Author: davidhiggerson

Why the regional press has a greater sense of purpose than ever


In an article headlined ‘What’s the point of the regional Press’, The MediaBriefing earlier this week outlined an argument for why the regional Press no longer had a purpose.

The basis of the argument – you can read it here – can be broadly summed up like this: Facebook has launched its buy-and-sell marketplace service to take on Craigslist and ebay. The fact the regional press won’t suffer here because they’ve already lost classifieds to online verticals tells us there’s not much more for the regional press to lose. And as it loses more reporters it loses it purpose in life which is to be connected with local people, and we know this to be true because the NUJ says so. 

I suspect the headline was designed to be provocative, and to make you click the link to read it.

You won’t be surprised to learn I disagree strongly with the sentiments expressed on the MediaBriefing, partly because I care a lot about the role of the regional press, and partly because of the facts I know to be true.

Dealing with the second point first – some facts. Online audiences are at record levels for regional press titles. The ones I work with are about four times as big as they were five years ago, and the local reach of the titles I work with means those titles are now read by more people daily than at any point since the 1970s.

Those people reading them are reading for longer when they visit, and returning more often. Facebook may have put a greater emphasis on news from friends and families in its feeds, but we haven’t seen traffic from Facebook drop as a result. That tells me that people are sharing our links because they want their friends to see them. That, surely, points to a purpose which is stronger than ever.

If we do it right, we connect with people by giving them what they want, and then build a relationship with them so that when we have something we consider to be important to share with them, they are more likely to listen. Signing up for push notifications is a great example of this in real life.


Impact journalism: Lessons from a comedian’s success in analysing the news


The ‘impact’ journalism has is in danger of replacing ‘online ethics’ as the topic du jour – but maybe for once the subject is one we should all be diving into.

Providing recent analysis on how the American media is covering the US elections, Jeff Jarvis wrote on Medium:

We most certainly need to look at the impact our work has, not only in how interested parties exploit it, not only in how the public interprets it, but also in how effective it is in performing our key job: informing the public. Was the public better informed after this story?

In other words, it’s not just enough to write a story, file it and move on. We need to consider whether it will have an impact on readers. If we look at a story and conclude it won’t have an impact, then we need to ask why we’re writing it in the first place.

Because if an article doesn’t have an impact on a reader, then why would they remember it? And if they don’t remember it, then presumably we’ve lost the race to get that reader’s attention the next time they are looking for something online.

80% of the race for impact will be determined by making sure journalists use the right method to tell a story. Note that in the last paragraph, I used the word article. Whereas once an article in the Press was determined by length – nib, top, grout, lead, spread, splash etc – journalists now have a far wider range of ways to tell stories.


FOI Friday: The stories made possible thanks to FOI in September 2016

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

A look at some of the stories made possible thanks to FOI laws in the UK – most of which can easily be replicated elsewhere…

Ambulances called to one house 500 times < Kent Online

The astonishing figure came to light following a freedom of information request by the KM Group that exposed the full extent of the volumes of 999 calls from a handful of properties across the county.

Another address in Tonbridge was responsible for 467 calls while another in Swanscombe generated 446.

Scale of Post Office closures < Yorkshire Post

Fears have been raised over the sustainability of rural communities as it emerges nearly 40 per cent of all Post Offices in Yorkshire have been shut down since the year 2000.

The Post investigation, based on Freedom of Information requests to the Post Office, found that 614 branches – 39 per cent – have been closed in Yorkshire.

Hospitals attacked by computer hackers < West Briton

Cyber criminals have made “multiple” attacks on Cornwall’s main hospital in the past year with repeated attempts to hold health bosses to ransom by stealing sensitive information.

According to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the IT system of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust (RCHT) was once infected ransom-ware, a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid.

According to the FoI, the RCHT has experienced “multiple attacks” through cyberspace in the past 12 months.

Finding out more about police dispersal orders < Cambridge News

A fascinating article appeared in the Cambridge News, with a prominent credit to the man behind the FOI, local campaigner Richard Taylor. He sought to find out the background to dispersal order powers police had sought ahead of a game between Cambridge United and Luton.


The FOI response which revealed a little too much

Ever sent an email then realised you’ve probably said too much?

I think we all have.

Ever sent an email then realised you’ve probably said too much, then realised your email will auto-publish on a website which helps people submit Freedom of Information requests?

That’ll just be Natalie Hatswell of Devon and Cornwall Police then.


Facebook needs to offer newsrooms a panic button for important stories

33904_cooldnn20facebook20likeShortly before the elections in the summer, I was sat outside Dublin Airport trying to get an Uber ride to the Irish Mirror. A pop-up appeared on my screen telling me it was important to make sure I’d registered to vote.

Uber – reminding me of my civic duty to vote. Doing, in some ways, what the media has always tried to do, combining a role in civic life with the need to appeal to people, and occasionally being prepared to say to readers sometimes: “Hey, this is important.”

But how do we do that in a world of distributed platforms, and where eyeballs = money in the bank?

It’s a dilemma every social media editor will have faced — the need to get something out which is clearly important versus the very real risk that if readers on Facebook don’t feel it’s important, all in the knowledge that the signals Facebook will pick up will suggest you’ve suddenly got bad at knowing what your readers want.

And then Facebook penalises your subsequent posts, reaching fewer people than expected. And so the world of playing to get back in Facebook’s algorithmic good books begins. How do you overcome that?


But this isn’t a post to join the chorus of people decrying Facebook as ‘journalism’s public enemy number one,’ as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade rather sensationally announced last week. In fact, it’s wrong to say Facebook is journalism’s biggest problem. Facebook is a symptom of two problems facing journalism.


As Facebook’s ‘fake news’ shows, the brightest future for news involves blending data insight and gut instinct

biff chip and craig

In the learn-to-read book, Craig, Biff and Chip found out they’d saved Pudding Wood by reading about it in the newspaper. How do we make sure online we’re the place to turn to for such news?

Facebook came under fire from the news industry this week for automating the trending news widget – until now, it had been a process which allowed for human intervention.

The problem with automation, it turns out, is that it allows fake news in. Facebook, of course, had to defend itself against claims of potential bias in the trending box when it did allow journalists employed by the social network giant to decide what went where.

For journalists getting to grips with the digital age, the dilemma facing Facebook will have a familiar ring to it. Do you go with what the audience tells you they want through their actions (Facebook talks about signals, newsrooms talk about audience data), or do you go with what your instinct as journalist tells you?

The answer, as with many things, is surely taking the best of both. Journalism’s success – and especially regional journalism’s success – is now inextricably linked with popularity amongst readers. That doesn’t necessarily mean biggest audience is always best, but every news organisation is seeking the right size of the right audience to sustain itself into the future.

That right audience may be just one of scale, as that drives a certain level of revenue on the back of it. Or it might be a smaller audience which values the content enough to pay for it, or register for it. Or, as is likely the case for many regional publishers, the right audience is surely a primarily local audience of a size no other news organisation can hold a candle to.

So what’s the best way to reach that audience? Facebook’s success is down to a combination of great product – giving people something useful – and superb relevance of what it serves up. Both aspects are built, refined and refined again using the ‘signals’ users send in the form of audience data.

Over the summer, the pursuit of the right size of local audience has been under the microscope after criticism from journalists who have recently left the organisation I work for, Trinity Mirror. I believe debate about what we do and the way we do it is healthy – we expect the right to scrutinise others, so we should expect to be scrutinised ourselves – so long as it’s a constructive debate rooted in fact, rather than personal opinion.

The editor of trade website Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, attempted to sum up the debate like this:


The power of 1,000 page views


Not for the first time in recent months, a ‘Twitter storm’ has been sparked by someone querying the digital content strategy we have adopted at Trinity Mirror’s regional titles.

As someone who was described when working in our North Wales newsroom as ‘one of the architects’ of that strategy, I thought I’d explain the thinking behind the thing which appears to have caused concern.

I hesitated before writing this because there’s always a risk that people don’t want a balanced and reasoned discussion about where the regional press goes in its quest to survive and remain relevant. Indeed, even Press Gazette felt happy to report the comments which triggered the ‘twitter storm’ without seeking any sort of balance.

But something Paul Wiltshire, former training boss at Trinity’s newsrooms in Bristol and the surrounding area, said to me struck me: There are a lot of people concerned about what they’re hearing.  So he goes. 

On Friday, former Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies – who recently chose to take redundancy –  wrote a series of tweets which denounced the quality of the paper he had just left. The point which attracted most attention was this one:


With this follow up the next day:



Has Trinity Mirror banned stories which will generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No (and in fairness Gareth doesn’t say that, although that’s the interpretation many have given). Has Trinity Mirror instructed reporters to get permission to write stories which generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No. Do we think it’s a good idea for the people who know a story and an area best (the journalists in the newsroom) to discuss how to ensure a story generates more than 1,000 page views? Yes.


There are two reasons for this. The first is cold economics. Much of the revenue which funds our journalism comes from advertising which is dependent on page views. Another rump of it comes from local advertisers who need convincing that our brands have an impact online locally. Therefore, the more people who see a story locally, the greater chance we have of convincing local advertisers to jump on board.

The second reason is about readers. A story which generates fewer than 1k page views will have been read by fewer than 1k people. According to ONS data, Croydon Council covers a population of 264k. So a story generating fewer than 1k page views will reach 0.4% of the local population at most. That’s not a strong place for a news publisher to be when it seeks to hold authorities to account.

So our content approach is to determine that if a story is worth doing, for readers, we need to make sure that readers want to read it. Gareth claims many council and health stories fall beneath the 1,000 page views mark. Lets ask why, and do something about it, as people should care about the council – schools, bins, roads – and health boards – GPs, hospitals, accident departments.

This is why engagement on social media is so important, both by brands and by journalists. There are plenty of journalists who I work with who can drive a spike in traffic just by Tweeting of Facebooking out a link. Why? Because they’ve built up a relationship with people on social networks and can say to them: “I/We think it is important for you to know this.”

The strength we get from a big audience

Away from audience engagement, it’s critical we tap into new ways to tell stories online so more people are interested in them. In his tweets, Gareth is critical of live coverage of events – yet time and again a live blog of a council meeting has attracted more people to our coverage of that meeting and those decisions than the more traditional way of telling the story would.

It’s not enough – any more – for us as journalists to say ‘this is important, therefore we’ll do it.’ There is little point in writing something because we think it’s important for readers to know about, but not to think how to get readers to read it in the first place. That might ensure we feel we’ve done our job, but what difference will we have made?

In paying attention to audience metrics – and page views is just one indicator, although I appreciate that engagement metrics such as time spent on site, shares of an article and repeat visits also unsettle some journalists – we aren’t saying ‘stop doing this’ we’re saying ‘How do we make more people aware of this?’

If Gareth was able to get the law changed based on articles which generated fewer than 1k page views, I suspect that was as much down to his relentless campaigning on issues as it was due to the coverage which appeared in print and online. Print is a powerful way to make a statement, but there will be few journalists who have not experienced a canny press officer or councillor who is quick to dismiss what we’ve written along the lines of ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not like anyone buys the paper anymore.’

One police force I know claims its local news brand is more ‘noisy’ than at any point in the last 30 years. It helps solve missing from home cases faster than ever, and doesn’t half provoke a response when it raises criticisms of the police force. That’s power to the brand in its drive to do what it’s always done – hold power to account.

As journalists, we know the important role we play in local life, but we don’t have the luxury of guaranteed funding to do our work in the way those who we hold to account do – police, councils, courts and so on.

That’s why we encourage conversations about stories which generate fewer than 1k page views. It would be wrong for us to focus solely on the stories which have performed very well on line, and I’m sure many of those condemning an audience-first approach to stories this weekend would be denouncing us if we did that.

Looking at the stories which don’t generate more than 1k page views is no different to a news editor querying why a reporter spends so much time on a story only ever destined to be a second lead or grout on a printed page. We just do it now with an eye on what readers are demonstrating, through audience data, that they respond to.

And I write this as someone who loves the regional press as much as they day I first set foot into the Chorley Citizen offices on work experience in 1996.


How journalists can beat Facebook’s algorithm (but don’t expect a quick fix!)


Should journalism be fearful of Facebook? Or, indeed, any other platform which has been successful in attracting a large number of people and, crucially, a large proportion of their time spent online?

If the thing getting so much attention banned journalism, or journalists, from existing within the walled garden it had created, and which so many people were happy to spend so much time resident in, then yes, that would be bad news.

But that’s not where Facebook is. It is huge, and can probably lay claim to being the power behind maybe half of the most-used apps in the world. And that could make it dangerous of course, but no more dangerous than anything which is so dominant has the potential to be.  Like a government with a landslide majority and, in theory, the mandate to anything it wants,  Facebook will also know that its strength as a business comes from its dominance, and a dominance it needs to preserve.

That dominance of user time will only continue for as long as it continues to deliver what people want on there, and the prospect of 80% of mobile web time being spent within a cluster of a person’s chosen apps within two years will be focusing minds like never before.


How to report Brexit locally: 15 very different front pages (in my opinion)

brexit newcastle2

Earlier, I shared a collection of regional press front pages from the day after the Brexit vote became known.

I think they showed the relevance of regional print titles to readers, running alongside the live news services and engaging content provided by those titles’ digital operations.

In fact, I suspect many of the regional front pages from Saturday, June 25 were influenced by what newsrooms could see was resonating online, and then applying that knowledge to crafting some of the most important front pages of the year.

Below – in time-honoured online listicle form! – are 15 of the front pages that stood out for me, and why:


The morning after the night before: How the regional Press responded to Brexit

Brexit bournemouth

The events of the early hours of June 24 – when it was confirmed that Britain had voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU – are still causing shockwaves three weeks on.

This was arguably a unique news event, one of national and international importance, yet also incredibly local too. As such, there should perhaps be no surprise that the story of Brexit made it on to pretty much every regional newspaper front page on Saturday.

Many regional papers had booked on-day print slots to cover events as they unfolded over breakfast, when the result of the referendum was due. As well as the result, those titles got David Cameron’s resignation on to the front page too.