There have been few occasions as far as I can recall when two such prominent editorial executives such as Trinity Mirror’s Neil Benson and David Higgerson have been moved to respond in such detail from the criticism of one reporter.
The response from Mr Benson and Mr Higgerson showed as much passion for what TM is doing as Mr Davies obviously has for the Advertiser and his belief that TM is ruining it.
As stated eloquently by Mr Higgerson, TM hasn’t banned stories which generate less than 1,000 page views.
But, from what I know one of the firm’s digital documents states that 43 per cent of stories on TM’s top 12 web sites have generated an audience of fewer than 1,000 page views.
This is in a section which asks how well the firm’s journalists know its audience. The inference from this section clearly is that 1,000 pvs is a benchmark for stories…
Based on this, you can perhaps conclude that there’s a misunderstanding by some of the TM team over what is required, this isn’t a ban, just a quiet word of guidance.
What is clear, is that TM has a plan, this has not always been the case for many newspaper groups. It is based around growing its digital audience, so the focus of the newsroom is clearly geared towards this.
Analytics of the audience is a tool to help this growth. Never has an editor had so much quality intelligence about its audience.
It means, for the first-time, editors can base decisions on hard facts and not just finally-tuned instincts. I do think Mr Benson describing journalists as ‘arrogantly’ choosing what they want to write about as slightly harsh.
Most journalists I have worked with write stories which they believed were important to their readers. There was never a day when an editor and his top team worth their salt didn’t talk about sales and how to improve them.
The times a gleeful newspaper sales manager entered a news conference to proclaim a sales spike on the back of a top story are too many to remember.
No, the newspaper men and women I worked with were obsessed with their ‘audience’ (readers) so there is nothing new on that front.
The difference is that now there is more evidence available to work out which stories the audience is reading.
What would you rather rely on, fact or instinct with a teaspoon of evidence from the sales history of a newspaper?
However, there is a word or two of caution here, the web audience is different to the newspaper audience, so what works well online doesn’t necessarily reflect what might work well in print.
There is little evidence to suggest newspapers are doing well thanks to the digital-only policy, indeed, sales decline for many still smashes double figures.
I was also concerned with the point raised that there’s more content in the newspapers. Recently, sadly, I spent a day counting stories and pages in a couple of TM’s biggest regional papers.
I used the same formula as I had used when I was a deputy editor and editor and it was clear to me that rather than there being more stories there were fewer. I used to aim for between 65-100 local news stories a day in my papers and a minimum of 15-17 overnight pages.
Clearly, from my research, this wasn’t the case and there were a lot of centrally produced pages, which I didn’t count, because I wouldn’t have previously.
This is not a direct criticism, but there are fewer local stories, fewer pages and newspapers cost a lot more. With staff cuts and an emphasis on digital, something has to give.
One of the reasons for fewer stories is because a journalist will be asked to go out on a story, cover it live, write Tweets, post it on Facebook, a version or two online and then it is shifted to the paper.
This takes time, so one story will be polished, but there’s many other stories that won’t be written due to lack of time. The idea is to get, say 20, great stories online and get the audience to come by building content around them.
I guess the way to resolve this is to harvest content from elsewhere to publish, but once again this takes time, unless you can get out the automatic content scrapers.
When we got rid of the editions of the newspaper and printed overnight the newspaper felt dead, we dreamed of those adrenalin busting days of swapping stories around and writing breaking news.
This died with overnight production, but the web gave us a continual edition and I think reinvigorated the newspaper office, the buzz returned and that was great.
However, the demands are many for the journalists at any newspaper group. The 21st century journalist has to have an array of skills, which is exciting for the next generation.
At the centre of this is the ability to tell a great story using core journalistic skills but they also need to understand how to attract an audience using analytics, understand Twitter and Facebook, after all, just view these as modern day bill boards, the ability to use Facebook Live or Periscope, to edit video and write great SEO.
Challenging, yes, but this multi-skilling has helped to reinvent a business which was floundering. It is because a journalist is asked to do so much that massive effort is put into key stories.
What these stories are, is now based on a history of performance online. Is this click-bait then or the ability to give the audience content they want to read?
After all, a newspaper and a website are products which have to be sold, I can’t see Tesco’s selling something no-one wants to buy.
Similarly, why would a media organisation provide content no-one wants to read?
Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of concerns about the ability of firms to hold authority to account, for example, how many local councils and health authority meetings are covered today?
Newspaper groups may well argue that the reality is that no-one wants to read this anyway, where is the audience, so why cover them?
I completely understand Mr Davies for being so annoyed with the way TM has developed. But what choice did the firm have?
Newspaper sales are in terminal decline and there’s a chance to keep the business going by throwing resource into digital.
The issue however comes down to cash. Most of the money still arrives from newspaper advertising and sales, as sales decline, so will the cash.
However, no newspaper group will ever be able to get the same revenue returns online, even if the cuts go deeper.
So we will all have to accept that it’s a different business, one with less income, better audience knowledge, journalists with different, but more skills.
Is it better or worse than when I started? Difficult to say, it’s just different. I often had the discussion with my newsdesk about content.
I constantly challenged them on whether the stories newspapers had traditionally covered were the stories for the 21st century readership?
What we are seeing is that the content produced has to reflect the new needs of the audience.
The web has proved that a re-focus of what is good content is needed and that is why it has changed and Mr Davies is unhappy, as are many other journalists who plied their trade when regional newspapers were in their pomp.
There is an argument to say that the policies of modern newspaper groups has accentuated the decline.
But for at least two decades the industry dithered over what to do with the web and while this went on the world passed it by.
Now there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Regional journalism has some great challenges ahead. My hope is that surely, continuing to tell great stories means that it will continue to be the best job in the world…for now.