Local journalism’s mission: Becoming obviously relevant again

If you read just one piece of journalism-related stuff this weekend, make sure it’s Mary Hamilton’s 13 learnings from working at the Guardian.

One of the most successful digital journalists to have begun their career in the regional press, Mary’s article on Medium is rightly winning plaudits, and deserves the widest possible audience.

For me, it’s point 7 which is the one our industry still has the furthest to go to crack:

7. Platforms are not strategies, and they won’t save news.

Seriously. If someone else’s algorithm change could kill your traffic and/or your business model, then you’re already dead. Google and Facebook are never going to subsidise news providers directly, and nor should they. Stop waiting for someone to make it go back to the way it was before. If what you do is essential to your audience, so essential that their lives wouldn’t be the same without it, then you should be able to monetise that. If it’s not, your first priority should be to admit that and then get on with changing it.

Facebook and Google are as successful as they are because they’ve found a thing that people want every day, and use it. And audience research I’m currently looking at suggests many local media readers visit the same sites every day via these platforms. But when did we stop being essential to readers?

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Ignored by the party leaders? Maybe local journalism needs to come off the fence

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Local journalism has long been proud of its impartiality when it comes to covering elections. But in failing to see that it’s possible to offer endorsements while still providing balanced coverage, aren’t we effectively making ourselves irrelevant in the most important local conversation of all?

An investigation into the access afforded to local journalists by political parties was published The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on Friday. It concluded that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were short-changing local journalists during the general election.

This won’t come as a surprise to many local journalists – indeed, the Bureau began looking into the issue, and spoke to dozens of local journalists, on the back of hearing about Cornwall Live’s experience with prime minister Theresa May early in the campaign. May’s people refused permission for the website to film the PM, and kept reporters well away from much of the visit.

The Bureau concluded that May has done interviews with regional media, but often has little of substance to say. Plymouth Herald chief reporter Sam Blackledge summed up the experience I’m sure many have experienced brilliantly here. Corbyn, on the other hand, has done fewer interviews, but has given better answers according to some.

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I’ve seen examples which contradict both conclusions – May certainly delivered an answer to ChronicleLive’s Mike Kelly when he opened a press conference with a zinger of a question, while Corbyn made it quite clear he had no intention of talking to BBC North West Tonight when he visited Salford, and the subsequent package on the evening news (which I can’t find online) should shame the Labour Party.

But there’s no denying it’s becoming harder with each election that passes to get the national parties to take the local press seriously. The election of 2005, when I interviewed Tony Blair the day before the poll as was impressed by his apparent depth of knowledge about local issues, seems much longer ago than the 12 years which have passed. Cynics at the time said ‘he was just well briefed.’ These days, even that would be nice.

So what do we do about it, and why is this the case? I suspect local interviews are seen as a potential banana skin to be avoided at all costs. Much better (for the campaign) to be seen in Huddersfield, in front of a hand-picked audience of factory workers, preaching about issues which match the surroundings than risk actually engaging in those local issues.

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Regional journalism’s digital tipping point: Are we there yet?

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It’s been a back and forth journey, but has regional journalism reached its digital tipping point?

When people speak to the digital tipping point, they tend to be talking about revenue, of the moment when digital revenue growth replaces fully the loss of print cash. Definitions of what that looks like, and what is contained within each pot, vary widely.

I’m not looking at that in this post – but instead journalism’s digital tipping point. As in that moment when digital journalism is so second-nature to people within regional newsrooms that it isn’t a special thing anymore, but just the done thing.

How you evaluate that obviously is open to interpretation. You will find editors who point to the long journey their newsrooms have been on, and will say their newsrooms are indeed digital. You will also find editors who point to the things they still need to become truly digital.

And then you will find many people playing in the shades of audience first/reader first/digital first/print last and applying labels to what they do.

For me, the platform is irrelevant. Journalism’s biggest challenge isn’t around being digitally-savvy, it’s around being audience-savvy, and making sure readers sit at the heart of everything we do. After all, without them, we’re nothing.

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Maybe the solution to fake news lives on our sports desks

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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.’

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

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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.

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How a ‘slow news week’ can separate the local Press stars from the critics on the sidelines

 

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One of the myths swirling around Hackademia these days – and among many commentators who have exited day-to-day life within the regional press – is that focusing on audience analytics somehow undermines quality journalism.

And of course, there is a risk of that being the case. It depends on how you use the metrics. But a point made by Ian Carter, the editorial director of Kent Messenger group this week, reminded me that in many ways, there’s nothing new under the regional Press sun.

Yes, the platforms have changed. Yes, the audiences have changed. Yes, the habits of readers have changed (something many of the naysayers overlook). But the risk of being too internally focused at the expense of serving readers is no more likely than it was in the days of print.

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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.

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