SubScribe: Click clique don't understand what 'local' means Google+

Monday 1 August 2016

Click clique don't understand what 'local' means

Half a dozen teenagers, one waving a belt about, chase a couple of boys round a town centre at 8.30 in the evening. The police are called, find the boys, make sure that no one is hurt and leave them to it.

Is this a fight? Or a brawl? Or a story that a thousand people would want to read?

In a sane world of local journalism, it would make a nib. In today's voracious digital world, it is the fifth most important story of the day for the Croydon Advertiser.
Top slot goes to commuter misery on Southern Rail, followed by the threat of rain, a missing old man found safe, the fire brigade complaining about being asked to rescue animals, and the air ambulance being called to a cycle race.

Even in newsy south London, it's a job to find meaty stories to fill a weekly paper in the silly season, especially with only a couple of reporters. And it's even harder when they also have to cater for a website that needs feeding as often as a newborn baby.

In such a world, it's logical to try to make best use of limited resources and not waste time and energy on stories that don't cut the mustard. But how do you decide which stories are worth pursuing?
That used to be the task of the editor, or news editor or chief reporter. These days, however, there is no guarantee that there will be anyone with any of those titles in the office.
There are, however, algorithms. Easy. Once you know what people are reading, you can give them more of the same. And if you've got a story that might not attract a thousand readers, you can ask a higher authority - possibly fifty or a hundred miles away - whether you should carry on writing.

Gareth Davies
This philosophy is, according to Trinity Mirror's David Higgerson, sensible for two reasons: first, because advertising revenue is linked to page views and, second, because publishing stories that might reach only 0.4% of the local population would leave the paper in "not a strong place" in holding authorities to account.

Higgerson was writing in response to a series of Friday night tweets from the Advertiser's former chief reporter Gareth Davies, left, prompted by the departure of another reporter and by that day's issue, which had two "listicle" features on opposite pages. A proud paper had been reduced to a thrown-together collection of clickbait, stories scraped from the website by subs, he said. "Things are really shit."

Davies's timeline has been storified by Sarah Wickens and you can see it here. It makes depressing reading, and all the more so because the picture he draws will be familiar to so many.

Croydon Advertiser

The Croydon Advertiser was one of the Local World papers that were taken over by Trinity Mirror last autumn. Since then, a dozen editors have left their posts under a restructuring that has created regional editors-in-chief and more localised "brand editors". The leavers include high-profile journalists such as Neil White from the Derby Telegraph, Kevin Booth from the Leicester Mercury and Paul Brackley from the Cambridge Evening News.
Davies, who has won four reporter of the year titles at the Regional Press Awards, took redundancy from the Advertiser in June. The entire Mercury features department was disbanded the week after it had been honoured for its Leicester City Premiership supplement and Lee Marlow named feature writer of the year for the third successive year.
Meanwhile journalists at the Liverpool Echo, Newcastle Chronicle and Echo and North Wales Daily Post have been holding disruptive chapel meetings in protest at what the NUJ describes as a "merry-go-round of misery".

Today Trinity Mirror has published its financial results for the first half of the year and says it is on course to achieve £12m in "synergy savings" after the Local World takeover. As anyone who has ever worked for a company that has been taken over knows, "synergy savings" means getting rid of people.
The company also reported a 42% increase in pre-tax profits and a 30% increase in revenue. The latter is to be expected, since it has 83 more titles than it had this time last year. If, for a true comparison, you add last year's first-half income for those titles to Trinity Mirror's 2015 figure, it turns out that revenue has fallen by almost 8%.
Trinity Mirror has also had to find money for phone-hacking compensation payments and the folly of the New Day experiment. On top of that, there is  a ballooning pension fund deficit, up by a third to £426m. It's hard to blame Local World journalists - some of whom must be looking back fondly to the days under hatchet man David Montgomery - if they feel they're paying the price. "Gareth speaks for all of us," Lee Marlow told SubScribe.
Still, the shareholders are happy: there's an increased dividend and the share price is up.

So much for the financial background. Life has been rough for the regional Press for years, with many papers' print circulations down to clearly unsustainable levels.

The trouble is that almost all of our local newspapers are now owned by one of three groups - Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press and the American-owned Newsquest - each of which seems to have problems with the definition of "local". Well here's a clue: if something is 10, 20 or 50 miles away, it isn't local. If your office is on an industrial estate when your readers are in the high street, it isn't local.  If your reporter is in one town, your editor in another and your subs in a different county or even country, your product isn't local.

In his response to Davies's tweets, David Higgerson concluded: "I write as someone who loves the regional press as much as the day I first set foot into the Chorley Citizen offices on work experience in 1996."

Please bear with me as I, too, trip down memory lane. I started my reporting career at the Herts and Essex Observer in the market town of Bishop's Stortford. On Thursdays, the editor and I would drive 16 miles to Hertford to see the paper offstone at the offices of our sister paper, the Hertfordshire Mercury.  The two towns had nothing in common other than that they were in the same county. The newspapers were run completely separately, sharing only the same owner and the same printing set-up. Seven miles in the other direction, over the border in Essex, was Harlow with its own newspaper, the Citizen, which had nothing to do with us.
In 1980 Harlow got another paper with the launch of the Star, an independent freesheet.  It, along with the Observer and Mercury, eventually ended up as part of Local World.
Until last week, each had its own editor. But on Friday, Observer editor Paul Winspear, news editor Sinead Holland and Star editor Ken Morley packed up their desks and now all operations are run by Julie Palmer from her office in Hertford - by far the smallest of the three towns.  The area she oversees is quite compact compared with some local newspaper fiefdoms, but people in Hertford have no more in common with those in Harlow ten miles away than they have with the little green men on Mars.

My next stop was the Evening Gazette in Colchester, then part of Essex County Newspapers. It is now owned by Newsquest and run by an editor based in Basildon, 38 miles away. Again, the two towns and their environs are linked by nothing beyond the county in which they are situated.

That's the way it is now. I talk about local papers, Higgerson talks about the regional Press. My editors lived and worked in the communities they served. Trinity Mirror and Newsquest may talk about community, but they don't seem to understand the concept -  to recognise that there is more to it than geography. They look on a map and see that this town is ten minutes down the road from that one, and assume that of course one editor can look after both of them.  There are many reasons why local papers are struggling, but the consolidation of operations that take journalists physically ever further from their readers must be a key factor. And yet the tougher times get, the more they do it. Don't they look at the rise of the hyper-locals and wonder?

Let's go back to this 1,000-hits policy. I live in a village with about 250 homes. The Crown Estates owns a patch of land on which it wants to build 100 houses, and another patch on which it wants to build still more. This, as you can imagine, is an issue of abiding interest to us all, but of little concern outside the village. So it's unlikely that a thousand people would want to read about it. Does that mean the progress of the application shouldn't be reported?

Higgerson accepts in his blog that many important stories may not get over the 1,000-click barrier, and goes on to say that in such cases, a discussion should take place and ways found to make sure that readers want to read them. How? By sexing them up? By dumbing them down? By tricking the reader into clicking? Our websters could put up a heading saying "Village may be doubled in size" and get the thousand hits required to justify the story. But then people who aren't interested in Feering would move away without looking further.

And what's the time frame for these 1,000 clicks? A day, a week, a month? By far the most widely read post on this blog is the one about why local newspapers matter. It was written more than four years ago and reached about 300 people in the first few hours. It took a couple of weeks to get to the thousand, but over the years, it has had several resurgences and has had many thousand more views than when it was in the first flush of youth. Please take a look. I think it is still relevant and it has one statistic that will make you weep:
"In 1970, the Birmingham Evening Mail had a circulation of 400,000 and employed 113 journalists: 30 newsdesk and reporting staff, 25 district reporters, 23 news subs, 15 features staff, 20 sports staff and 9 photographers."

Some stories need just to "be" there, whether readers look at them at the time or not. The ground needs to be laid for the future - "paper of record" duty and all that. Take our village development, for example. Under the 1,000-click rule, it might be deemed unworthy of a reporter's attention.
But what if we all run stark naked through the streets, waving our Nimby banners, to protest? Suddenly it's a story. A proper local paper would have been on the case, following the proposals from the word go, but these days you'd be lucky if a reporter has time to go down to the planning office to see what's coming up, let alone get round to writing for an audience of a couple of hundred villagers.
So when we're all wobbling down the hill in the altogether, the reporter has to start from scratch - and there's no photographer on the staff to capture our embarrassment.
Then someone takes a picture with an iPhone and sends it in to the Sun or Mail. Before you know it, it's a national story and the local journos are left playing catch-up.

Enough of the fantasy. Higgerson is apparently concerned that a publisher's credibility in holding authorities to account might be compromised if less than 0.4% of the potential readership (the 264,000 people served by Croydon Council) clicked on its stories.
By that token, every national newspaper might as well give up and go home, since with a national population of 65 million, you'd need 260,000 clicks per story to achieve the same strike rate as 1,000 in Croydon.
A newspaper's ability to question authority lies not in how many clicks it gets on a story about an old man who goes Awol for a few hours, but on the reputation it builds up across the board.

In his tweets, Davies said that many council and health stories fell below the 1,000 page views mark, Higgerson's response was: "Let's ask why and do something about it." He suggests engagement on social media, live blogging of meetings. "It's not enough - any more - for us as journalists to say 'this is important and 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."

Sounds fair enough. No harm in getting your overworked staff to tweet their wares, But journalists and executives everywhere should beware of the assumption that there is no audience appetite for serious subjects - look at the spike in readership enjoyed by the broadsheets during the referendum campaign.
There is evidence in Croydon, too, where the advertiser has a lone-wolf rival in the form of the Inside Croydon  hyper-local website. Its editor Steven Downes has had many a run-in with the Advertiser and, indeed, Davies, so he has understandably made merry with the Twitter storm.
The site has had more than three million hits since it was set up in 2010 and has 9,000-plus followers against the Advertiser's latest ABC circulation of 7,851. Downes says that in the five days to last Friday, his site had 18,000 page views - predominantly for its coverage of local politics.

There was no politics on the Advertiser's home page this morning. There were a lot of puffs for things with nothing to do with Croydon and when I clicked on the main headline, I was required to answer a "consumer survey" before being allowed to read the story - another of  Davies's tweeted complaints.

 I was, however, allowed straight in to the earth-shattering story of the High Street riot van.
At the top is a file picture of a police car with an out-of-focus figure in the midground. Ironically, for an organisation that has sacked all its staff photographers in favour of reader contributions, copyright-free agency stock and reporters' smartphone efforts, an ad invites the reader to buy the paper's pictures.

At the bottom, under several blocks of puffery (including repeats) were two comments. Both spam. Presumably Trinity Mirror can't afford moderators, which doesn't matter much when the commenters are self-serving trolls, but could matter a lot if they start libelling people.
Anyway, here's the story, all 118 words (interrupted by an ad and two puffs). Is it worth a thousand clicks? You tell me.

1 comment:

  1. What is depressing is that the narrative about regional news hasn't changed despite the evidence that the current strategies aren't working. I wrote this five years ago