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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Why regional newspaper web sites will end up a busted flush and how to save the jobs of local journalists

The first newspapers, if they can be called that, often wrote about and targeted specific markets/audience. Regional newspapersA lot of what was written was about politics and was spiteful and untruthful, similar to today?

These were the days before mass media. Early newspapers/pamphlets were so small that if you lived a couple of streets outside its ‘circulation’ area there was little or no chance that you would have a clue what was being written about.

Slowly, the content broadened and started to look like the offerings served up in today’s newspapers. It was thanks to the Victorians that the term mass media was born.

Taxes were cut on newspapers so the chances that a decent business could be made from the world of news became a reality. Add to this the machinery to produce newspapers in large numbers and suddenly things started moving, and they did.

They moved rapidly away from the concept of the niche market. Why write content which was limited to a couple of streets when you could talk to a whole town, city,  county or country? The bigger you were, the more profitable.

So here was the birth of the mass circulation newspaper, both nationally and regionally. But the world has changed. As I have said previously, mass media has been replaced by personal media.

Readers today want to pick and choose what they read, back to the old pick and mix section in Woolies. They no longer want to have to skim the news to find what they want, it has to be delivered to the doorstep.

This makes you ponder the usefulness and longevity of local newspaper web sites. Regional newspapers seem firmly set on continuing producing the same kind of site without any thought of how successful it can be in the future in terms of audience and advertising.

It is inevitable that the web sites will grow rapidly for the time being as the life is beaten out of the newspapers by continually increasing the price and further reducing costs, but this rise will have a ceiling.

The battle to retain web audience and reduce the high bounce rate will become as tough as retaining newspaper sales. The policy of using web bait to randomly grab the audience for a brief few seconds will not build the audience.

One of the main problems is that the web sites reflect too heavily the newspaper ethos of being all things to all readers.

We know that this cocktail of content is not what people want. The future both in terms of revenue and content for the regionals must surely lie elsewhere than the busted flush of a web site only model.

If readers really want specific content, let’s give it to them. Why give readers unfathomable web sites when the media business can offer more sophisticated ways of delivering content?

Ok, keep a web site if it allows  newspaper owners to sleep at night. But for the sake of the business they have to look at producing specific content through the use of apps.

Advertisers would be right to question how successful their ads are on a newspaper web site and whether they get value for the pittance of money they pay.

However, offer them the chance to advertise on a specific content app, which has quality journalism and targets a niche audience which is after their product and you can see how this might be a better, more profitable business.

For example, why not have an education app for your area. Writing about schools, play groups, universities, bringing up children, opens the doors for advertisers desperate to hit the family market directly. What the advertiser will know is that every time someone clicks on the education app they are likely to be after what they are offering.

Apps are more expensive to create, but the cost is coming down, and the likelihood is that newspapers can charge a premium for advertisers to buy slots on the app.

Without doubt, the existing newspaper web site business model will not be able to bring in the income these businesses will want. However, rather than cost-cutting, why not expand and modernise the model?

There is a great future for the young journalists. The need for quality content is greater than ever before. The issue we have to accept is that it will not be within traditional media.

If the wise regional media executives want to truly modernise their business and move away from the stale web site scatter gun approach to content, they will look to niche apps. If you think I’m wrong, just consider for a minute how many specific apps you now turn to for your content.

Think about your interests and then how frustrating it can be to find exactly you want in chaos that is online. But if you had different apps with your interests on without the sweat of fighting with the web, it would make life so easy.

Regional newspaper groups have the tools to change, but have they got the guts to make the plunge or just go for the easy option of more cost-cutting?

Web bait, bounce rates, page impressions…is there a need for greater transparency in regional newspaper web figures?

There will have been the raising of a few glasses of bubbly and pats on the back when the latest web figures for the regional press were revealed recently.

Unique users is only one way regional newspapers can use to measure  audience online.

Unique users is only one way regional newspapers can use to measure audience online.

The amazing year-on-year rise for unique users is laudable, in any other industries they would be handing out bonus payments left, right and centre to the staff.

In the offices of the Manchester Evening News the success was jaw-dropping, an incredible 194 per cent rise in the last year, more success than the city’s most marketable products, its football teams.

Other papers such as the Newcastle Chronicle and Birmingham Mail showed three figure increases. Even my old stomping ground, the Stoke Sentinel hit 88.1 per cent rise, top, top performances.

To be honest, these figures shed sunshine into the pretty gloomy world of the regional press, which has seen circulation decline, a massive reduction in staff and daily cuts in budget.

However, behind the scenes, most newspaper groups may still be worried. Why you may ask? You have to remember that unique users is only one way online audiences can be measured.

The other ways include page impressions, the number of pages the audience views on the web site, time spent on the site and the bounce rate, how much of the audience goes on the site to read one story, but then disappears somewhere else.

In the race to have the biggest online audience and spruce up the odd regional newspaper group for a possible sale, one tactic being used is known as ‘web bait’.

This simply involves putting up a story so tantalising that the audience rushes in…but then disappears down a hole. Have you ever wondered why a story appears on a local web site and it has no connection to the area?

Many a night as I looked despairingly at my web figures did I pluck an obscure story from somewhere else to bolster my uniques. The only criteria was that it was naughty enough to grab a reader.

Sex, bizarre or both, they were the sort of stories I was looking for…

Whether it was local it didn’t matter, my only concern was to ensure I avoided the inevitable ‘why are you so rubbish’ conversation the following morning from those in charge.

The problem is that the audience will jump on board to read the story for a second and then off into the darkness. There’s little or no loyalty.

This method of gaining a crowd cannot be healthy for the longevity of any web site. I hold my hands up, I followed this smash and grab policy despite my better judgement.

To gain an audience to please those to whom I answered,  I gave the nod to using the word Fappening, a mixture of happening and…the rest you will have to look up, but it is to do with sex.

This word was associated with the ‘break-in’ and release from the iCloud of celebrities in the nude. We expertly found that the word Fappening was being used as a search term to find these stories and I recklessly decided to use it to go with the story we were doing, we needed the uniques.

I and my brow-beaten team quickly noticed that the audience numbers were quiet during UK time but once America had woken up our number of unique users went mad.

For 48-hours we were the heroes of the web as the audience just kept popping in. The problem is that most of it came from the United States.

This type of incident has been and still is repeated across regional newspapers when the pressure for unique users becomes intense.

One of the issues for a local advertiser maybe that they may want to know where the audience comes from before they decide to spend their hard-earned…or at least ask a few questions and go further than how many unique users a site has.

The regional gang needs to work-out how to keep the audience for longer.

It would also help if at least the audience came from Britain, unless we expect an American to travel a few thousand miles to pick up a Ford Ka from Joe Blogs Motors of Sleaford?

So, the latest web figures, while celebrated, should also be taken with a pinch of salt and we need to consider whether they are truly accurate and if greater transparency is needed by showing page views, bounce rates and time on site.

It is equivalent to newspaper sales managers having to show what percentage of their sale is bulks.

Just a thought. Here’s the original story from the Press Gazette http://bit.ly/1I0x1nf