Farewell to the ‘gut instinct’ of regional newspaper editors as analysts calculate what should be on your front page

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

An editor's instinct for choosing local news is being replaced through the use of analytics.

An editor’s instinct for choosing local news is being replaced by the use of analytics.

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.

Don’t blame the rise of the ‘evil’ web sites for the decline in newspaper sales and jobs of journalists, there are darker forces at work

It’s easy to blame the web for the decline in newspaper sales. Like most industries, there’s always a need to find an easy answer to what went wrong, but this is too simplistic. Why did sales fall off the end of the cliff?

The reality is much more complex than the emergence of the web. The internet wasn’t just switched on in 2006 and the world came to an end. Why 2006?

Having emptied my briefcase for the first time since 1987, I came across some fascinating sales figures from a couple of newspapers I was lucky enough to have worked for.

What they clearly highlight is that for regional newspapers life was pretty rosy until this point.

The rise of web sites isn't the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.

The rise of web sites isn’t the only reason why newspaper sales have declined.

The figures I found, even with the bulks taken out, show that though sales were on the way down, it was a steady, moderate decline, not the 10-20 per cents we are seeing now.

So, from the early 80s until 2006 the average annual sales decline according to my stats was around -2.6% for the newspapers I worked for. Many editors would give their right hand for this result today.

Then we hit 2006. Suddenly the average sale loss hit between six and seven per cent, for some it was even heavier losses.

This became the trend for a few years until around 2012 when newspapers, if they hadn’t already, started hitting the double digit sales decline. Today, other than the odd exception, most of the decline sits unhappily above 10 per cent.

Those which aren’t quite there are often the smaller selling newspapers which have probably hit the plateau of decline. Indeed, if they were in double figures they would be shut or free within a couple of years.

What this decline does show is that the web is not the only excuse for the sales loss. The web has been around for many more years than the last nine years of rapid decline.

I accept that newspapers pay more attention to it than ever before, but that’s because the newspaper sales decline has speeded this process up. What actually happened in those dark days of 2006?

The truth is that the advertising income suddenly collapsed, particularly classified, and owners realised that the regional newspapers were no longer cash cows.

One regional newspaper owner used to call their regional papers the jewel in his crown as the millions rolled in. But it was in 2006 that they suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth, the royal visits to the provinces ended, never to return.

With the prospect of incomes on the slide there was an invasion of grey-suited consultants. They entered the offices to start their bean counting. What was sad about the process of dismantling the business was that these poor folk knew nothing about newspapers.

I remember well being questioned why one reporter had only written 10 stories in a month and another 200. The answer was simple.

One was an investigative reporter who helped to jail a county council leader. These kind of stories cannot be knocked out in five minutes, the other reporter was a junior who spent their time banging out nibs.

But they just didn’t get it and asked how many stories could be written in an hour, in two hours. How many pages could be subbed in an hour or a day?

By the way, the target was to sub eight pages a day. I recommend any sub/content editor to see if they can sub eight pages a day based on a reasonably high story count and small ads. It’s really tough, no chance of a lunch break.

So with incomes down, staff cuts, getting rid of editions, reducing the covering of courts and council, reducing pagination, printing on toilet paper, increasing cover price, oh, and a bigger emphasis of the web, sales started to dip dramatically. The perfect storm.

Ok, I can’t hang my coat on any one of these being completely responsible for the sales decline. Collectively, however, they are a potent force. What it does mean, however, is that the evil web is not necessarily to blame.

Equally, the web is not the part of the business which will prop up the newspapers either. Yep, we all know the truth, that however you fiddle the figures or get the poor advertising folk to flog ads online, the chances of making up for print revenue decline via the web is as unlikely as England winning the Ashes this year or anyone considering that George Bush was a great president.

If it could, we wouldn’t have seen the cuts that have really impacted on the business. Peter Preston’s article for the Guardian reinforced this view this week, you can read it here http://bit.ly/1AGm0FA

Peter has viewed the latest figures from Murdoch’s paywall sites and the Mail online. The paywall was designed so that digital money covers the loss of print advertising and cover-price cash. Unfortunately, it’s not working.

At the Mail, growth was scheduled at 40% year on year, to bring in £100m in ads online this financial year and make up for the decline in print revenue.

However,  growth has dropped to 20%, the half-year digital ad take, at £36m, makes £100m seem a distant dream. I don’t have all the figures to hand, but you can only think that this is a similar picture across all national and regional press.

So, I go back to my argument in my last post. Surely, all newspapers need to look outside the newspaper/web model? Specific apps, with great content, written by expert journalists cornering the market in their subject might be the way forward.

Remember, mass media has gone. Personal media is the way forward, so deliver personal media. What do advertisers crave most? They want to know that their adverts and promotions hit the bullseye (target audience) like darts champ Phil ‘the Power’ Taylor in his glory days.

This is what apps can do. Why not give it a go?