Regional newspaper top brass take on ‘sniping’ university academics over newspapers’ golden era comments…online v newspapers (Part 346)

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Academic Sean Dodson has come under fire from the media industry for his criticism of regional journalism in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?

 

To those working in the regional media I am poacher turned gamekeeper. I was squeezed out of the the profession  and ended up teaching the fine art of journalism to the content gatherers of the future.

For the last few weeks, I have stood on the touchline as the classic row of how it used to be better in the golden era of journalism has rumbled on between academics and those still plying their trade in the industry.

KM group’s Ian Carter admits that ex-journo now academic Sean Dodson hit a nerve in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?

Sean, a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, is critical of today’s journalists complaining about listicles and user-generated content.

But Ian and David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Digital Publishing Editor, were a bit miffed by this, with Ian describing Sean as sitting on the sidelines and ‘sniping’. Ouch.

To be fair to them, the regional newspaper crowd have probably had a bellyful of criticism, unfortunately though, in journalism, it comes with the territory because it is a public-facing industry.

I digress.

It is as easy for those in the business to criticise academics who are no longer on the frontline as it is for academics to write despairingly about the industry they love/loved.

What it does show is a passion for journalism and I for one rather like that.

Having said all of the above, here is my defence of Ian and his colleagues.

As an academic, even though I still also consider myself as a journalist as well (dual professional), it’s our duty to to stay in touch with what’s happening in the industry.

I was surprised in the summer when an academic almost choked on his nicely chilled Sauvignon Blanc when a journalist lecturer friend of mine told him he now never bought a newspaper.

He gathered all his news online, he added.

What most startled me was the response from the wine drinking lecturer who couldn’t quite believe what he had heard, his blood pressure seemed to spiral out-of-control.

Of course, the outcome was that he ranted at my friend about throwing in the towel and being a traitor to the newspaper industry and journalism.

Far from it, my friend’s comments were just a reflection on reality and not past glories.

Indeed, my friend is one of the most passionate advocates of journalism, in whatever form, I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

As I left the conversation I was left to ponder on whether some parts of academia were still stuck in the past.

As for me, I fret that I may have missed the latest trend in journalism or a different way of working as I sleep, let alone during the time I’m awake. Yep, I need to get a life.

Here’s the plug (but it’s truthful) I want my journalism students at the University of Derby to have the most up-to-date education in the ways journalists work.

So, not only do I spend time in newsrooms, I speak regularly to people in the business so I have quality intelligence on the latest techniques or theories.

Attending conferences where cutting edge news organisations talk about how they work and why they work in that way is also essential.

As an academic/practitioner it’s all about having up-to-date professional currency.

The course I teach on is a digital journalism course. Do I expect all our students to work in so-called traditional media?

No, I don’t, some will, others will write content for businesses, charities, football clubs or anyone or any organisation which wants quality, modern content with high journalistic standards.

Everyone is a publisher now, so they all need quality content. We teach the core skills of journalism, like being able to tell a great story, but we also teach that once a journalist has a story, there are many, many ways to tell it now.

I’m in the camp where I don’t think that regional journalism is any better or worse than it used to be, there’s an argument for both.

In the so-called golden days of journalism, when Northcliffe Newspapers used to have annual profits as high as £96m, I saw, like Ian, some terrible, lazy journalism in newspapers.

I remember having to wake up journalists to do some work, I found reporters sleeping under their desks.

A colleague of mine recounts a tale of how in a district office the old copies of the newspaper were laid out in the shape of the bed, so the reporter could have a sleep after a liquid lunch.

However, these are just great anecdotes, they do not define the journalism of the era.

There was some amazing journalism in the so-called golden era, but there is equally some brilliant journalism and journalists now, it just might does not look the same.

So who do I back the academics v industry battle of the golden era?

Like most former regional journalists I mourn the past, we were a cash rich industry and we had a blast, producing sparkling newspapers and enjoying the riches of the industry.

We worked really hard, we played hard as well.

It’s a difficult argument to say one generation worked harder than another. However, from my knowledge and recent visits to newsrooms, the 21st century journalist is working very hard.

The business is more demanding now, it’s bound to be with the massive reductions in staff, but we mustn’t forget, that technology has helped journalists to get stories easier as well.

But the modern journalist has many more skills and jobs to do, as Ian rightly points out. At the university we are teaching students to tell stories for print, online, video, broadcast, radio, audio, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

They need to understand audience software and how to interpret that, be masters of SEO, take pictures, understand content management systems, aggregate/harvest content and maybe do some html coding.

Why are we teaching this? Because this is modern journalism, these are the skills a journalist has to have.

With regards to content, I have often said that I was worried the traditional news agenda was not necessarily fit for today’s audience.

We used to have little intelligence on buying habits compared with today’s constant analysis of audience.

However, I do feel that the newspaper and online audiences are different. The issue is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult or if at all possible to write different content for both online and newspapers, which I think is needed.

As for the nature of the content, no-one read every story in a newspaper.

What online offers is an immediate understanding of what interests readers, so why write content that readers are not interested in?

There’s the argument that much of this online content does not fulfil the Fourth Estate principle, but the reality is, how much content ever did tick this box?

There is still a lot of investigative journalism going on and it’s a fallacy that regional newspapers spent everyday chasing after Fourth Estate stories in the ‘golden era’.

Criticisms of listicles by the golden era brigade is also futile. The reason listicles exist is because the online audience like that presentation of this content and if researched well and with good information, they are an excellent way of presenting content.

Anyway, listicles are hardly a new concept. Throughout my career in newspapers we constantly produced added content to a lead story.

We used to call them panels or sidebars…not as sexy as listicles.

Are they trivial? Well who are we to say that if they are ready by thousands of people? I actually find many a good, fun, informative read.

I ask my students to produce listicles but apply good journalistic practices, well-researched, well-written and quoting people when appropriate.

As for the  concept of click bait, it is also old hat. We have always been keen to flog a story hard and get people to read it.

Why did we spend so much time on the front page, fretting over as cracking headline, a hard-hitting intro’, the right photo and intricate detail in the front page puff?

We didn’t sweat buckets over this to turn readers off, it was to lure them in, call it newspaper bait.

So what we are creating at the university is multi-skilled geniuses, journalists who can tell a story in many ways.

Why, because that is what a modern journalist needs, whoever they write for.

Forget the bickering over better or worse than this or that era. We need to start to appreciate the difference and let the industry evolve.

Don’t worry, I have not been paid off by the regional press…yet…but I do try to seek balance, I know, it’s a bit old school.

Just maybe, this is the golden generation of change for journalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The folly of 24 as it joins the graveyard with New Day…and regional editors continue to face print v digital dilemmas

 

24

After the demise of New Day, 24, the North’s National Newspaper has also shut after just six weeks.

 

Like most media pundits, I have no pleasure in being right that 24, the North’s National Newspaper has shut after just six weeks.

I flippantly said that not even Kiefer Sutherland could save this 24, sadly, like so many people in the newspaper industry, we wished it success, but deep down knew it had little hope.

Six weeks is not long enough to see if something will work. However, I would be more concerned about the thought processes which set the wheels in motion to launch the paper in the first place, as I was over the strange decision to launch New Day, which lasted just nine weeks.

I admire entrepreneurial spirit, but with the landscape increasingly bleak for papers in the regions, just look at the latest ABC figures, and the next batch will not look much better.

The figures suggest that the newspapers with the lowest sales have a lesser decline because there’s nowhere else to go in terms of decline, while the biggest papers just keep losing big chunks of sale.

The dilemma an editor faces today is where to put his resources. Within a company such as Trinity Mirror there is a clear digital first strategy.

Previously, I have discussed how, despite putting a brave face on it, the newspapers are taking a back seat  as TM newspapers strive to get a slice of the digital audience.

This has left many journalists at the group upset with industrial action threatened at some of the newspapers.

But the reality is that there’s a relentless move to bring in the audience and get page views at all newspapers.

Based on this the editor has to decide to whether to put all their eggs in one basket and just do digital or carry on doing the paper and hope no-one notices that digital performance is lagging behind.

Of course, you might say that editors need to do both. The reality is that with fewer staff than ever before you cannot be all things to all men.

The philosophy of digital content has shifted. In the early days, regional newspapers used to put up every story written for the newspaper, often in one bulk upload.

Things are more sophisticated now and there’s a constant flow of content with particular emphasis on key times of the day and for the digital operation, rather than throwing up as many stories as possible online, to polish fewer stories and build more content around it.

The outcome is that many of the digital stories can take time to put together. If a reporter is out live blogging from an event, or on Facebook Live, taking pictures, and sending out Tweets, the chances of doing many more stories in a day is limited.

So when the print gang turn up to produce the newspaper they may not have as much content to play with as they had in a bygone era, where story content and value for money were high on the editor’s agenda.

What I have noticed is to compensate for the drive on digital in the regions, paginations have gone down, as has story count, while at the same time the cost of buying a newspaper has risen dramatically.

While the decline in sales has been endless, the above is a recipe for a nose-dive.

But does it matter? The business is firmly placed in digital land and the newspaper is just one aspect of that.

While The Independent took a brave step to bin its paper version and go digital only, I still think that a modern media firm needs both a presence online and in paper.

At the moment the revenue from newspapers sales continues to boost the coffers of these firms, but increasing cover price will inevitably see the readers disappear.

Once this happens, a different model for print will have to be created and the once great regional beasts will probably have to consider either charging £2 a copy or going free or part free.

But, as the grip on staff numbers tightens, who is going to want to read regurgitated content in the newspaper which appeared online 12 hours earlier?

My thoughts were always to make online the first read and the paper the last read.

The Times has taken a similar stance, both in paper and online. It doesn’t published continuously unless a big story breaks. This allows the paper to print online in an edition structure and the benefit is that readers get the fuller story rather than endless snippets.

This flies in the face of just about every other news media outlet, but it is not without merit when you think about the endless content put out when a story is breaking and having to piece it all together like a jigsaw.

It is an experiment worth watching but perhaps reflects the readership of The Times, 55+, who frankly do not fancy endless news feeds.

However, we all have to remember that the paper is still the cash cow. Simply, advertisers pay pence for page impressions and the cash coming in is not enough and certainly will never reach the scale of the amount of money made by newspaper businesses in their pomp.

Finally, I was with an SEO news guru a week or so ago and they stopped me in my tracks. Passionately they spoke about how to get your news on top on the Google pile and it’s often down to the fine art of SEO headline writing.

Who were the best headline writers? Sub-editors. The expert went onto say that media groups will regret not having this much-maligned breed back in their newsrooms, surely they said, they would have been the best SEO headlines writers in the business?

Food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why greed is helping to ruin the regional newspaper industry, as Newsquest cuts staff at the Bolton News

It is devastating. I understand how all those at Newsquest’s Bolton News who face losing their jobs feel, a quarter of the editorial force in that organisation, 10 in total are to go.

They will join a long procession of journalists who have lost their jobs during a bitter decade of decline, many of them great journalists and more than a handful I’m proud to call my friends.

A quarter of the workforce are to be cut in the editorial department of the Bolton News by Newsquest.

A quarter of the workforce is to be cut in the editorial department of the Bolton News by Newsquest.

The first word that came to my mind was greed. I searched for a quote to match my mood and came up with this: “One of the weaknesses of our age is our apparent inability to distinguish our needs from our greeds.”- Don Robinson.

The issue for newspapers is that they have always tried to squeeze the money out of the businesses. I’ve not become a socialist over night (just for the record),  I understand the need to turn a coin.

But it makes business sense not to be too greedy. Here lies the problem. I’m not sure my accountant friends will agree, but newspaper profit margins have always been too high.

Johnston Press used to boast profit margins of 35 per cent and the rest of the industry licked its lips and look with envy at what they had achieved.

When I joined the defunct Northcliffe Newspapers in the early 1990s, the company didn’t have such high profit margins, but they were still heading towards 20 per cent.

The reason is that the company didn’t have to bust a gut to reach 35 per cent was that it was making towards £100m and Lord Rothermere was more than happy, describing the regional newspaper arm as his ‘jewel in the crown’.

Then the collapse in income and the bottom fell out of the industry. Northcliffe, which had posted £96m profits saw them plunge to just £17m and panic set in.

This panic effectively saw the slash and burn team move in and clear out large chunks of the newsroom…and to be fair any other department which could be cut.

While the business started to adapt and modernise, fewer staff, no editions, online first, rather than reassess the need to make smaller profit margins to fit in line with a new business model, companies decided they needed bigger profit margins.

Certainly, where I was last based, they were targeting 27 per cent, certainly higher than in the glory days of larger profits. So with revenues down in news print, online failing to make up the shortfall, targets were set higher.

The point about profit margins is that most companies would be happy to make between 10 and 15 per cent (this is being generous), so you can see how newspapers have been pushing the boundaries…or being greedy.

Gracia Martore, chief financial officer at the Newsquest’s US parent, Gannett, said recently: “Let me once and for all dispel the myth that Newsquest doesn’t make money. Newsquest makes a lot of money.

“In fact, their margin, as I have said a couple of times, is consistent with the margin that our local US community publishing operations generate.

“So their margins are in the high teens to low 20s. And they have consistently made money throughout the years, even in a year like last year when revenues were under as much pressure as they were.”

So here we have it. Straight from the horse’s mouth, Newsquest is doing very well, thank you…

The issue is that the company, like other newspaper businesses are squeezing the life out of the organisations. The more staff you cut, the worse the product inevitably becomes.

Without doubt the newspaper business needed an overhaul. In some areas there were too many people doing the work. However, there is a time when staff cuts are so deep that the product suffers. This can be seen everywhere now.

If these firms were serious about keeping going, they would perhaps decide to reduce the profit margins slightly and maintain the existing workforce to protect the product.

However, by cutting staff the decline of the business becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fewer staff, a poorer product, sales decline further, less income, then cut staff again, the circle of despair is complete.

I know the shareholders would moan desperately about their dividends being reduced if profit margins fell, but they will not get a penny if the business folds.

Surely, it’s worth a gamble to cut the margins, protect the staff and even look to invest in new products such as apps to ensure the longevity of the business? Unfortunately, the words horses and bolted come to mind.

Are beautiful redesigns, better quality newsprint and more pages the way to halt decline in newspaper sales?

While all newspapers should be beautifully designed,  it won't stop the sales decline.

While all newspapers should be well designed, it won’t stop the sales decline.

For years I have admired beautifully designed newspapers. I was fortunate to work for some brilliant regional newspaper designers. I’m eternally grateful to them for teaching me the fine art.

I even managed to win a Front Page of the Year award, a proud moment. As I cast my eyes across regional daily papers it is clear there are some fantastic looking newspapers.

Is design important? On a couple of levels, yes. The design sets the tone for the paper and helps readers to navigate around them.

The only problem is that some newspaper groups still think that a new design will drag the readers back and halt the sales decline. Unfortunately, I have not seen any lasting evidence of this.

Any real sales lift comes through short-lived promotions such as buy a paper and get a free chocolate bar which is probably at the end of its sell-by date. Yum.

There is also the idea that a ‘modern’ design will attract new, hopefully younger readers. Once again, where is the evidence?

Is this tinkering while Rome burns?

As an editor and deputy editor, no-one ever rang me or wrote to me complaining about the design, there was never a hint that they didn’t like the colours or lay-out on Page 15.

The only real complaint in this area was from older readers unable to read the paper because the font was too small or the text couldn’t be read on a tint that was printed poorly on low grade newsprint.

On the other side of the coin I had hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints about content. Content is king.

So this brings me to the point. Newspaper designs can be wonderful to look at and the friendly rows I’ve had on the finer points of a pastel shade here or a different font there are memorable.

However, design is something that really only bothers journalists or the hierarchy (attempting to have a pretty looking shop window before a sell-off)  more than its readers.

There is a difficult sum. With a decline in sales there’s a revenue shortfall.

The answer for newspaper groups is to lop a few more pence on the cover price. The outcome is…a further fall in sales.

As an aside, I have always thought that newspapers were too cheap.

But the problem is that they have been cheap throughout time and it is ingrained in readers that they should cost as little as possible.

With this embedded cheap as chips culture, any price rise is looked at as a criminal offence by disgruntled readers who stop buying the product.

The latest ploy by some papers is put the price up, maybe even improve the quality of the paper and then add pages to the paper so it has more of a ‘kill the cat feel’ than the present feather light versions.

However, with fewer staff and more pages to do, the outcome will not really benefit of readers. It just means spreading the content more thinly across more pages.

So what do you end up with? A bigger paper in terms of pages, possibly better quality newsprint, but the same amount of stories spread across more pages and it will cost you more.

Sounds like a bit of a con.

Is this a recipe for success? I’ve been down this road before. It certainly doesn’t provide the answer to how this industry can survive the 21st century.

Journalism dead? You cannot be serious?!

Mark Twain famously said that reports of his death had been grossly exaggerated. The same can be said of journalism.

There is a feeling that journalism is a sick patient and there’s little we can do to revive the old girl.

Where does this feeling of decline come from? It’s fairly straightforward, journalism and newspaper are too intricately linked and they need uncoupling.

Circulation figures show that since January 2001, the total circulation of the UK’s 10-major national newspapers has declined from 12.06 million copies sold on average each day to a daily average of 6.89 million copies sold in 2014.

That’s a decline of 42.84 percent. If the same number of copies were lost over the following 14 years, the total average daily circulation would be under two million by quite some way, at around 1.7 million daily copies.

Journalism needs to uncouple a little from the demise of newspapers so it is not viewed as being in decline.

Sadly, similar decline can be seen in regional newspapers…

The problem with these figures are that they are all about newspapers. The decline in newspapers has created a feeling that there is a demise in journalism.

However, I think, I know, this cannot be further from the truth and we need to instil this into the journalists working in the industry now and would-be scribes of the future.

The point I want to make is that journalism is alive and kicking because now more than ever there are so many outlets for the skills of a journalist from print, to web, social media, apps, a massive playing field for scribes.

Content is king and what we have to do is prepare for is a world where journalism doesn’t stop on the doorstep of newspapers, radio or TV.

Interestingly, and to back up this point, a social media trend report for 2015 which I read last week said: “Brands will invest a lot more on content creation, using multidisciplinary teams to produce stand out material.”

Secondly, it has become increasingly obvious that the press officers and public relations firms are becoming 21st century newsrooms with the decline in numbers across editorial.

I know journalists will turn in their graves at this view. However, there is now more than ever a realisation that this content has to be good, not some old flannel because consumers too easily recognise half-baked, unoriginal content.

Who are the people who will provide content of this quality? That, of course, is journalists, and the kind of journalism spoken about above is different to our traditional view of the profession being inter-linked with newspapers.

It doesn’t have to be a dumbing down and the web’s thirst for only original copy being ranked highly will ensure quality, I hope.

The days of mass media are gone, that’s where readers use to consume their media in one location ie a newspaper. Today it’s all about personal media, like going into the old Woolies’ pick and mix sweet section, we all dip in and out depending on our channels of interest.

And the skills which today’s hacks need have to reflect this disloyal consumption of content.

There will always be a demand for core journalistic skills. These involve finding a story, telling the story, structuring the story, making sure the right information is in the story.

But journalism has greater variety than ever, writers need to know how to produce content for different arenas and different readers who consume in various ways from indepth articles, to hundreds of photos with an eye-catching SEO headline to a Twitter or Facebook one-liner.

A newspaper report is a far cry from a first take on a breaking web story or a blog, a video story or slideshow. These are different journalistic skills which provide variety in the job which it has probably never been seen before.

Journalism is about multi-skilling, working on numerous platforms at the same time and more than likely in the future this will not be on a newspaper.

Journalism is: “The activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. ”

The art of journalism is the art of telling a story, where this story appears and in what form depends on where it can gain audience, this is what journalists both old and young are starting to understand.

Similarly, content which works in newspapers or TV, often does not perform well online or social media. Journalists will have to investigate and test different mediums and different content and how they interact together.

What was required of me as a journalist 30 years ago as is a far cry from what is needed now.

There are around 1.35billion people on Facebook, 100 million users of Twitter, three billions users of the web, then newspapers, TV and radio all scrambling around for audience.

And what links these three? It’s the desire and thirst to have content, which will be provided by the modern journalist.

So journalism is far from needing the kiss-of-life. We just need to be broader in our outlook, newspapers, TV and radio are just three areas where journalism works well, there are many other outlets and the demand for quality content is growing daily.