging from Jonny Mercer the Tory to Jeremy Corbyn the Labour leader), but which we accept people won’t really set out to read – we will have, overall, failed.

But imagine if we lived in a world where a Tommy Robinson was in charge, or in a position of influence. Sound far fetched? At times of low election turnout, it’s all the more likely. Low turnout provided the BNP the chance to gain council seats in the 2000s, lets not forget. And if we’re honest, if populism was in power, how do you think a “you’re paying for the enemy of people to do their worst” argument would play out?

Journalism needs to look at voter turnout at local elections and ask: How do we improve that? Get that right, and it’ll be all the easier to justify the role of public interest news in local society. 

The danger in the Cairncross approach is that it prompts the news industry to see public interest news as a worthy, important service (which to be fair, the news industry already knows) but never likely to be popular. It provides a cure to the problem, but doesn’t prevent it occurring again.

As the news industry – publishers, journalists, platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter – we need to find ways to get people to engage (or just read) public interest news. I have a sneaking suspicion this a problem we used to mask by sticking public interest news on page 15 of a daily paper. It was a neat solution: Far enough back in the book not to trouble the sales-driving pages, helped us deliver our public service mission but which never forced us to address the critical issues: If public interest journalism is important for democracy, isn’t it important that voters read it?

It can be done. ‘Private firm handed ‘super contract’ to deliver huge swathe of council services in Trafford for more than 20 years could be ditched after just four years,‘ written by LDR Lisa Meakin at the MEN was read by 6,000 people in Trafford. “Why Leicestershire county council has spent £3m on a car dealership” by LDR Amy Orton at LeicestershireLive was read by around 7,000 people in the county. This is why council tax is set to go up in Plymouth on PlymouthLive by Ed Oldfield, also an LDR, was read by 4,000 people in Plymouth. All three stories are ones which travelled further thanks to clever digital storytelling techniques, engaging people who otherwise wouldn’t be looking for such information.

But will it result in more people voting? In more people seeking out information which we think is in the ‘public interest’ but which too often we are happy to concede interest the public? Who knows, but if we are gifted the chance to have the future of public interest news underwritten into the future, we must consider adding voter turnout to our sustainable newsroom metrics.

 

 

 

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