In a different world, editors would often decide what to splash on their front pages using their ‘gut instinct’. Often I would be asked ‘why did you lead on that story on the front page’.
The answer wasn’t complex, it was a decision made through years of experience, a decision that came from somewhere deep down, a decision based on the fact that you knew your community better than those sitting in faraway offices.
Now it seems this invaluable instinct has lost its street credibility. As an editor, I was asked to make decisions on story placement
based on how well they performed online, this is now gaining momentum in some quarters.
It may have some merit, but falls down on some key principles. Firstly, as we all know, stories which perform well online do so because the audience is different.
They are looking for something far removed to many of the stories which appear in a regional newspaper.
If the performance of stories online was reflected in the front pages of our daily papers then editors would be forced to make their front page splash football gossip, food hygiene reports or a trivial video showing probably a cat or dog performing some bizarre trick.
So if a front page story has low ‘engagement’ on the web, the editor will undoubtedly get the cane from the headteacher for failing to pick the right story to feed the web monster.
This means that editors might have to take shortcuts and use a story which might not be quite true (does truth matter?!) but hell, it will get great engagement on the web and the story will sell papers.
The long term damage is irreparable. Local newspapers are all about trust. Once the trust is broken, the game is over.
You can only write so many ‘fliers’ on the front before people realise they are being given a bum deal and that the paper is just making up stories. Soon Biggles will be chosen to edit the paper.
The other problem is about cementing your credibility in the community. Often editors make decisions on leading with a campaign, such as giving free books away to improve literacy in an area or campaigning to get vital drugs to improve the lives of breast cancer victims, or highlighting poor management at a hospital or a dodgy surgeon who is using a kitchen knife to perform operations.
What editors know is that these stories (apparently health stories don’t perform well online or sell newspapers, what about Harold Shipman…???) won’t necessarily sell papers or be a big hit online, but they build support and relationships in your community, they show you care and buy you a great deal of loyalty.
Obviously, content analysts with little soul and far removed from the heart of any community, just won’t get this because it’s all about chasing figures, not longevity, and who cares if the audience comes from America or Japan…maybe the advertisers.
Then there is another dilemma. When I was an editor I was told there was too much doom and gloom on the front pages and the audience was being turned off by this sort of news, move over Martin Lewis.
So the editorial team against its own gut instinct splashed with a happy story, only to be told there’s no engagement online and sales dropped. Basically, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Meanwhile, the story which did well online, usually with the word sex in the headline, which is just a brief because it is 40 miles outside your real circulation area, flies on the web.
Asked why you didn’t splash on that story, head in hands, the editor says ‘because you asked for a happy, positive story and no-one buys the paper in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, our paper is for the people of Lincoln, Bristol, or Hull.’
Giving the public what it wants should always be taken with a pinch of salt, frankly, it’s only a proportion of the audience which wants gossip and sleaze every day.
Most regional newspaper readers want quality, truthful stories about their community. They want to know about their health services, education and crime.
They don’t want a dose of shallow web bait splashed all over their front pages.
‘But sales are in decline’, I hear you cry. However, as I have previously said, the web isn’t the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.
The real issue was a decline in revenues which led to overnight printing, massive price hikes, fewer pages, cheaper paper, a withdraw from towns previously covered by the paper and fewer staff.
This is the cocktail of decline, the web is only partly to blame. Unfortunately, the rise the web is often seen as the only reason for newspaper sales decline, so why stick to the sort of stories which kept newspapers going for more than 200 years?
The argument has always been that web and newspaper content are different. However, this is ignored by those who believe analytics are more accurate than the instinct of an editor.