Trinity Mirror rolls the dice again, will the punch drunk regional press be able to get off the ropes and come out fighting once more to stay aLive?

 

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Trinity Mirror has decided to remove the names of newspapers from the title of its websites to create large Live sites, reflecting what Birmingham has already done.

So big is beautiful then? The unique selling point of most regional newspapers was about their affinity and closeness to the area.

They were small compact units with reporters, subs, advertising reps, and managing directors sitting in the heart of their communities.

But the survival package or new business model has changed.

It has been an extraordinary couple of weeks for Trinity Mirror, as it grows in size nationally while slicing its regional newsroom workforce.

TM bought Express Newspapers group for £127m, bringing into its stable the Daily Express, Star and magazines like OK!

Richard Desmond, who sold the Express gleefully told the Financial Times 
that there were huge opportunities to save some £20m and increase revenues.

He added that it was all about scale ie being big, and instead of the advertising agencies stitching individual titles up over price for ads, they would get a better chance of turning a few more coins by being a monster.

Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Simon Fox was equally upbeat about the new clout they had acquired and the chance of being in a better place to negotiate with advertising agencies.

The theme of big is beautiful carried on over the shuffling of the pack and redundancies in the regions.

The news that the excellent newsman Rob Irvine had stepped down from the role of MEN editor was a surprise (well, it was for me).

I worked with Rob many moons ago in the Derby Telegraph newsroom, he was an excellent operator highlighted recently by the way he masterminded the coverage of the Manchester bomb attack last year.

He has also done wonders in growing the Holy Grail for TM, the online audience.

But with Rob leaving it opened up the whole of the north east to Hull Daily Mail editor Neil Hodgkinson, an equally excellent editor.

It was revealed that he would take control of the titles in the Newcastle with the Newcastle titles editor, Darren Thwaites, heading to Manchester.

So, hang on, the editor in charge of the Newcastle papers is actually based in Hull, just, 147.4 miles away, or two hours 34 minutes in the car, as long as there aren’t any roadworks on the A1(M), according to AA Route Planner.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the Tamworth Herald editor, the talented, hard-working Gary Phelps was also to step down.

As I finally finish this blog, news of who is going to be put at the helm of his newspapers has not been revealed.

Facetiously, I could say any editor within 147 miles of Tamworth, which would leave the field wide open, but I guess it will come under Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves who is at least not 147 miles away.

Does it matter where the editor resides? I think I may have opened a can of worms, so let’s move on…

I worked with Gary for a number of years. I had the unfortunate job to tell him his whole production department was moving to Stoke when the original Northcliffe subbing hubs were created back in 2009.

He took it on the chin and didn’t bear any grudges against me (or didn’t say it to my face) for dismantling his operation.

Perhaps he knew that one day production would return to Tamworth, which it did, a slimmer version than before, but nevertheless a victory for returning subbing back to its hometown roots.

In latter years, with fewer and fewer staff to put together the Tamworth Herald and its beast of a sister the Sutton Coldfield Observer, Gary has managed to hold it together.

So he will be a big loss to these publications.

So we have editors in charge of huge regions, we have websites disappearing, such as Burton being swallowed up by its big sister in Derby.

Then there’s the name changes to the online parts of the business as TM divorces the newspaper from the website.

As all of us who trod the boards in the newspaper business will remember, some of the most heated debates took place in those redesign of the paper meetings.

Thankfully, we employed a top-class referee, the brilliant editorial guru, Peter Sands.

There was always only one conclusion, never touch the design of the masthead, or at least keep its integrity. It’s the thing that identifies you and offers comfort to readers, a symbol of trust.

But in a blink of an eye, TM has ditched those names for its online offering, the decree absolute moment, separating print and online forever.

Should we be concerned about a name change?

Certainly, a site like The Sentinel in Stoke has had different titles on its journey such as thisisstaffordshire and latterly thesentinel.co.uk before its new reincarnation Stokeontrentlive, to go with BirminghamLive, BristolLive, DerbyshireLive and so on.

The unanswered question is whether readers go to the online sites of regional newspapers because they are a trusted brand with their traditional title or do they simply not care?

I would think that the generation who no longer read newspapers will not be bothered or understand the significance of whether the website was a Mail, Sentinel or Post, their trusted brand will become Live.

So, this is the old line in the sand moment. It splits print and the web and creates new boundaries with larger audiences and increases the advertising potential.

I have said before, that I firmly believed the web sites and their content should be separated from newspapers.

Over the last few years I have watched as those few print production journalists left have had to copy and paste off the web and squeeze that content into the newspaper.

In so many cases, the online content simply doesn’t match up to the requirements of print.

Online has so many variations when it comes to telling a story such as video, audio, slideshows and being able to aggregate social media via software such as Wakelet.

It has always been clear that the audience for print and online is different. My own little straw poll recently proved that.

I asked an audience at a lecture of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society if they still bought a newspaper, there was a forest of hands raised.

The following day I asked a group of students, not one twitch, no-one bought a newspaper.

This is the changing face of the media landscape. If TM or any other newspaper group are to secure their future, they cannot rely on print.

Similarly, newspapers cannot rely on online content. There is simply too much content which appears online which is not any good for newspapers.

Is this the brave new world then of the regional press? No-one likes to see job cuts, so many of us have felt the pain.

But, it’s all about preservation, so should we be thankful that still a lot of journalists are employed, despite there being fewer jobs?

The regional press has become like the punch-drunk boxer, wondering around trying to find away back into the fight.

Maybe, the re-shaping of the business will be the key. It’s another big gamble.

What it will achieve is a huge online audiences across the TM titles. This power will give it space to negotiate with advertisers while on the front foot.

As for print, the ability to run newspapers as standalone businesses is fine in principle, however, you need the staff to allow that to happen and it does look a bit thin on the ground.

STOP PRESS: Back to big is beautiful…family-run newspaper business Carlisle-based CN Group, sells to Newsquest.

Another move by a media giant to swallow up a minnow. Is it good for the newspaper business to have fewer owners? The argument again is, better to be big than not to be around at all…discuss.

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Old fart story haunts former Trinity Mirror journalist…should Birmingham Mail split print and web content? Meanwhile, editorial executives get steamed up over bored journalists in editorial conferences…

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A journalist friend of mine has said that one of the reasons they have left journalism is when the top trending story was about how smelling your farts could be good for your health.

So, the conversation turned without premeditation to passing wind, or farts (sorry…). It had been this moment, when this most talented of journalists had decided to quit the profession.

On a quiet Bank Holiday it was revealed to those hard-working Trinity Mirror souls that a story about farting having health benefits was trending and they should publish a version of this story and build content around.

For the journalist, the whiff of wind story was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They decided enough was enough and planned their great escape.

Cut to many months down the line and a student of mine expressed their despair at the quality of the stories on the Birmingham Mail web site.

I asked, ‘what kind of stories do you expect then?’. The answer was based around the need for ‘proper’ news stories. Mmmmmmmmm.

OK, sleeves now rolled up, ‘what is a proper news story?’, I asked.

And this is the issue. My view has always been that the online audience and the newspaper readership is fundamentally different, they want different content.

The problem newspaper executives have been fighting with is, how can they provide great online content and keep newspapers ticking over as sales disappear while drastically reducing staff?

Now we have the chance to find out. TM’s Birmingham Mail is separating online and newspaper content and has different teams to do the work.

In a blog, the newspaper’s editor Marc Reeves, outlines his plan and states that this may help save the newspaper.

While I think this is a brave claim, the paper only sells just over 18,000 (it sold 130,000 in 2000 and more than 200,000 in the 1990s), the ideal of separating the content is absolutely right.

Online content is different as is the audience, so why feed them content from newspapers?

On the other side of the coin, it is difficult to copy and paste a lot of the content from online and hope someone can turn it into content for a newspaper.

So what are the issues? Can the Birmingham Mail sustain two news teams? It’s a tall order but I hope they give it a chance and not pull the plug too soon.

Also, there maybe problems in convincing anyone to work for the print version when clearly TM is fully focussed on the web, but I digress.

The concern is that this online/newspaper divorce may be possible when you are a big operation based in a cosmopolitan city, but in the sticks it might not be sustainable, or even possible.

So how do you provide specific content for online while maintaining a newspaper which also has its own content?

In a way, what the Mail has decided to do is finally put to bed the row over the definition of what a story is.

Clearly, the online audience has one view of what kind of story they would like to read and the newspaper readers another, and that is fine.

Also, online readers are their own editors, so often set the news agenda for the newspapers who are chasing the audience.

Meanwhile, those in charge of a newspaper provide the content they think the paper readers want by bundling the news up for them to digest.

Of course, there are old-style newspaper stories which do well online, but many don’t, or at least they don’t get an audience.

I return briefly to a blog I wrote where it was decided that many health stories didn’t work online…unless they were of a certain type.

So those difficult stories from health meetings, while important, just fail to engage the audience, but a warning/scare story on scarlet fever flies online.

One of the most obvious reasons for different content is that there are so more many tools available to tell a story online such as video, audio, slideshows and aggregation of content, a rich seam.

This is why the skills of the 21st century journalist are so varied. Compare this to when I started with just a typewriter and one job to do, write a story.

So, back to farting… is this a story? You can’t really blame anyone for reporting this, academic research showing that sniffing farts is good for your health…

For me, this is a story. The disappointment I have is that most of the stories around it that I have read only quote the researchers, there’s no balance or another opinion.

This is a problem. The demand to produce endless content to feed the online beast means little time is spent on exploring in depth the stories about to be published.

Here’s an example. When I was in newspapers I demanded at least three quotes per lead story and these shouldn’t just be councillors or any other usual suspects…that was too easy.

Today, as a journalism lecturer, I demand this from many of the articles written by students.

They often point out that this requirement now doesn’t always match that of the professional standard when often there are fewer quotes.

The students are right. So my three quote rule has had to become an academic standard to test their ability to interview people, it is no longer or at least a necessary professional standard. That’s unfortunate.

Journalism is about balance, even when it comes to passing wind…

Finally, it has come to my attention that there’s a rumpus going on in a regional newspaper newsroom.

According to sources (love using that expression) some editorial staff are looking bored and disinterested in the news conference. Whoops.

The boredom is so transparent, that senior editorial executives have been moved to send out a memo telling the staff to basically…not to look bored and stop staring into space. There’s a telling off.

I’m baffled. Conference was always grand theatre and the star performer was the editorial head honcho. If they are unable to inject some enthusiasm into their staff, I think there must be a problem.

The only way to rectify this is to make it interesting and engaging. Some of the conferences I have attended were pure genius.

News editors telling stories while climbing over desks to relive the drama, editor’s showing their disapproval at the news list by leaving the room and minutes later being spotted driving past the conference room on their way to the pub.

OK, this was drastic, but we laughed long and hard about it and the editor’s act of mutiny made sure we produced a set of sparkling stories.

Lively debate, great humour, brilliant ideas, amazing photographs/video. This is conference. It is where the editor’s voice is heard and the philosophy of the newspaper is developed.

It is also great for team building and allowing the creative juices to flow. One thing, it was never was boring.