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.


Burgers or politics? To be relevant, local newsrooms need to be experts in both


One of the claims frequently made about newsrooms which are seeking to grow the number of people who read their websites is: “Oh, they’re just chasing clickbait now.”

Clickbait, as I’ve written before, appears to cover a very broad church of content, roughly characterised as “Not what we’ve always done in the past.”

A more recent trend amongst journalistic commentators has been to try and contrast two types of journalism, and to argue that the quality of journalism is reducing as a result. Press Gazette – a publication which is no stranger to the changing habits of readers  – recently cited the Nottingham Post liveblogging the opening of a new KFC as proof that journalistic standards were being sacrificed in pursuit of page views.

And last week, the National Union of Journalists leader at Media Wales – home of WalesOnline, the largest Welsh news site around and our fastest-growing website in the regionals stable at Trinity Mirror – turned to the BBC to express his views that serious journalism was being sacrificed in favour of “lifestyle type journalism.”


EU referendum: What does the social media reaction tell us about coming out in favour of Remain?

Several titles I work with have, over the past week, urged readers to vote ‘remain’ in Thursday’s EU referendum.

Contrary to the popular myth being shared on some parts of social media by Brexiteers, each editor has been free to decide whether their titles should back either side, or remain neutral.

I think the titles which have taken a side – including the Newcastle Journal, Birmingham Mail, Liverpool Echo and Manchester Evening News – are proof that you can take a position on something while still providing balanced coverage.


Journalism’s challenge isn’t Facebook. It’s much bigger than that


The annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report contains so many interesting insights into where online journalism – and the consumption of it – is heading it can be hard to know where to start.

Most of the coverage has focused around the stat that up to half of people now get their news on social media, with a growing number using it as their main source of news.

And with that came a grim summary from one of the authors of the report, according to the FT:

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the Reuters Institute director of research, said: “The move towards a more distributed environment offers publishers opportunities to reach new audiences on an unprecedented scale, but as people increasingly access news via third-party platforms, it will become harder and harder for most publishers to stand out from the crowd, connect directly with users, and make money.”

It led some commentators to suggest that Facebook is effectively bankrupting the news industry – by hoovering up huge chunks of advertising (which presumably was destined for news publishers instead, a bit of a big leap to make) and not actually investing in content creation itself.


How the murder of Jo Cox was covered by the regional Press

The murder of West Yorkshire MP Jo Cox – shot and stabbed while in her constituency yesterday – is one of those events which stops you in your tracks. It’s one of those occasions which you’ll always be able to tell people where you were when you heard about it.

In a world of push notifications, email alerts, Facebook statuses and Tweets by the second, the murder of a much-loved MP handed local news organisations two challenges: How to cover a breaking news story sensitively while all sorts of information and suggestions swirled around, and how to deliver details of events in a way which blended fact and emotion the next day.

During ‘breaking news’ events, social media has changed journalism in many ways – but often overlooked now is the mind-boggling amount of reaction and sentiment which is instantly on tap, as well as the facts. Blending that with newspaper design requires skill, sensitivity and a strong understanding of what local readers will respond to.

But before the paper comes the ‘live’ coverage. Regional news websites are increasingly learning to distinguish between different types of audience online. There’s the social media audience, keen to share information from trusted sources, and then there’s the brand-loyal audience, who know to turn to the brand they trust.

Then there’s the audience who want to stick with a site for constant updates, or the reader who may be a loyal regular or who just knows to come to the brand because it’s trust-worthy, who wants a more traditional 300 words and picture to explain what’s happening.

Combine that with the expectation from all sorts of readers that what the local Press covers isn’t just the news but also information – which roads are closed? Are the schools still in lockdown? Will the market be open tomorrow? – and you get a sense of the many considerations which have to be factored in on a minute by minute basis.

There are four local daily papers/websites in West Yorkshire which cover Jo Cox’s constituency – The Huddersfield Examiner, Bradford Telegraph and Argus, Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post – and all will have known that the next day’s front page didn’t just have to report the news, but also sum up the sentiment and feeling in the area.

All four, in my non-trained eye, did just that:


FOI Friday: School holidays, council houses, non-paying councillors (again) and more


Asbesto in publicly-owned homes <Beyond the Pillars

Blog Beyond the Pillars, which covers issues involving the North Ireland government, used FOI recently to find out how many homes owned by the NI Housing Executive – in other words, council homes – had asbestos in them. The answer: 70,000. 70,000! Three-fifths of publicly-owned homes, in other words.

Trying to get this information in England, for example, would be much harder, because Housing Associations remain outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact that most of them were created out of old housing departments within councils.

There has been talk of including Housing Associations under the scope of FOI – but little action.

However, according to the Whatdotheyknow website:

If a Housing Association is strictly subject to the Freedom of Information Act depends on if it is wholly owned by public bodies. According to a Housing Corporation statment on accessing information: “You can also write to housing associations. Most try to be as open as possible and will provide you with information when they are able. The Housing Corporation requires housing associations to be accessible, accountable and transparent to residents and other stakeholders. The National Housing Federation Code of Governance states that associations should operate in an open and accountable manner by generally making information about their work available to their residents, local communities and other stakeholders.” *.

Also the Information Commissioner has ruled that Housing Associations are subject to the Environmental Information Regulations.

Based on the above, then surely the BTP FOI request is one worth trying with Housing Associations across the rest of the UK?