Why the thought of Trinity Mirror production hubs brings back nightmares and the endangered species…the editor

subs

Trinity Mirror wants to introduce production hubs as it looks to restructure its business. Other newspaper groups, like the defunct Northcliffe Newspapers tried this method of subbing and design and confined it to the waste bin.

 

Production hubs. Those words. They always bring me out in a sweat. After the accountants had finished picking over the bones of the then Northcliffe Newspapers in 2007, the meat slicer came out, it was time to cut jobs.

I’m not sure how, but I was tasked with not only implementing a unified editorial system across large parts of Northcliffe, but also help be an architect of the production hubs.

At the time, I argued that if jobs had to be lost, the best way was not to create large hubs, but to use the technology to improve and speed up production and keep the subs at the local centres.

Ultimately, I was right, as the hubs collapsed in bitter recriminations and production was returned to the local centres.

Now Trinity Mirror is set to create those beasts of the newsroom once more.

One of the main problems with Northcliffe was that they used an editorial system which was being developed as it was rolled out.

This meant that most centres used the system differently and often this meant poorly.

Many editors didn’t like an inferior deputy editor like me coming in to tell them how to work, so the battles were long and hard to get one system in across the group.

One of the main advantages was that we needed to have the ability to share content, this could only really be done if we had one system and a shared server.

Getting in the new software, however, was only one tip of the iceberg. The real battle started with which centres were going to have the subbing hub and which centre would have their content subbed in a darkened warehouse many miles away.

This was the true war of the worlds stuff for editors who quickly realised that having a production hub on their site gave them enormous power and influence, plus it gave job security to their own workforce.

In many ways, a lot of newspapers benefitted from the hub system. The reason is that subbing at some centres, I’m afraid to say, was not brilliant and they benefitted from being subbed at centres with more experienced staff.

But, there were many, many downsides. The errors due to lack of knowledge about an area were extraordinary.

If you sat in a hub in Hull or Nottingham your knowledge of Lincoln or Leicester was often not up to scratch and errors were made by hard-pressed sub-editors.

There was also a proliferation of headline boxes which went out with the standard ‘Headline 42pt in ere ereere’ or ‘Fill this J please ere ere’ and a lot worse.

There was also a massive amount of posturing from editors as pressure to churn out pages increased.

In the hub I looked after with some excellent, extremely hard-working colleagues, we chucked out 1,000 pages a week.

It got competitive, the fight for survival and which centre produced the most pages most efficiently, a ‘who had the biggest balls’ contest.

To say the least, it was gruelling, it was like working in a factory, just churning out page after page.

I was tasked to spend time working out how many pages one sub-editor could do a day.

Of course, if every page had a 20×7 ad on, you could do a lot. So an average figure of eight pages per day became the agreed task for every sub.

I was not happy with the figure, but there had to be a benchmark, ‘let’s weed out the lazy ones’ one of the most senior editorial gurus in Northcliffe growled at me down the phone.

‘Mmmmmmmmm…’ I said, with a hint of desperation.

A colleague of mine bravely agreed to sub and design eight blank news pages as a trial. This experienced sub and designer worked flat out without a proper break for 10 hours and managed to achieve the task.

He admitted to me that after just one day of that, he was on his knees, how he said would he feel after two or three days having to do this? ‘Knackered’, I said.

I believe he may still be on medication…

Yep, eight pages without ads every day would break most subs, no wonder errors rose dramatically. The other major issue was getting copy through quickly.

Traditionally, as all us hardened subs know, reporters have a knack of delivering copy as they put their coat on and head for the pub at their close of play.

In the hub, this wasn’t possible, content had to be sent with military precision, each page had a deadline and if you couldn’t fill it, the front page lead would be grabbed and whacked in as a 140-worder so Page 47 could be sent.

In a way, the hubs were a sprat to catch a mackerel. They allowed major reorganisation of production, code for making a lot of people redundant.

It forced editors, who had fought tooth and nail to keep staff, to rethink their strategy.

They simply agreed to take subbing back to their own centres with a massive reduction in the original staff who used to sub and design the newspaper.

It wasn’t a case of back to square one. Most news pages were templated, you could have taught a child to drag and drop a page.

The boxes on the pages were sent to reporters to fill, including the headlines. At the end of the day, a quick refresh and the page was full and ready to go…sort of.

The main issues were that despite some training, reporters struggled with headlines, particularly making them interesting.

Reporters, under huge pressure to fill a quota of boxes as well as feed online often filled a box which was 200-words when the reality was that the story was only worth a nib.

Anyway, Trinity Mirror does seem fixed on going down the hub route. It will probably mean large, actually, not too large (there aren’t that many left) offices with rows of subs.

It could also mean that some production people stay at their centre, but have to sub copy from across a large area.

Whatever the outcome this time, it was clear to me when Northcliffe brought in the hubs that subbing copy a distance away from the patch was far from ideal.

It also goes against my view of the industry. I think newspapers should be light on their feet, able to change at the drop of a hat, not being at the mercy of a vast subbing pools weighing down the rest of the business.

Also, it surely contradicts the philosophy that journalists should be multi-skilled and not tied to one particular part of the business?

An editorial floor should be a place where journalists can turn their hand to any job if a gap in what is required for the day’s business appears.

The silos in a newsroom should be confined to the spike.

Newspapers including the Grimsby Telegraph and the Lincolnshire Echo will no longer have an editor. Sad news.

The Telegraph has for more than 30 years been one of the better performing titles in the former Northcliffe Newspaper and Local World group.

It’s consistency of performance and great journalism has been in no small part to the editors, the late Pete Moore and the present editor, the excellent Michelle Lalor.

As for the Lincolnshire Echo, I had some of my happiest times at this fabulous paper under the editorship of Mike Sassi, now editor of the Notts Post.

It was a newspaper which truly championed the community with the editor being the heart and soul of this.

Local newspapers without an editor to represent the newspaper and be part of the community can only mean a disconnection between the newspaper and the city, town or village it represents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Regional newspapers, the BBC and holding authority to account, thanks to the taxpayers and…a bit of flatulence

The BBC is to pay £8m to provide reporters who will cover local councils.

The BBC is to use £8m of taxpayers’ cash to provide reporters who will cover local councils for regional newspapers as well as the Beeb.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, I still believe in that brand of journalism we call Fourth Estate, or holding authority to account.

So for the BBC to hand out £8m to pay for 150 journalists to ensure this happens can only be good news for the regional press, can’t it?

But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about the deal. I’m all for journalists covering local councils, but feel uneasy that this is happening as many newspaper groups continue to cut editorial staff.

Even as we speak, Trinity Mirror is cutting jobs as part of its £12m synergies after the takeover of Local World.

The problem I have is that these newspaper groups, such as Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror continue to make a healthy sum of cash.

However, despite this, they are still in many cases unwilling to cover local authorities. One reason is due to the fact that there are simply not enough staff and the second reason is that editors, even reluctantly, are making the decision not to cover this type of news.

This is because they are constantly looking over their shoulders as they attempt to hit their unique users/page views targets.

The reality is, that rarely do council stories interest the online audience in large numbers. So as an editor, if you are faced with getting the audience with a story about toilet habits which will get big hits or send to a council meeting, the hits are coming out on top.

We all accept the need to grab a slice of readers, so writing about farts being healthy, yes farts, as the Plymouth Herald recently did may just be the way forward because it would have attracted a huge audience.

As an aside, this story has one of the greatest apologises I have seen…under the story (see link above) it read: ‘This story was edited on May 5, 2016. The story originally stated that sniffing farts is good for you and helps you live longer. The Herald is happy to make clear that the research in question has not found that to be the case.’

I bet there was a riot in the newsroom as this carefully crafted apology was put together.

Right…so back to the main plot. I guess what I’m saying is that many newspapers are choosing not to write about councils and would rather right about something else.

If this is the case, why should the taxpayer pick up a bill to pay for reporters when the companies they serve already earn a decent amount?

Also, there are concerns that newspapers will take the ‘BBC’ paid reporter and then slice a job somewhere else.

Inevitably, there has also been an uneasy relationship between the BBC and the regional press. I attended a meeting last year and there was discussion over a pilot scheme where regional newspapers and the BBC were meant to be sharing content.

It was certainly more than an awkward conversation and smacked of an inability for them to work successfully together.

So, the dilemma, or is it a dilemma? The newspapers companies have certainly done well here. They get a reporter for free and the BBC picks up the tab.

I hope it works, but who is going to be out there counting the increase in local council coverage or will it be a case of gone with the wind…???

By the way, I have mentioned that I have an interesting tale about a newspaper skills audit process which will make your toes curl, that’s on its way soon.

Should Trinity Mirror have invested in regional newspapers rather than cost-cutting and creating the doomed New Day?

Trinity Mirror's New Day has closed after nine weeks.

Trinity Mirror’s New Day has closed after nine weeks.

I feel no joy over the closure of Trinity Mirror’s New Day. Like any journalist, in these difficult days for newspapers, the opening of the paper, in the shadow of the closure of The Independent, was a little ray of sunshine.

But we all knew, didn’t we? All of us cynics felt it would never work. I was optimistic and privately said it would close after six months, so for it to fold after nine weeks even left me for dead.

In my blog discussing the launch of the New Day I said that I couldn’t understand why the paper was being opened.

There was some bizarre talk of a gap in the market and the chance to sell 200,000 copies. I said at the time was it just a case of sour grapes after TM failed to buy the i?

Who really knows what were the thoughts behind opening the paper? There have been mumblings about trying to encourage people who don’t buy a newspaper to buy this one.

How or why the great powers of Trinity Mirror thought this would work is unsure.

Figures suggest there are 4.5 billion users of mobile phones. These people are not going to spend 50p to buy their news when they can get it for free on their phone at their convenience.

What is for sure, the move to set-up a newspaper without a web site flew in the face of TM’s digital first strategy.

Of course, if it had been a success, TM chief executive Simon Fox would have been heralded, but in the cool light of day success was never on the agenda.

Some commentators have said that you have to praise innovation and at least TM tried. I agree with this philosophy but I can’t get over the fact that failure was just too obvious.

So TM splashed out £5m to advertise the new product, the campaign was poor to say the least with no-one really understanding what the product was about.

It was meant to be ‘politically neutral’ and the news agenda different to the rest of the national market, but it failed.

The design of the paper and the journalism just didn’t break new ground, watching the adverts left you scratching your head wondering who the paper was really targeting?

It is no coincidence that the closure came as the TM share price hit a three-year low on Tuesday at around 113p and ‘bounced’ back on the announcement of the closure by seven per cent, still a long way below last year’s 180p.

The National Union of Journalists has been asking for all the costs involved in the set-up and failure of the newspaper.

It also expresses concern over what will happen to the 25 editorial staff?

What we do know, as I said earlier, is that £5m was spent on advertising the New Day, so you can add on a few millions of extra cost.

At the AGM yesterday, TM bosses were shouting about the £12m ‘synergy savings’ or integration with the former Local World newspapers.

This is code for a load of staff cuts sweeping across the old Local World titles. This made me think.

Rather than spending millions on the dead duck New Day, what if that cash had been used to pour back into the local newspapers, an investment in the future rather than just slicing off costs?

Surely it would have been better to use money to help established businesses rather than create something that was always going to fail?

I maybe naïve, but it is worth a thought and it fits into the innovative, creative thinking arena as opposed to the slash and burn.

Talking of redundancies, a friend of mine rung to talk about how he was booted out of a local newspaper based on the good old skills audit.

Now the skills audit is meant to be fair…but only in fairy tales. More of that little horror story another time.

 

 

Trinity Mirror’s New Day, what’s going on? Plus, why the digital revolution is on the march in regional newspaper land

New Day. Not exactly an inspiring name for a newspaper, it sounds more in-keeping with a name given to a church newsletter. But let’s not be gloomy. One paper gone, The Independent, another one arrives.

I’ve read extensively around why TM wants to launch the paper today, with stories of gaps in the market and a large untapped audience, plus a commitment to newspapers, but, unless there’s some deep intelligence I’m unaware of, I can’t make too much sense of it.

New day

Many pundits have been surprised that Trinity Mirror has launched a new newspaper and I ap;laud the company for its bravery.

I can only think that TM has thrown its dummy out of the pram at not acquiring the i newspaper and decided to go head-to-head with it.

On the other hand, maybe TM still realises deep down that there’s still cash to be made in print. Remember, don’t be fooled by the web revenues, as I have said before, some newspaper firms are creaming off money from print advertising income to make online look better.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, except it is hiding the reality that online will never make-up for the decline in print revenues.

So back to the launch of New Day, ok, I’ve only seen one copy, but if this is the future of newspapers then I’m slightly perturbed. You have to wonder who will buy it?

I have said that many were surprised by the launch of a new newspaper because it goes against the TM philosophy which is completely committed to the web, just look at its online figures for the regional press and then the sad newspaper sales figures.

Also, look at the fact that TM is already introducing its 3:1 newsroom into the former Local World editorial newspapers. Sorry, apparently it’s not former Local World, just Local World, despite being taken over…I wonder why that is?

While my former colleagues thought that the so-called ‘transformation’ under David Montgomery was huge, this is in a different league, it’s digital, digital, digital, oh, and a bit of newspaper.

A student, aged 18, asked me the pertinent question of the week: ‘Why has it taken newspapers so long to buy into the digital world?’

The question was spot on.

Back in the dark ages, about 1999, I entered my office in Lincoln and the only way to get online was by dial-up…and that didn’t work.

By that time Northcliffe did have news web sites, but the desire for them to be a success just wasn’t there, someone even told me that ‘hell would have to freeze over first.’

The reasons were mixed for this failure to embrace the web, but mainly it was due to the fact that editors’ feared the web would destroy the newspaper and now The Independent may well have proven a little bit of this story.

On the other hand, was the newspaper doomed anyway? The chances of meeting a journalist who has worked on a newspaper with a circulation rise in the last 30 years is the equivalent of seeing a dinosaur walking along the A50 to Derby.

As I have said previously, by 2006-07, with classified lost to online and households having access to broadband wi-fi, the newspaper business was in crisis.

It was at this point that printing overnight to save costs was the only way forward, which left the door open to the argument that there were now two editions, one for the paper and one online.

The battles between newspaper editors and the digital bods, who had the nerve to ditch their ties, had been won by digital, or so it seemed.

Since 2007 regional newspapers have continued to toy with the web like a playful kitten, many staff not really buying into the culture.

‘Of course we are digital first,’ was the scream heard from the newsroom with a knowing nod and a wink as the best story of the day was held back to sell newspaper in 15 hours time.

Having witnessed the latest Trinity Mirror editorial shake-up taking in the old Local World newspapers, you know the wind of change is just about to sweep through the newly-acquired titles.

Taking a broad brush, TM titles have performed better online than old LW titles, while the LW titles have had better newspaper circulation figures.

But TM’s business is far more digital first. While TM makes encouraging noises about the newspapers, if you picture a large room the newspaper team is over in a darkened corner, waiting patiently for content from the digital team on its 2pm-2am shift…

To put it simply, if I was in charge of a regional newspaper owned by TM I would be ensuring that all my mates suddenly had a role with digital in their title to ensure they were protected…or would I?

If I was an accountant I might be wondering how TM can afford to create this digital empire based on the fact that the cash isn’t really there while the newspapers continue to grind out higher profit.

Back in the digital land of TM, as I understand, you either buy into the ‘revolution’ or you are out on your ear. So all those journos who played lip-service to online, be warned.

There are several aspects to the TM digital model.

Skills are important, but they are not the traditional skills we all associate with being a news journo. This will have a profound effect on those who train journalists, knowledge of court, council or public meeting take a backseat, hello to wizards of social media who understand web analytics or can pull a Storify article together in five minutes.

Then you have to ask about the roles in a newsroom. Effectively, if your story doesn’t get enough uniques, then should it have been written? So, for example, if health or education stories don’t get an audience, why bother doing them?

What about the editor? Does he actually have to edit the newspaper any longer when the focus is clearly on the web? Is the solution is to put someone else in charge and just keep an eye on what’s happening in the cupboard?

If there is no need to have certain specialisms which have been a must in the newsroom of old, what are the roles required? Well, what gets the biggest audience would be the first question I would ask? The answer is football.

This role wouldn’t be just writing match reports, match previews or a story about the odd groin strain, it is far greater than that.

It is all about generating content which leads to debate online, analysing football stats, feeding social media audiences with gossip and tit-bits of information, looking at what content does well and then feeding that with more content.

This is a far cry from a football reporter chatting to the manager over a brew before filing a couple of articles and disappearing off to the pub.

So what does this new newsroom look like? It has experts in a field of content which grabs audiences, forget instinct to pick stories, go for data, move in a data analyst, social media editors and content writers who write stories in advance to pick up the mood of the nation for big events or those special occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s.

Oh, and if the editor is not keeping a watching brief over the newspaper, you need to have someone in charge of that old-fashioned print publishing. So what you will be asking is this good or bad?

Well, it seems to have worked for TM, its digital audience is good. Is it good for journalism? As ever, there are dangers. As I have said previously, rip up the old news agenda and look again. Never have news organisation had such great intelligence on what the audience likes.

But should content be purely based on what the audience wants? I guess, welcome to the real world of retail, has Tesco knowingly ever sold something that it knows people don’t want?

So why should journalism be immune from the art of good business? When the news editor provides a brief from a parish council meeting just ask them, who is going to read it?

Does this mean that those stories based around holding authority to account are now gone, farewell Fourth Estate? This is very possible.

The Independent has said that it will maintain the standards of its journalism online by ensuring big hitters like Robert Fisk are still employed, but what if he doesn’t get a big enough audience?

Who or what will pay for editorial? If the Guardian can’t make money from online and The Sun and The Mail are struggling, what does the future hold?

Both say that the decline in print revenue is not made up with digital revenue and this is the case for most news organisations.

Based on this, can The Independent survive, is there enough cash coming in to keep journalists employed while turning over a profit?

Back in the old LW domain, if you fancy staying in the mix, think, talk and sleep digital, but keep an eye on the newspaper, after all, the old beast still turns a coin.