Why we must challenge the most dangerous trope in local journalism

Untitled designIn the battle to preserve quality local journalism, the page view is increasingly portrayed as the problem, the thing which is undermining efforts to keep reporting of communities alive.

So much so that in a recent British Journalism Review article, two academics writing about the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme presented this sentence as absolute fact:

“In Reach’s case, there is a clear desire to prioritise less serious material. It emails newsrooms with a weekly round-up of LDRS “highlights” – those that have attracted the most page views. This runs counter to the ethos of the LDR service.”

There are many inaccuracies in the article by Professors Greenslade and Barnett, which could have been addressed, or at the very least caveated, had even basic research been conducted with those it sought to criticise (mainstream publishers). Instead, it was anchored around an unverified user comment posted under a Press Gazette article.

Both the editor and the chairman of the editorial board reject suggestions of basic research failures, or factual inaccuracies, arguing that the BJR is about sharing opinions, and that any criticism of the article must mean it’s because you don’t like what they were saying.

So a magazine about journalism which doesn’t expect its authors to conduct themselves as journalists. Hmmmm….

But that’s for another day, and I guess, it is ultimately the call of the editorial board at the BJR to determine the standards they expect of their authors.

However, I do want to focus on the trope, because it represents a frequently-shared view that page views and public interest journalism aren’t compatible.

First, to deal with the allegations: We don’t prioritise ‘less serious’ material with local democracy reporters, nor do we send out emails which only report on the stories with the most page views. The emails, which Barnett and Greenslade would have been welcome to see if they’d asked, and which I’ve offered the editor of the BJR the chance to see, cover all manner of LDR stories, based around the principle of sharing and learning together.

Do we celebrate when an LDR story clocks up a large audience? Yes – but not for the sake of lots of page views, or because we are celebrating the less serious, but because it means public interest journalism is reaching a large audience.

And surely the best way for public interest journalism to survive is for it to be reaching, and appreciated by, a large number of people. 

The trope – the idea that serious public interest journalism and measurements of its reach can’t go together – is, I’d argue, the most dangerous sentiment in local journalism. It’s essentially giving up, and condemning local journalism to the status of minority civic service. Creating a bogeyman to avoid answering our own difficult questions.

If you follow that path to its logical conclusion, public interest journalism simply exists because it should exist, regardless of whether the public appreciate it, or not.

That’s surely the route to extinction for public interest journalism, or at very least a route to a world of full state subsidy, which in turn opens up public interest journalism to political forces which might seek to use subsidies to influence the news agenda. That’s a scenario the BBC is all too familiar with, as is any local newsroom where the local council chief executive has threatened to pull ad spend after a critical article.

The BBC’s funding of the LDR scheme is guaranteed for 10 years in total. As the last few weeks have shown, a decade of guaranteed funding for anything in journalism is to be treasured at the moment.

But that doesn’t stop the BBC having to assess whether the scheme delivers value for money. The BBC needs to assess the reach of the content being produced. For a company like Reach, which also invests its own money into the LDR scheme above what it receives from the BBC, it would be negligent not to look at the reach of stories produced by LDRs.

The more people who read a story, the more of an impact it can have, and the more lives it can change.

Simple things, like a format tweak, telling the story in a different order or publishing it at a certain time (we will often put articles on the shared BBC wire long before we publish it on our own sites, as we know when stories are most likely to be read) can be the difference between it being read by 1,000 people, or 10,000 people.

What’s the alternative?

For many years, I was a local government reporter at an evening newspaper. Stories from council meetings would be guaranteed certs for the on-day midbook pages. They were important, but not considered ones which would sell the paper, thus kept away from the front of the book. Fair enough – but I’d argue midbook purgatory where you have no idea if something is being read is far worse than looking at the page views an article has generated and asking: “How can we get more people to read this?”

If we don’t ask that question, we’re failing readers, ourselves and the future of our industry.

Of course, as with everything in journalism, it’s about context. Smart newsrooms – such as the ones I work with – judge the audience success of articles based on their knowledge of how similar stories have been received in the past. Remember – there’s a reader behind every page view.  We no more judge the success of a council story against the latest trending article about changes to the McDonald’s menu any more than BBC News reviews the success of North West Tonight against the viewer figures for the latest series of Killing Eve.

Time and again, I read about the idea talking about page views is done so at the expense of public interest journalism. Done properly, it prompts the conversations which will help save local public interest journalism. Those conversations can be tough, and we might not like what we find, but they help us find ways to ensure as many readers as possible value our journalism as much as we do. Who do we want to please, ourselves or an appreciative audience?

That’s not focusing on the ‘less serious.’ That’s about making sure fact-based, thoroughly researched journalism reaches the audience it deserves: One that’s big enough, and engaged enough to use our journalism to make a difference. Is that so bad?





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