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.

 

 

 

 

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.

They think it’s all over…should regional newspapers pull the plug on football match reports?

The screams of disgust could be heard across the land as regional newspaper hacks muttered desperately into their frothing pints of real ale.

The source of this despair was the news that Tom Bodell, who works for Newsquest North London, will no longer provide on the whistle Barnet FC match reports or in-game tweets for the Barnet Times website, or match reports in the print edition.

Why we all asked? The reason was simple, not enough web hits. It would have sent the most hardened journo racing to the bar for a top-up.

So are all decisions on stories going to be based on web hits? I have already touched on this issue before. The defunct Local World used to shout loudly by the fact that health stories didn’t get any hits so bin them and deliver more servings of web bait.

Pitch
Regional newspapers have to decide whether they can afford to cover football matches like they have traditionally done so in the past.

The reality is that not all health stories, all council stories or all football stories get big hits. Some health stories fly online, like the threat of scarlet fever or a dodgy doctor.

But the run-of-the-mill health stories often don’t get many hits online, despite the fact that they were often of real importance around staffing or finance.

We already know that Trinity Mirror journalists were threatening strike action over the firm’s ‘Big Brother’ approach to set journalists targets over how many hits they get on their stories.

In a New Year goodwill gesture, TM has now withdraw this idea…for now, although the newspapers which are doing this as a trial will continue to do so and it is certain that it will be back on the table soon.

So where is this all leading? Obviously, part of Newsquest’s decision was based on cost. The reality is that journalism is expensive and is seen as a drain on resources and not one to bring in the money, which is not true.

Selling more newspapers thanks to a big story or getting more hits online are areas where you can argue the journalist helps to bring in the cash.

There are other ways, through business awards run by newspapers which are events cleverly packaged as celebrating greatness, but the reality is that they are a damn good advert for firms involved.

Let me assure you, I’m not knocking this, I’d rather bring in £100,000 for the business to protect jobs than turn my back on this money-making opportunity.

Anyway, back to the web hits. What really annoys journalists is that based on web hits, certain stories may well never be covered again, this could include aspects of holding authority to account, what we often proudly call Fourth Estate journalism.

But there is another argument. Simply, what if the traditional news agenda is wrong? When I was in a senior editorial position I would often question whether the stories put up in conference were the stories which people really wanted to read?

While the web audience is different to that of the newspaper, what the web has shown is that so many of the stories which traditionally appeared in regional newspapers didn’t really get read.

In a bygone era we relied on instinct or newspaper sales spikes (do you remember those?) to form an idea of what our readers wanted.

However, even if we were right about that for a period of time, that news selection passed down through generations of news editors and editors may just be out of step with the rest of the world.

Going deeper into this, the bundling of news into a newspaper is an out-dated concept. As I have said before, it’s all about personal media, not mass media.

So if football match reports fail to grab the audience, do something else. It is clear from the report on Barnet that aspects of the club will be covered, the parts that in many respects the fans are more interested in and will get an audience.

Football fans want so much more than reading about something they have just watched.

A simple match report is all but dead in the water. Football games can be covered live, so why would I want to read a match report hours or even days after?

This is where a football writer now comes into their own. They have to look deeper into the game, look at data, talk to the fans, or a moment in the game and look to expand what happened in that moment which changed the game.

It means football writers have to have a holistic view of the game and look beyond the usual ‘the lads done well quotes’.

What readers are after is the extraordinary, the piece of data or insight which will make them stop and say ‘gee-whizz’.

How many football writers really know everything about the club they report on? Do they understand the finances, the work of the physio, the nutritionist, the groundsman, when was the last time they spoke to a ref?

And remember, in the future all football clubs will provide their own match reports. We are moving faster and faster to the situation that exists in the States where American football clubs provide all the reports and interviews directly to the media without an independent journalist anywhere to be seen.

There is a massive movement towards professionalising media output right across the football world, most clubs will be asking, why do we need to even talk to journalists outside the inner sanctum of the club?

Back to the demand for web hits. It won’t go away, particularly as some senior staff get a bonus based on performance, a case of forget about the quality, go for the numbers, Primark economics.

This goes hand in hand with the demand to make more cash online despite the fact that print still is king on the money front. The solution, casually transfer funds from one to the other, which makes print look like its cash income is declining more rapidly and the web is booming.

It’s a slight of hand. Lies, damn lies and statistics, but if it keeps my former colleagues and friends employed, I can live with it.

If there’s any budding football journos out there who want to get some experience in reporting, I’d bang on the door of Barnet FC.

Stop press: Journalism, digital targets, Towie clap-trap and being blocked on Twitter

Somehow, I feel I ended up in the eye of of storm, or at least a great debate, over my views on the editor’s gut instinct v web analytics. I didn’t know that holdthefrontpage were going to publish comments from my blog, so I was caught off guard when it appeared as the top story.

You will have to trust me when I say that I didn’t ask for the blog to appear, it came as a surprise after I only found out via a text.

My editor's gut instinct story made the lead story on holdthefrontpage and was the most viewed that week.

My editor’s gut instinct story was the lead article on holdthefrontpage and was the most viewed that week.

For the record, a badge of honour, I think, it was the number one viewed story of holdthefrontpage that week, don’t you just love the web…

From the feedback, I feel I need to attempt to clear up some points.

Firstly, I’m not anti-web/digital as suggested by some bloke who doesn’t appear to exist but claims to live in Stoke-on-Trent, where I used to work.

I loved the analytics side of the web. It made me think long and hard about content and not take for granted what stories we should go after.

I spent sometime talking to staff about whether we had the right content online and in the newspaper, often asking whether a story was worthy of our attention, was it the sort of news/features our readers were really interested in?

Often these debates were backed up by the performance of stories online and long discussions on what was the best way to tell a story in this age of multi-skilled, multi-platform journalism.

Another person with a fetish for popcorn commented that they would rather trust figures, obviously they must be an accountant. I agree we can trust the figures online, but my main point is what works well online doesn’t necessarily work well in the newspaper.

So to base editorial decisions on web analytics takes out the part I called ‘gut instinct’. As our popcorn friend overlooked and I explained in some detail, a lot of this instinct is actually based on performance of newspaper sales over time.

Editors know what sells because they have experienced those sales spikes. Where the real instinct comes in is knowing your audience. This is why before the chains were attached 24/7, editors spent hours out in the community talking to people from all walks of life about their lives.

So back to my main point which was that we know the audience for online and newspapers is different. I’ve seen how readers react to stories online through the use of, yes, you’ve guessed it, analytics.

But you must remember, the newspaper audience is different. While the online analytics are a useful tool in making decisions, they should not be used in isolation.

So the outcome of this storm in a tea cup was a mainly thoughtful debate. The most bizarre thing to happen is that one regional newspaper decided after the story appeared to block me re-Tweeting stories from their main account. Not sure if the two things are connected. Strange, but true.

Moving on, there was a lot of debate over Trinity Mirror deciding that journalists should be given digital targets. Roy Greenslade said of the move: “That time-and-motion-study approach to journalism spells the death knell of reporting that takes time and effort.”

I couldn’t put it better myself. It reminded me of the days when the consultants were called in by the old Northcliffe group and started asking how long it took to write a story?

They were surprised when I couldn’t give them a straight answer, similarly in the days when hubs were created I was asked how long it took to sub a page?

The problem is with fewer and fewer traditional journalists in our news rooms, all of them under pressure to get web hits, stories which take time and effort to get will be spiked by hard-pressed newsdesks.

The days of Fourth Estate or investigative journalism have in one stroke been binned by Trinity Mirror as they chase audience figures.

Don’t get me wrong, a reporter should share the responsibility for building its audience online and in the newspaper.

But the great race to grab a unique user with any old spun-out-of-orbit story (probably not even from the circulation area) can only add up to a dramatic decline in traditional journalistic standards.

This brings me back to my earlier theme. Successful stories online are more than often articles with little substance, unchecked, no depth, one-sided, web bait.

It’s a far cry from the days of Woodward and Bernstein with their unwritten ‘three source rule’…

Before I left newspapers, I became increasingly concerned that there were more and more errors as fewer (if any) checks were made.

Stories appeared online with awful mistakes (has anyone read the Mail Online recently?!).

It would seem that we are going to end up with a regional press that serves up what I describe as ‘TOWIE’ news.

Like the programme and so many others of its ilk, it will be shallow, mindless clap-trap and the world of journalism will be a poorer place.

 

 

 

 

 

Time for regional newspapers to unbundle content and turn their back on mass media to help keep journalists in a job

For most of their lives, regional newspapers have bundled content together and thrown it into their products, like chucking paint at a wall.

Should regional newspapers be looking at another way of making money than the tired newspaper/web combination?

Should regional newspapers be looking at another way of making money than the tired newspaper/web combination?

The idea was/is to satisfy all of their customers at once by putting content together from all walks of life, on numerous subjects from a variety of places, in the hope that readers will find comfort from a couple of articles per edition.

This culture was adopted by local newspaper web sites. Lob as much content at the site in the hope of grabbing some readers.

However, there has been little thought to putting these web sites together in terms of content. It has been little more than copy what the newspapers do, bundle it all together.

In fact there has been little thought as to whether the newspaper/web site alliance works together at all.

There is also evidence that people don’t trawl through the web site looking for what they want, why would you if you can do a Google search?

This method of bundling content together is outdated. It has been exposed with the advent of the web because the untold secret is that the majority of people only really read a small proportion of a newspaper and now the same can be said of the web site.

This is one of the reasons for the decline of newspaper sales, the formula doesn’t work for today’s consumers. I often talk about the concept of the end of mass media and the rise of personal media.

Readers simply choose exactly what they want by going to certain web sites or downloading the apps with the content that interests them. They don’t want a mishmash of content which they can’t or won’t navigate through, they don’t have time to sort out the gems of content they are looking for.

Effectively, if they were reading a newspaper they would be binning most of the pages and keeping the one or two pages which have something they may be interested in.

This is also reflected in the number of web pages people visit on regional newspaper sites. If you hit above two to three pages per unique user you are doing well.

So is the model for regional newspapers of a paper and web site the wrong one? Well, audience is growing on these web sites, but the plateau may not be that far away.

They will get their spikes with the odd great story or well-constructed web bait, but is this enough to keep the cash rolling in?

We already know that the Mail Online and The Sun are not hitting the revenue required online to prop up the falling print revenues, the same can be said in the regionals, however the accountants attempt to cover up the cracks.

Web advertising income is up, but that’s inevitable as the print income falls and the newspaper groups throw the kitchen sink at trying to sell online, sometimes even prepared to lose print revenue, just to prove a point.

Just look at Local World’s latest figures. The report boasts of a £43.6m profit. But, as a friend of mine points out, once you remove what the shareholders take off the firm and other costs the profit is just more than £11m.

Then look at the digital revenues, up 22 per cent to £24.6m, the press release screams, but print revenues saw an 8pc decline to…just (just?!)£131.5m, but still generated almost 60pc of the group’s overall revenues of £221m.

Sorry, I digress. Delivering content is now about delivering to a targeted audience. These readers maybe small in number, but they will be profitable for advertisers attempting to reach the readers directly.

I’m sure advertisers are unhappy with the thought that many of their adverts are presently seen by thousands of people who live…across the sea…

So rather than concentrating content online, why not in a dozen or more apps? I’ve already spoken about how health stories are not seen as good for engagement on the web or social media, but the term ‘health’ is too general.

Are all stories about cancer, pregnancy or your local hospital really read by so few people? The answer is no.

So what kind of apps you may ask? In city ‘A’ 12,000 children a year need pre-school education. If all the mums and dads sign up to an education app, financed and paid for by the education authority, plus ads sold on the app to a targeted audience, surely this would work as a business model?

Add a further dozen of these apps for things such as pregnancy, eating out, local shopping and suddenly you have unbundled the news to satisfy your readers and advertisers can be assured that they are hitting a local audience head-on, not from across the sea.

For those who are wondering how their newspapers can be filled, a selection of the app content can be put into the newspaper and dveloped, if required.

OK, I accept this is not a perfect solution but what it allows is for the old newspaper/web business to be more attractive to the modern consumer.

Unbundling content is the way forward. Just think of what all of you do every day. You choose to look at certain web sites and apps looking for certain content.

Regional newspapers and newspaper web sites don’t offer this luxury. Like a teenager on their first date they have been fumbling around for too long looking for a magic formula. They now need to grow up and look for a better/different business model, the lives of so many people depend on it.

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.