Football, bloody hell…big transfer news as regional newspaper journalists jump ship to join new American sports website The Athletic

Regional newspaper journalists have been poached by American-based sports website The Athletic to join its new UK operation.

 

So what is the big transfer news of the summer, Pogba off to Real Madrid or Neymar to Barcelona?

Not in the world of journalism, where sports journalists have been leaving regional newspapers faster than you can say clickbait to move to the American-based sports website, The Athletic.

Some of the cream of the regional newspaper footballing world have been poached.

Meanwhile, those at the top of the regional newspaper world must be pondering if The Athletic can gain a major foothold in the UK by picking up audience.

According to holdthefrontpage.co.uk those who have transferred to The Athletic include include the Liverpool Echo’s Liverpool FC reporter James Pearce, Yorkshire Evening Post Leeds United writer Phil Hay and Express & Star Wolverhampton Wanderers correspondent Tim Spiers.

It is understood more are following the pilgrimage including Leicester Mercury’s Leicester City reporter Rob Tanner, Birmingham Mail Aston Villa reporter Gregg Evans and The Argus Brighton and Hove Albion reporter Andy Naylor.

In a way, with the demand for football stories and the growth of football journalism, it is one of the few areas where recruitment seems to be rising.

But to leave the relative comfort of their regional newspapers and head for The Athletic is, from an outsider looking in, a gamble.

Cynics would say that the reported double your money offers may have helped this leap of faith, with the writers said to be on about £37,000 and being offered a nice $75,000 to join their new mates from America.

So is it safe for these journalists to leave for an organisation which is in its infancy? The Athletic only started a couple of years ago and is firmly based across the Atlantic.

It is making a big play for the Premier League audience by looking to recruit 50-55 people, mainly writers, prior to the season starting in August.

The Athletic is different to most regional newspaper models. Its business is based on a paywall, there aren’t any intrusive ads dive bombing you as you attempt to read each paragraph of a story.

James Mirtle, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic, Canada, makes the case for subscription. He points out that it’s difficult to make decent money based on clicks suggesting that a top story would only ever make $75-$100, hardly enough to pay a journalist.

He has a point.

James argues that while most people question the need to pay for journalism, the reality is that the existing businesses based on clicks may not generate the right levels of income to make them sustainable. Thoughtful stuff.

Finally, he says that the New York Times and Washington Post are pursuing subscription models because after doing their sums, it’s better to get two subscribers in terms of money than 20,000 clicks.

This is interesting if we reflect on what is happening in the UK. The Guardian, which is free to readers, has managed to get people to pay for its journalism.

Latest figures show that they have 655,000 subscribers and 300,000 readers who have made one-off contributions.

Meanwhile, The Sun ditched its paywall when it only had 200,000 subscribers in 2015 and by 2018 overtook the Mail Online by becoming the UK’s biggest newsbrand with more than 30m unique users a month.

The Times, Telegraph and Financial Times are three other titles which are appearing to sit comfortably behind a paywall.

UK regional titles have also flirted with paywalls. A decade ago Johnston Press, now JPI Media, tried to put smaller titles like the Whitby Gazette behind a paywall with little success.

The firm announced earlier this year that it was to put a partial paywall on two titles, The Star, Sheffield and The News, Portsmouth. Readers will have to pay £2 a week.

I’m unsure whether this will be a success, history so far tells us it won’t be. Readers don’t seem keen to pay-out for local news, local sport maybe different.

The only bright spot on the horizon is that there is a generation of people who now expect to pay for media, the culture of our country is changing.

Today they pay for TV (Netlflix, Sky), music (Spotify, Apple) and, of course, mobile phones.

So what can we conclude from these examples of paying or not for content?

I guess it is that you need to find a model that works best for your audience…that’s a bit of a cop out statement, sorry.

Clearly, Guardian readers are benevolent so dig deep while Sun readers would rather spend their cash on something else, in other words, there’s no clear pattern.

As I’ve said before, the issue with online is turning a coin. Newspaper groups have to fight tooth and nail to grab any cash online as both Google and Facebook hoover up the lion’s share of advertising.

This means for a company like Reach Plc, the largest newspaper group in the country, that revenues look lob-sided.

While to steams ahead with a web first policy with content as audience grows rapidly, back in the forgotten print rooms, the cash is still coming in as the newspaper sales decline.

The  group revealed a few days ago that its digital revenue had increased by 9.7pc on a like for like basis from £41.5m to £48.7m, with average monthly page views on its websites growing by 16pc year on year to 1.2bn in 2019. Big tick.

But look at the print revenues. Ok, they declined slightly from £306.4m to £301.8m…but compare it with the £48.7m from online. Effectively, print is still the cash cow.

Fact, the income from online is closing that of print which is also in decline; fact, online will never make the same amount of money as print once did. This is because online is so competitive, print has never really faced the same fight for money.

So, back to The Athletic. Is it worth the risk for a group of well-respected football writers with reasonably comfortable lives at decent newspaper groups to leave for a project effectively in its infancy?

I guess the answer is probably ‘yes’. If the rumoured salaries are right, in a year they will get paid double what they would have received and more than any redundancy, if that became an issue.

Any company worth its salt would sit this project out for at least two to three years, in which time they will have earned what they would have received in six years if they had sat it out in their old jobs.

Then there’s the idea that the content required is different to the terms of engagement in traditional regional newspapers web operations.

This is what James says of The Athletic philosophy: “We’re focused on fans who want high quality, in-depth coverage of their teams, content that isn’t designed to service advertisers or clicks.

“It’s designed solely to be informative and entertaining. The Athletic would not happen on the ad revenue model. So far, we’ve seen that it can work through low-cost subscriptions. By all indications, we’ll be around for a long time.”

It seems James, maybe unwittingly, has taken a swipe at the publications his organisation has been so keen to ‘steal’ their writers from with an attack on click culture.

The good news for the journalists is that The Athletic wants ‘high quality, in-depth’ content, a dream for most hacks.

So the model for success according to The Athletic is to write brilliant journalism, ask readers to pay for it, go for quality, not quantity and don’t get hung up on getting thousands of clicks which won’t produce enough cash to pay the writer of the article.

In America, The Athletic has been a comparative success. Just a couple of days ago it was reported that the company now had 500,000 subscribers in the States.

In the UK it is expected that it will cost around £8 a month or £40 a year, possibly up to £60, to be a subscriber. The question is whether there’s a big enough market of football fans in the UK who will pay for content?

I hope so for the sake of the journalists who have taken the gamble to join up. Also, for the future of all up and coming football journalists, including those my colleagues and I teach, I hope it’s a success.

  • Today (August1), holdthefrontpage.co.uk has reported that three more local journalists have left their posts, 24-hours before the new English season starts. While it’s not confirmed they are joining The Athletic, it adds to the major upheaval going on in the regional newspaper sporting world.
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Trinity Mirror job losses, new-look newsrooms, Newsquest shuts press, editors go and 30p on the cost of buying a newspaper…phew…

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For a moment I had to close my eyes and squint. There was carnage everywhere.

It has been difficult to consume the media websites Press Gazette and holdthefrontpage in the last few weeks as job losses, editors leaving and presses closing have created a tale of sorrow across the regional newspaper business.

I considered at one point to take a picture of the holdthefrontpage web site and show my students the carnage, but I thought it would be overwhelming.

And the other point is, before I move on, there are many jobs for journalists, but they do not exist in the numbers they used to in the old regional newspaper industry.

I know many of my former colleagues will shiver at that thought, but this is the reality.

We are seeing the decline in one area and the growth elsewhere, everyone is a publisher, so every organisation, business, charity, school, needs a journalist to write for and about them.

So here we go, to all my students, look away, to the rest of you hardened hacks, here’s the front page of the holdthefrontpage.co.uk …ouch.

Picture1

From holdthefrontpage, a press closure and two editors leaving their posts.

Editors disappearing at a rate, another press closure as a news giant, in this case Newsquest, gobbles up a smaller company, and all this as Trinity Mirror was announcing yet another re-shape of its business with the loss of 49 jobs in the north east following the loss of 49 jobs in the Midlands and west.

Unlucky number that 49.

By chance, I was discussing the structure of the newsroom with my students when I first started in newspapers and how it (roughly) looked now in this age of online first news.

OK, I’m not an artist, but this is how the discussion developed and the drawing evolved on the white board.

Below is how the structure looked (from memory) and below that, roughly what it looks like today with on the right side the newspaper side and one the left a boiled down version of the web.

Picture2

Picture3

OK, I admit, fine art wasn’t my strong point.

Hopefully, though, the point of the lecture was well made. So many newspaper jobs/titles have gone.

One of the key areas decimated is the good old production area, where the subs are few and far between and never mentioned in the world of digital news.

However, having heard about the loss and re-organsiation of TM jobs in the north east, it made me think that I might be out of step with some of the new structures.

TM has gone for the regional approach to cut costs. It has decided to get rid of some editors and merge departments.

The idea, I understand, is to move TM towards a brighter/profitable digital future while the decline of the newspaper continues at a pace.

You can completely accept this theory. The readers are disappearing from newspapers so build where the audience is growing, online.

The tough thing is that newspapers still make more cash than online and while the gap is closing, it is not fast enough, Grand Canyon comes to mind.

In reality, the business will have to accept it will never again make the profit it once had, the golden egg is more like a tin pot.

The north east areas consist of Newcastle and Teesside, in many ways, close geographically, about 40 miles, but a distance in terms of identity.

For those in the know, Teessiders don’t find Geordies agreeable and Geordies feel the same about Teessiders with Sunderland (and Durham) stuck in the middle.

So, there would be uproar if they end up in a properly merging content teams, with all the reporters put together, because they will argue that they can’t cover their own areas properly due to a lack of knowledge.
For now, in some key areas, there appears separation.

I guess the plan is to have a North East umbrella group allowing certain content gatherers to produce stories for both areas, in other words a lot of the new roles will be regional, the new local.

As I understand it, Neil Hodgkinson, the editor at Hull, will control the whole region while an editor for print and digital will report into him.

This plan also involves merging certain areas of the newsroom, I guess some parts of the  digital, social media and sports areas, will come under the regional banner.

There will be a few reporters specifically covering Newcastle and Teeside, but as I understand, they are on the digital side.

It would appear there will be three print reporters who will have regional roles with the idea that they cover stories not touched by the digital team and a further three writers will be harvesting content for the newspaper.

I reckon the total workforce specifically for print could be around 12 for two newspapers, in my sums are correct.

It has to amount to fewer local news stories in the newspapers and fewer journalists writing for the paper as mentioned above.

In many regional newspaper these days it’s easy to identify where the local pages are and where the centralised content begins.

I recently did a random local story count in The Sentinel, my local newspaper, where I once worked, I used to have a special story counting method, so applied that.

The number of local news stories was at least 60 per cent fewer than four years ago (and I was being generous), but with staff numbers down and the demands for online news greater than ever before, it’s easy to see why.

There is an argument as to whether story count matters and, on reflection, I feel we tried to provide too many to the detriment of the better stories.

However, the old ‘pack it full of local stories mantra’ was designed to give value for money, but with fewer local news pages and stories, it is no wonder that readers are turning their backs on newspapers.

Add to this the rising cover price cost of newspapers and we have a recipe for further decline.

Here are the latest ABC figures. They sadly show that once great beast of the north, the Yorkshire Post, is 29 per cent down in the last six-month period, selling just 11,494 compared with a decade ago when it sold 42,337. These figures reveal many other tales of woe.

Back to cover price. One of the key survival tools of the regional press has been to put up the price of the newspaper to bridge the decline in income as sales fall.

I have said before, newspapers steadfastly used to put their cover price up at one or two pence a year.

However, that has increased rapidly as the sales fall has set in. Cynics have suggested that it is a case of milking the business dry as it sinks…

What I can say is from some research I have done looking across at a decade of sales decline and price rises, and it looks like I’m telling you the obvious, that while online has pinched the audience, the policy of increasing the cost of the product while reducing the number of local stories in the newspaper, is a recipe which has accentuated the decline.

I was taken aback slightly when the Western Mail, which sells 13,149 daily, decided to do a relaunch, redesign its magazine and slap 30p on its Saturday edition, more expensive than The Times on a Saturday which costs £1.70.

The odd penny always knocked a few off the sale, a grimace at the thought of what 30p might do.

And I can’t help but feel some sympathy with the paper’s editor, Catrin Pascoe, who came out with the well-worn ‘it will now be bigger and better’ for the new package on offer, readers just don’t get this.

They’ll look at the price, then head for their mobile phone or laptop to read something for free, however good it is.

I’m afraid this has all looked a little bleak. But I have some good news.

The University of Derby journalism department recently held a workshop (see below) with TM journalists with the inspirational Christian Payne to help guide them through a range of news apps which can help them tell their stories online.

There is so much innovation and creativity in the way stories can be told. In a way, this should be the most exciting times for story-tellers, but the shadow of cutbacks takes the sparkle off a new industry growing from an old one.

P.S A colleague of mine just sent me this link on Delayed Gratification. I love this concept of taking time to write the news and give it greater perspective.

I believe that, in time, we might all get fed-up with the chatter of social media news and look for a more complete picture, this offers that solution.

Do I now quality for the position of ‘happiness correspondent’? Read about that here.

Trinity Mirror’s editorial big guns Neil Benson and David Higgerson stirred by Croyden Advertiser’s Gareth Davies after Twitter storm

Croyden

Former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies created a social media storm with his criticism of Trinity Mirror.

 

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.

I understand that there was an emotional outcry when former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies spilled the beans on how he felt TM was destroying his beloved newspaper.

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.