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.’
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.
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.
Shortly 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.
How do you define success as a local journalist these days? Number of front pages? Number of page views online? A sense of job well done at the end of the week?
All of the above make sense in the here-and-now, an instant sign of job well done. But to find the key to a sustainable future, future, maybe journalists need to look at things a little different.
Big numbers against digital audiences are great, and very important. We saw that in this week’s half-yearly release of the ABCes in the UK for the regional press. But uniques and page views only tell part of the story, and they don’t tell the really important bit: What people think of you.
So to define success, you need to define how you want people to think of you. Most people want to be liked, but that’s probably not a great place for a news organisation to start. Being able to prove that you are trusted, seen as reliable, and seen as useful and entertaining are probably the goals we should be aiming for.
Audience metrics allow us to see this, and newsrooms I work with increasingly focus on pages per visit, visits per user, time spent on site, increase in ‘brand visits’ – people visiting directly or via searches based on the brand name – and volume of organic shares on social media. For organisations which can offer metrics to support newsrooms in monitoring this – think BuzzSumo, or Chartbeat – now is a very good time to be in business.
Perhaps the greatest challenge regional journalism faces is attracting the right new recruits to the industry.
Make no mistake, we work in a challenged industry. But to ensure there is a future for that industry, the industry needs to make itself attractive to people with the right skills and ideas.
Increasingly, that means recruiting people from non-traditional backgrounds. Some of the smartest, brightest, sharpest people I’ve interviewed for jobs in recent years haven’t followed the ‘traditional’ route into journalism.
This is the second in a series of posts between now and the end of the year looking at key themes I think will emerge during the course of 2016. The first, about social journalism, can be found here.
The danger in writing posts predicting trends for 2016 is that it can become a wish list rather than a look at things which evidence suggests are going to happen. To that end, there’s no doubt I’m passionate about Freedom of Information, and angry at the threat it currently faces from the Government’s rather one-sided (sorry, open-minded) review in the 10-year-old Act.
And there’s also a danger that I could try and crow-bar an issue into a digital trends blog post just because it means a lot to me. But as print, TV, radio and internet news providers all find themselves converging in the same digital space, it should be abundantly clear that our old challenges are as relevant as ever – and never more important than now.
I can predict with some confidence that a good chunk of 2016 will be spent fighting off further threats to the access journalists enjoy – and indeed, would take for granted if they weren’t always under threat – from various government initiatives.
I try not to use this blog too often explicitly for work purposes, but when given the chance to recruit 12 new digital journalists, I wanted to make sure anyone who might be interested got to hear about what we’re planning.
It’s hardly news that video is becoming far more important to publishers. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that video is an area we’re going to focus on – an unavoidable pun – during 2016.
Job adverts for six news and sport video editors, based in our newsrooms around the country, and six news and sport video producers, are currently online.
Reader comments have been getting a bad press of late. As Roy Greenslade noted last week, a number of publishers have decided to dispense with them altogether.
PostMedia in Canada has put a pause on comments due to the vitriolic nature of many of the comments. I can understand that reaction – we’ve all seen stories which have involved many hours of hard work, only for the first two or three comments to set off a stream of racist bile which has little to do with the subject matter.
Other websites, reports the MediaBriefing, are ditching comments for other reasons, including to allow journalists to spend time on social media where, it is argued, readers would rather be sharing and discussing stories anyway.
Meanwhile, over the summer, the editor of the South Wales Argus, Kevin Ward, took to his blog to criticise the tone of comments appearing on his own website. “When did Britain become such an ugly country?” he asked, referring to comments which encouraging a suicidal man to to jump from a bridge, and backed an MP’s calls for water cannons to be used on refugees at Calais. Comments remain open and active on the Argus website.
Not so many years ago, the worst slur a journalist could hit another journalist with, particularly in regional newspapers, was the accusation of being ‘too tabloid.’
These days, it’s to lob the claim that you’re writing ‘clickbait.’ Both insults have the same message: It’s not *real* journalism, it’s not what we’re here to do. It’s not what the public expect of us. And writing content which proves to be popular is not what we’re here for.
The problem with the clickbait challenge is that it means many things to many people. I’ve heard the clickbait accusation a lot since we first talked about audience goals for reporters at Trinity Mirror, where I’m digital publishing director for our regional titles.
Most of the people lobbing the word clickbait around are people who haven’t taken the time or trouble to understand what we’re actually doing. But one thing is very clear: Most people define clickbait differently, with only a notion of negativity links their definitions.
My definition of clickbait is a negative one: It’s content where the headline doesn’t reflect the content. Content which is destined to disappoint.
The Oxford dictionary, however, is more upbeat: