Let’s hear it for the trends writers – local journalism’s hidden heroes

Every newsroom has stars – the reporters, or editors, whose work is publicly known, whose byline stands out when it leads the website or the front (or back) page of the paper.

Every newsroom also has heroes – the people whose contribution is every bit as important but whose work often goes uncelebrated.

It was ever thus – only, as local news has migrated online, a new type of unsung hero has emerged. The nature of digital publishing is that every article carries a byline, and as a result, previously unheralded hero roles are now firmly in the public spotlight.

The role of trends writer – sometimes known as SEO writer too – is one which divides opinion. Journalism being what it is, we’re an industry not short of opinion, but too often, I see the work of trends writers being used to criticise a newsroom’s digital strategy, or, sadly, as a negative reference point to help celebrate other, different forms of journalism.

But without the trends writer, local journalism would be in a very different place today. This isn’t a scale and page view argument, this is a local relevance argument. Asking yourself “what are local people interested in today” and then working to fulfill that need is the key to being relevant.

Trends writers have the same goal as any local, digital, news journalist: To write stories which will engage with readers. The advantage they have is that their brief is more flexible: Find stories which appeal to local readers away from the things already being covered by other journalists.

They have to play by the same rules as any other journalist – everything they write has to be accurate, and they carry the same accountability for their work as any other journalist.

In old money, their role can be similar to that of a news editor tasked with managing the news wires and changing content between editions. Having done that roles, it would not be uncommon to handle 50 or 60 stories a shift. The difference between then and now is that the trends writer will likely see their byline on the digital story – and quite right too. Readers need to know who to go to if they have a problem with a story.

It’s also at the same time similar to the old community editor role many newsrooms had, one of those backbone-of-the-newsroom jobs which rarely got plaudits at journalism awards, but which probably had a greater sense of what really mattered to readers than any other role. Again, such roles would handle dozens of pieces of content a day – stuff that people really appreciated.

Their content may not be overtly local, but (in my experience) it is written to appeal to local people. The nature of the internet is that stories can be read anywhere – Jeff Bezos describes it as the ‘gift of the web’ for journalism – but no local newsroom builds its future on reaching readers outside of its area. The challenge for local news titles is to be relevant to local lives, not just a news source which (lets not forget) readers spent two decades turning away from before local journalism really embraced online news.

I’m regularly told such roles, and such stories, exist solely to drive page views. “It’s not the fault of the writer,” I’m told. “They just have to do it.” The blame-the-company-not-the-person criticism is intentionally misleading. It also ignores the fact that local journalism is an industry where jobs are constantly being advertised. Indeed, at Reach, where I work, so far more than 50 local news jobs have been created this year. Newsquest is regularly advertising on journalism.co.uk too.

As with the community news editor, or the wires editor role, the trends writer helps generate an interest in a brand which helps underwrite other forms of journalism in the newsroom. Previously, that was through providing reasons to buy the paper. Online, it’s about attracting attention. And as MEN political editor Jennifer Williams pointed out on The Media Show recently, all journalism works best when it’s read by as many people as possible.

But the stories written by trends writers also help discovery of content readers aren’t looking for. I’ll regularly have a story Tweeted at me saying ‘why are you writing this, it’s not local’ (because local newspapers only ever did local news, it seems) or ‘I thought you said you didn’t do clickbait’ (we don’t – but when we err, we correct).

Invariably, when I then track the story in question, it turns out that thousands of the people who read it subsequently went on to read something which would be seen as ‘true local news’ – because once you convert a reader from a ‘searching state’ to a ‘reading state’ you’ve a much better chance of saying ‘while you’re here, have you read.’ Quality trending content affords local news that opportunity.

We also shouldn’t lose sight of how trends writers help shape journalism generally. The best heroes, the ones whose bylines make the powerful quake, are the ones who constantly try and work out how to get their work to a bigger audience. Frequently, they’ll build on the ideas of trends writers, formatting stories differently as as result, and building bigger audiences for the stories readers need to read, as well as the ones they want to read.

It’s all about balance. Too much of anything isn’t a good thing – and the same applies here too.

Trends journalism isn’t a means to end – it’s a role which has helped empower local newsrooms to become more relevant. Ultimately, the reader, not our industry, decides what is valuable, and what is quality and what is relevant to them. Interest in the work of trends writers in news and sport across the country’s local newsroom speaks volumes in that regard.

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