Author: davidhiggerson

Life is local: Why regional press front pages are so special

Every week, millions of people rely on their local newspapers and websites to keep them informed of what is happening in their area. When seen together, they can paint a picture of life in the UK in a way no other collection of stories can. Life is local – and this is a look at the front pages which stood out over the last seven days


The strongest stories are surely those which involve a remarkable level of bravery from those involved. This story stood out from the Bolton News – a mum sharing her personal agony, and presumably one of her most private photos, to warn other parents of the risk of meningitis


Sometimes, it’s the clarity only journalism can bring to a human being’s plight to make it clear just how out of control a government policy, ruling or process can be. Normally, that clarity comes from focusing on the individuals involved.


Sticking with a story is something special to the regional Press in many ways. This example from the Croydon Advertiser shows why it is so important newsrooms treasure their collective memory


A story to frighten any parent – from the Swindon Advertiser this week


A council gagging its own councillors? No match for digitally-savvy journalists


Politicians, should they wish, have more means than perhaps ever before with which to communicate their thoughts to those they represent. There’s blogging, social media, Youtube even. Community newsletters. And, of course, good old local media – be it newspapers, websites, TV or radio.

Unless you happen to be a councillor in Birmingham, in which case you’ve been told to stay silent – on an issue which should be a talking point for every single politician in the city.

Birmingham City Council is, in many respects, a council in crisis. Under monitoring by the government, facing millions of pounds of cut backs on top of the hundreds of millions of pounds and thousands of jobs it’s lost, the city council could well be the first in the country to have to hold its hands up and say: “We can’t do this with the money you give us anymore.” It could well be the council which proves that no council is too big to fail.

So to that end, the announcement that the council’s chief executive is departing is big news. The fact it’s happened while the council’s Labour leader is on holiday only serves to create a further sense of crisis.

But according to the Birmingham Mail:

“Birmingham’s councillors have been GAGGED from commenting on the crisis enveloping Britain’s largest local authority following the shock departure of city council chief executive Mark Rogers.

As Mr Rogers is locked in talks about the terms of his exit, the council’s chief lawyer has written to councillors, warning them against social media posts and public statements on the issue.”

And then:

Labour group bosses are already believed to have told Moseley and Kings Heath councillor Claire Spencer to delete a blog post in which she speculated about government interference in the running of the council.

As Tory councillor Matt Bennett said:

“The leader is on holiday and has not responded to our emails, we have no chief executive and we need to know what happens next, how we are going to get through this.

“Then we get this email warning us not to discuss it. How can we when we haven’t been told what’s going on. It’s a farce.”

The argument in favour of not speaking out would be that there are legal negotiations on going at the moment over the chief executive’s exit. But to ban elected representatives from speaking out suggests little, if any, faith in the ability of elected representatives to say sensible things, and near contempt for the people who pay the council’s wages: voters.

The Birmingham Mail has ensured people in Birmingham know of the ban:


And if ever there was an example of how working hard to embrace readers wherever they are – print, digital, social etc – enables newsrooms to do what they’ve always done more effectively than ever, it’s this story.

It made the front page, and that front page provided a compelling image for use on social media, where the link to the story was widely shared and commented upon – not just by journalists, but by councillors, politicians from elsewhere in the country and community groups in the city. The list of people and organisations sharing it was pleasingly diverse.

It became a story read by tens of thousands of people in Birmingham, and a talking point in local government and Whitehall circles quickly. It demonstrated very clearly the power of the local Press to hold councils to account through the oxygen of publicity.

For a council to believe it could control the commentary on an issue like this is, at best, very niave. Journalism has the tools to have the audience to do its job like never before – we just need to do that job in way the Birmingham Mail has over the past few days.


Beat fake news? Time for us to sit on the buddy bench then


Journalism’s response to the rise of fake news has been to go down one of two paths (generally).

One path involves lamenting, criticising or lambasting organisations such as Facebook for a) creating the problem of fake news by providing the algorithmic bubbles which allow confirmation bias to be confused with popularity and b) then providing a very clever way to make money from that audience.

The other path involves doubling down on our commitment to facts. “How should journalism respond to fake news? Report the facts!” is a phrase I’ve seen frequently on social media. The rise of ‘fact checking’ services has also been heralded as a way to fight back against fake news.

The latter makes us feel all warm and cuddly as journalists, as it plays to our core beliefs: That facts are sacred, and we’re the people to share the facts. The former plays to a common belief in journalism – that when people aren’t listening to us, it’s not our fault.

Fighting fake news with fact checking is a little like giving someone with a serious illness porridge and telling them it will make them better. It’s highly unlikely it will make them better for good. It might make them feel a little less unwell for a little bit, and it’ll make the person serving the porridge feel good too. But it won’t cure the underlying problem – the serious illness.

Fake news may well be the product of clever minds who spotted how to game the popularity of content = lots of revenue model created by social networks and search engines. But our ability to deliver a solution is a symptom of the fact journalism still has a long way to go to be relevant enough in the lives of readers to combat fake news.


Done right, digital first is good for print – and great for audiences

What’s in a name? Enough to dominate a full page feature in a trade mag when it comes to talking about the future of regional journalism, apparently.

In the most recent edition of inpublishing, former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson interviews Matt Kelly, chief content officer at Archant, about the work he is doing to transform Archant into a digital content operation.

It was a fascinating article and one in which I found myself agreeing with much of what Matt is doing, turning newsrooms which have moved to a print production rhythm with digital added in where it can be into places where newsrooms put the reader at the centre.

It’s an incredibly tough ask, and not helped by the volume of people on hand to say you’re getting it wrong. The starting point is to show the scale of the change required – which is why I especially like Matt’s decision to rename newsrooms ‘content rooms’.

Much is made in Dyson’s article of the difference between ‘digital first’ and ‘audience first’ – the latter being the phrase Matt is building his reinvention of Archant’s newsrooms around.

Dyson uses the phrases to construct some sort of conflict between Trinity Mirror’s approach and Archant’s approach:

He [Matt] referred to media companies who “relegate their printed products to the margins of their business in so-called ‘digital-first’ strategies”, saying they “often pay a price in accelerated circulation declines” and “a worrying decline in the standards of journalism”.

To many observers, this was an open dig at Trinity Mirror.

Ah, those anonymous observers! I can see why some observers might think that. But that’s because they spend too much time observing, and not enough time seeing. Having spent a fair bit of time with Matt over the years discussing how regional newsrooms need to change, I don’t think it was a dig.  What Archant is doing is similar, but also different, to the work Trinity Mirror (my employer) is continuing to do.

My main frustration about the article is that there’s so much more about what Archant is doing that could and should have been shared, but instead an article about Archant references Archant just five times, but Trinity Mirror 10 – only twice in quotes from Matt.

Both approaches boil down to this: Unless we put attracting and engaging with readers at the heart of what we do, we’ll have not future. Journalism for journalism’s sake will only succeed in ensuring the demise of local journalism. 

Of course, ‘digital first’ can mean abandoning print, and its readers. But that’s not what ‘Newsroom 3.1’ – the digital first project Dyson is trying to draw a battle with here – was about, nor was the follow up ‘The Connected Newsroom’ which sought back in 2015 to place a greater emphasis on engagement with local readers having achieved a growth in absolute scale required to be relevant in the digital world.


Why Cornwall isn’t the Capital of Clickbait…


It’s quite common to hear people denounce the work my colleagues do as ‘clickbait.’ Too common, in fact.

The sensible option, some would argue, would be to ignore it. After all, the facts tell a different story. And I’m going to give sharing the facts another go.

Why? Two reasons.

The first is that what started off as an unfounded criticism by those who disagreed with the approach to growing digital audience the company I’m digital publishing director at, Trinity Mirror, had decided to take appears to have become a received wisdom.

Take, for example, a sentence in a blog post written by an academic called Dan Evans on the OpenDemocracy blog. Having read the blog several times, I’m still not sure of the point it’s trying to make, but this sentence stood out:


2016: Some of the people who helped shape regional journalism


If there’s one thing journalism doesn’t need going into 2017, it’s another clutch of gongs. For an industry which is constantly facing negative headlines (often understandable, of course), we still do a great job of celebrating our achievements.

And if you cut beyond the headlines and the punditry, there is a lot to celebrate despite the massive challenges the industry faces, challenges many in the industry are tackling head on.

So it’s for that reason that I’ve come up with a list of the people or teams or brands I believe deserve acknowledgement for things done for the industry in 2016. Of course, it’s not exhaustive, there are people who I’ve bound to have missed out (sorry!), and I could just list all the great people I work with every day, but hopefully it paints a picture of some of the great things going on in the industry.

Over on holdthefrontpage, Steve Dyson listed his seven ‘regional heroes’ (for transparency purposes, I should probably point out I made his list in 2015), and this list is inspired by that idea. For me, the heroes of our industry are those fighting to make a difference within the industry through their own actions, attempting to inspire those around them, regardless of their role or seniority, at a time of great uncertainty. To that end, Alison Gow’s list of women to celebrate in 2016 makes for a great read. 

Some thoughts from me…


The Christmas Eve front pages of 2016

As much a tradition in newsrooms as watching Home Alone, eating far too much and falling out of Monopoly all are at home (or is that just my house), the Christmas Eve front page is something planned in advance by most newsrooms and fought for by journalists in many too.

With Christmas falling on a Saturday this year, many regional Press titles (in my opinion) produced some of their most compelling front pages of the year, combining strong stories which carried a certain festive spirit alongside promos for other features in the often-larger weekend editions.

Of course, breaking news will always overtake even the most carefully-planned Christmas Eve front page, and you can see that happening in a few below.

And then there’s the Wolverhampton Express and Star which certainly ensured it was likely to be a talking point over Christmas Turkey in many Black Country homes on Christmas Day with its poll suggesting most people in the region regretted the vote for Brexit:


A front page to get the newsdesk phones ringing on Christmas Eve if ever there was one. “What it is, is….”

Anyway, here are the front pages I could find…



Local journalism will die if those who claim to champion a free Press get their way

As journalists, we pride ourselves at being good at knowing what people want to read, and good at getting them to read the things we feel they need to read.

However, getting people to show an interest in the processes of journalism, and the things which could damage the ability of journalists to keep the public in the know, is another story entirely.

But if you like your local newspaper, or at the very least appreciate the fact that there’s a local newsroom covering the things which matter to your community, then I implore you to read on.

Because local journalism is facing perhaps it’s gravest threat. 


Maybe the solution to fake news lives on our sports desks


Many millions of words have been written about the scourge of fake news, and I’ve some bad news: I’m about to offer a few hundred more. But hopefully they will convey a point which hasn’t been discussed up until now.

Fake News isn’t new. The impact Fake News has had (if it can be proven) has maybe taken a new turn, but the scale of the problem isn’t new. Or at least it isn’t if you’re a sports reporter.

While many rightly lament the apparent inability of the public to separate fact from fiction (and certainly on my Facebook feed, those doing the lamenting were also in some cases also sharing some of the bogus Donald Trump stories just a few days earlier), few have offered realistic answers beyond ‘Blame Facebook’ and ‘Do something Facebook.’


Why we need to tell readers about how we report the news


If you were to list the changes digital media has ushers into newsrooms across the UK, the list would quickly become long.

The one I want to focus on today is the change in audience expectation and behaviour. Gone are the days when post-publication interaction with readers was confined to conversations with those who had the motivation to ring the newsdesk, visit ‘front counter’ or get their pen and paper out.

Since the victory by Donald Trump in the American elections, many millions of words online have been devoted to how the media Stateside got it so wrong, and what that means for the future of journalism.

I feel that’s coming at the problem from the wrong end. Digital platforms have given everyone a voice. Personalisation on those platforms – primarily through algorithms – has created a bubble-like experience for many people. I’m convinced the shock of the ‘exit’ vote in Brexit for many was worsened by that platforms like Facebook so effectively target what you see that Brexit-supporters were all but banished from Remainers timelines, and vice versa.

That bubble-like environment, and the ease with which people can now publish a view, puts a new spotlight on what people are thinking about what they are reading. This isn’t a Facebook thing. Any football writer whose club is also served by a fans forum where every story is analysed, reacted to and commented upon will know what I’m talking about. Everyone has a voice, and many are critics.

Overall, this is a positive thing. At least people care enough about what we’re writing to talk about it. Irrelevance-induced silence must be worse.