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…

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How do you put the reader at the heart of every newsroom decision? Share the data, and love the data

A whole bunch of articles have been written in recent weeks about the plan the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, has to introduce individual audience goals for reporters at the Birmingham Mail. It’s been a project I’ve been heavily involved in and one, which as I said in a post the other week, believe will be good for getting closer to the audience that matters the most: Loyal, local readers.

To many on the outside – particularly those in academia – it feels like a big change, and many have jumped to the conclusion that it can only be a bad thing because it will result in the Birmingham Mail prioritising Kim Kardashian stories over Birmingham City Council stories.

Anyone who knows anything about local digital journalism knows that such an approach is simply a recipe for disaster. But, ironically maybe for those who set themselves up as the watchers of the watchers, few of those who have written about the plans have made much effort to source information for themselves.

That point to one side, many of the critical posts – most of which have a ‘I need to be seen to be writing about the journalism topic du jour’ tone to them – inadvertently make points which support the importance of giving individual journalists access to the audience metrics which tell them the impact their stories are having.

Journalism has changed. It can’t just be about shouting for attention. Readers expect to be listened to, and their views taken into account. The right use of audience data enables that to happen every day.

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Why audience targets can be good for journalism

Journalists want people to read what we’ve written. Audience targets can help make sure we’re reaching as many people as possible

The issue of audience targets became a hot potato this week – and I can see why. But the reaction that seeking to write content which will be popular means we at the same time have to throw away our journalistic principles is one I think is wide of the mark.

I’ve written before that journalism is a combination of art and science in the digital age – and the correct use of audience data to drive decision making is surely part of that. So do targets damage the quality of local journalism? I don’t think so. I think they can actually make journalism better for the local community.

However, Roy Greenslade and The Times have reached their conclusions, as have many on Holdthefrontpage. But lets look at what makes a local news brand relevant in the 21st century. Greenslade calls audience targets clickbait payments. And if all you said was ‘here, hit this number, we don’t care how’ then he might be right.

But at the risk of letting the facts get in the way of a good headline, there are a number of aspects being overlooked here: Continue reading

How to handle a mistake after it has gone viral

Few journalists like it when they see they’ve made a mistake in public. Mistakes, obviously, vary in significance – from a typo which might get people grumbling in the pub through to the sort of errors which land the editor-in-chief in court.

Focusing on the lower end of the spectrum, digital publishing has made the squirm-for-a-bit-and-take-a-ribbing-from-your-rivals-and-colleagues type mistakes a lot more public. It takes just one photo to be uploaded to Twitter and before you know it, it’s everywhere.

As the East Oregonian newspaper found this week with this, well, howler:

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Seven advertising department influences which can help make a digital newsroom great

ONE of our newsrooms was described to me this week as being run ‘like a finely-tuned advertising department.’

Now, there was a time when that would have been seen by journalists as some sort of insult. Those who can see where the future is going won’t see it as an insult – just proof that being digital first just means being closer to audiences than ever before.

When we set out to build what became ‘Newsroom 3.1’ at Trinity Mirror, we didn’t set out to replicate a sales floor within editorial. We set out to become truly ‘digital first’ while at the same time maintaining quality in print. I believe we have achieved both, and data – such as last week’s ABCe figures – back that up.

In the process, we have become more like our colleagues on the advertising floor. Instead of chasing revenue, our job is to chase audience. Within that, there are subtle but significant differences, but several common themes do jump out.

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Journalists and readers: The question at the heart of the future of journalism

A crowd gather to watch a fire in Hackney in the 1930s. Times have changed!

At the heart of the future of journalism is a question all journalists will find themselves having to answer: Just how involved are you prepared to let readers become in your work?

New platforms may have be the physical manifestation of change in our industry,  but platforms come and go. What ‘the internet’ and 21st century technology has brought with it, more than anything, is the ability for people to share their own news, report their own news and decide how they want to consume news.

Amy Webb, the futurologist, speaking at the Online News Association conference in Chicago last month, picked out her 10 trends for journalism in 2015. Wearables, as you might expect, was among them. The challenge she said this would pose journalists would be to answer the question: How will people use these to consume content? The idea of ‘glance optimised headlines’ was floated – stuff people would consume on the wearable of their choice.

Amy suggested most of this was perhaps three years out. Some it still feels very The Jetsons. There are hundreds of wearables being brought to market. Yet again, they will empower our readers to decide how, and when, they consume content.

And that empowerment of the reader isn’t just about how they consume content. Increasingly, readers expect to have a greater say in what we do, how we do it and why we do it. A newsroom which isn’t listening to its readers every day, and constantly thinking of news ways to get the reader involved, is a newsroom which is destined to become irrelevant.

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Introducing Shed Journalism. Something you never want to do

At the Society of Editors seminar in the Midlands on Monday, Liverpool Echo editor Alastair Machray was one of a number of editors to answer the question: “Is sport still important?”

Actually, Ali also answered the question: “How we will make sure we’re important to fans?” as well, because the actual title of the session could be answered in sentences containing one word, or just three letters.

The challenge for the regional media, however, is simple: Lots of people think they can do sport now, and by sport I generally mean professional football. Some do it very well – football clubs for example, and some blogs – others don’t

So where does the regional media fit in? Ali pointed to the fact the Liverpool Echo is the only media to get 30 minutes a day with both Everton boss Roberto Martinez and LFC boss Brendan Rodgers. It’s what sets the Echo’s writers apart from the ‘men in their sheds’ bashing out content on LFC and EFC without ever going to the football ground, let alone grill the manager on what’s happening.

That doesn’t mean if you’re on not on such good terms with the football manager, you’re  a man in a shed. Indeed, Ali was at pains to say the Echo isn’t in the pocket of the clubs – fans of both clubs would be very vocal about that if they thought the title was. The Echo appears to be in lucky – and rare – territory: it has clubs which appreciate the importance of the local title, but don’t seek to regulate what it does and doesn’t write.

So Shed Journalist – as I’ll call him or her now – is someone every journalist should avoid being. To me, being a journalistic Shed Man is basically about publishing stuff because you can. I can, therefore I am if you see what I mean. Shed Man does it without connections into a wider community of people who can inform and shape what you do.

There are lots of such sports sites out there, churning out content just for audience, knowing that their success hangs on getting something out on NewsNow at just the right time. The audience is passing through, not coming to you specifically. It feels lonely, a bit like being in a shed, I guess.

Journalism is increasingly about connections with readers and engagement with them too. For the Echo, sports coverage is defined by having the inside track at the football clubs, but the confidence to call things straight when it needs to. At the Newcastle Chronicle, it’s a different picture – the club banned writers from the Newcastle titles over coverage of an anti-owner protest march.

That’s given the Chronicle especially a closer tie with the fan community, and the freedom to write without fear of punishment from the club at a time when most fans want the owner – and increasingly the manager – out.

In Portsmouth, The News was always being threatened with being banned when Pompey were big time. Now they’re not and the paper is more connected to fans than ever before – thanks in part to resurrecting the Saturday Sports Mail and donating 10p a copy to the fans organisation which now runs the club.

The whole point of a shed is to have the ability to lock yourself away from the world if you want to, and that’s the last thing journalists can allow themselves to do, even if some have been prone in the past at doing just that.  The ability to connect with people, and make people think of us, is what separates ‘shed journalism’ from real journalism.

There will be some who would construe the idea of shed man as an attempt by me as a professional journalist to belittle the attempts of those who aren’t lucky enough to be paid to be journalists, or who write and don’t see themselves as journalists at all. Honestly, I’m not trying to do that.

I’ve seen hyperlocal sites crop up with active editors who are all over their community, turning some journalists at established brands into ‘shed men’ – at best, not as connected to their communities as the new hyperlocal sites are.

The internet has been a very honest assessor of just how connected the many parts of our newspapers are to the communities they serve. Subjects we would consider essential to a daily newspaper often look a lot different under the microscope of audience analytics.

In the weeks, months and years to come journalism will increasingly be measured by its ability to engage, its ability to make people think ‘If I want to know about this, I have to go there’. That’s the key to success, and it depends on making sure we never become Shed Man. You can get page views and unique users without talking to the audience, the hard work comes from convincing them to find you, not the other way round. And you’re a lot harder to find in the shed.

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PS: Just to be clear, I like sheds, but to make this post work I’ve had to take Ali’s lead. I’d much rather have talked about greenhouses. I have a real problem with them. If you like sheds, I’d point you in the direction of Andrew Wilcox, a colleague of mine who knows all about building communities around sheds.