Local news: a blueprint

Volume 32, Number 1, March 2021

David Higgerson

Forget the pessimism. The big audiences that use local media should encourage us to be more positive about the future of the industry

The problem with any discussion about the state of local news in 2021 is that too many participants wear rose-tinted glasses: on-day printing, multiple editions, district offices, more staff, long lunches, proper local news. You won’t be short of what’s said to be missing from modern-day journalism, but you’ll listen in vain for any reference to the readers, what they want and how we get it to them.

Throwing digital data into the conversation doesn’t help – and invariably leads the conversation to clickbait (more on that later). So instead, how about this for a testimonial from a senior consultant at a major hospital in one of the UK’s biggest cities, when asked about the work of journalists on the local news title through the Covid pandemic: “Your work will save lives.”

Five words which should prompt us to look at what local journalism is really doing in the 2020s. I’m all for investigating history. Indeed, in securing local journalism’s future, it’s essential we draw on its past. But in taking nostalgic trips down journalism’s memory lane, I think the ones that don’t involve retracing our own steps are the most instructive.

On VE Day, the Birmingham Post reported: “Most people went about their business as usual, but the central thoroughfares of the city seemed more crowded, as if many had flocked to the centre in anticipation of an official announcement of the ending of the war. Newspapers were eagerly sought, and long queues awaited the sellers at the points from which papers are usually sold.”

In an era of information pollution, where we compete for attention not just with rival media, but with pretty much every other website out there, our future must lie in supplying news that people believe they can trust and rely on. That is why audience size matters. Every page view notched up by a publisher is time spent with news which has been properly researched and fact-checked. It’s time spent with us, bringing readers to stories they weren’t necessarily looking for. Independent research from Comscore shows local news from established publishers reached 43.8million people in December 2020, 85 per cent of the UK digital population.

We shouldn’t be ashamed of wanting people to consume our work. It isn’t enough just to publish stories and consider it job done. But while page views are an output metric, a sign of whether a newsroom has successfully pitched a story to its audience, it’s the questions asked in the story-gathering process which deserve the most attention.

There are two when commissioning stories. The first is: should we write about this? If the answer is yes, the second should be: how do we get as many people as possible to consume it?

The “should we” question can be vexing – and also subjective. This is where audience data can be very powerful. Audience data works best when it inspires and informs, rather than leads a newsroom. It’s this approach that has taken the regional network of sites which Reach (née Trinity Mirror) is responsible for from 100million page views in 2010 to more than 800million today. Each one helps pay for journalism.

It’s not blind devotion to stories that get “clicks”, it’s an attention to data detail which ideally informs, inspires and challenges newsrooms. We all know stories we could write that would drive huge audiences, but which would be unsuitable for the brand. Newsrooms should have the confidence to reject those. But, equally, data points us to stories which have been seen as “out of scope” of a pure local news agenda but which engage local readers.

Why shouldn’t local news readers get updates on shopping bargains from their local news publication? Or weather updates, or traffic and travel updates? The same applies to sport: brands known for covering football clubs for 100 years and more have become global powerhouses for updates that readers trust – people leave their home towns behind but rarely their football clubs – but only by respecting what interests fans.

Which brings us to the second question: how do we get stories to the people who need to see them? Don’t be fooled by the local journalism narrative that certain stories are written only to fund other types of stories. It doesn’t work like that. High volume, high interest stories are written because readers want them, and they are often the ones that drive the highest engagement (be that frequency of visit, or active, engaged time on page). They do, indeed, help support some other forms of journalism – but those forms of journalism, often described as public interest journalism, work best when they reach large audiences.

Journalists such as Jennifer Williams (MEN), Liam Thorp (Liverpool Echo), Jane Haynes (BirminghamLive), Daniel Martin (LeicestershireLive) and Will Hayward (WalesOnline) command respect in the corridors of power because they combine a nose for news with the ability to get their stories to a wide audience.

Allegations of clickbait bubble away. If by clickbait, critics mean writing a story designed to be read and appreciated by readers we want to speak to regularly, then yes, guilty as charged. If they mean slinging any old story online for a few clicks, or over-spinning a headline to get someone through the door, then no, not guilty. Because you don’t grow for very long if readers learn to regard you with suspicion. That’s no way to win the attention game.

Some newsrooms will never print a newspaper

I use “consume”, rather than “read”, stories, because it better represents local journalism’s shift in how it tells stories – moving away from a set number of lengths and packages to a more story-by-story approach. It can be video, audio, listicle, data package, searchable archive. Some of our most powerful pieces of journalism in the last 12 months have been live Q&As, broadcast on Facebook, led by our reporters quizzing public health officials.

Both questions help us tackle our ultimate goal: holding attention. Our rivals for that attention can be at any one moment an engaging Mumsnet thread, a Facebook group chat, an urgent online sale, or the must-watch video doing the rounds on TikTok. “But you can’t frame it!” is one of the retorts I’ve heard when celebrating stories which have travelled particularly well. It’s true – a printout of a Chartbeat display can’t compete with a beautifully crafted front page on the home office wall. However, I also work with newsrooms which have never printed a newspaper and probably never will. From BelfastLive, launched in 2015 as our first digital-only platform, to BedfordshireLive and BuckinghamshireLive, launched in January with 10 new journalists between them. YorkshireLive, which grew out of the Examiner in Huddersfield, covers the whole county with more than 30 journalists hired over the past year, from trending writers to our first public awareness journalism team. Most of their work will never make it to the printed page.

In London, where Reach has just doubled its editorial team on MyLondon to almost 45, a new generation of journalists is providing local news, done well, to a digital-only audience. Don’t underestimate the power of data for journalists – of realising your story has reached lots of people, has prompted lots of people to start talking about it, and increased the chances of it making a difference.

The moment that replaces the buzz of a front page byline is seeing it shared on social media, not by our journalists or our social media accounts, but by readers. There is no more powerful a metric than the social share. That moment when a reader decides to share something, and is happy (generally, on Facebook) to share his or her picture with it, is a powerful statement. Generally – and this is a little sweeping – the social share has a positive connotation, although there will always be cases of “can you believe they’ve written this!”. It’s a powerful, and rewarding, moment for journalists – and vital for our future.

We are no longer the only source of news in the communities we serve, not in the eyes of readers. A dog can be lost, sought and found via Facebook community groups without the involvement of the local newsroom. A campaign against a planning application can be shared, mobilised and making waves before a journalist becomes involved. But we remain the only news which comes with the guarantee of proper research, of balance, of no political interference – and seeing that shared on social media is a powerful sign we’re trusted and making a difference.

But where’s the money? Many millions of words have been written about the financial challenges facing local newspapers. It boils down to two points: first, we were too slow to respond to the internet and too keen to protect print despite all the evidence. Second, the advertising revenue associated with our work simply isn’t in the right place at the moment.

At the Online News Association (ONA) conference in 2019, held annually in America and attended by around 5,000 mainly US-based journalists, two subjects came up time and again: that the reader must pay, and that journalism needed to be “rescued” from the big tech companies.

The “reader must pay” argument, which came with T-shirts saying the same thing, is attractive.

What if the reader won’t pay? In the US, many newsrooms are behind paywalls, and evidence presented at the conference suggested anything up to 30 per cent of residents in metro areas may have a subscription – but that’s compared to 120 per cent-plus (so people with more than one subscription) two generations ago. With paywalls comes the risk of losing that precious thing we’ve built up over the last decade: reach and relevance to readers we’ve not enjoyed for generations.

Covid has also thrown up an interesting dilemma for those pursuing a paywall: if news is important enough to pay for, when does it become too important to charge for? It’s an argument I’ve seen played out time and again, but never seemingly resolved.

You will regularly hear that the advertising model is broken – and it is, insomuch as the advertising fails to reward sufficiently those making the most effort to create the content. It’s not broken through lack of advertising pounds being spent by brands. Let us hope 2021 is the year the government resolves this – or, at least, the threat of doing so leads to a fairer correlation between reward and effort. It’s worth noting at this point that for all the travails of local journalism’s finances, research presented to the House of Lords committee looking at journalism showed the percentage of journalists employed in local “newspapers” had risen from 30 per cent to 46 per cent between 2002 and 2018 – a larger slice of a reduced pie.

Mayor gets a fistful in Bristol

On the other point raised in ONA conversations: who best to own local news organisations? Not surprisingly for someone who has worked for big companies his whole career, I would argue in their favour. It’s not a popular argument. Many journalists of a previous generation will point to a golden age of family ownership, the end of which accelerated in the last decade with a glut of sales to bigger publishers as times became tougher.

Larger companies, especially under the umbrella of organisations such as the News Media Association, can make a louder noise about the support the industry needs. Against the huge tech companies that have become the gatekeepers of reader attention, they can make a stronger impression.

Politicians, local and national, are happy to attack the credibility of journalism and journalists when they don’t like what they’re reading. Maybe the politicians of Bristol who subjected the local democracy reporter Adam Postans to childish and petty ridicule in the council chamber didn’t expect a full-throttle response from his title, Bristol Live and the Bristol Post, in response. That’s what they got – and it’s proof that scale of organisation can be empowering for journalism too.

We often debate whether journalism is a profession or a trade. Wags throw in “calling” too. Truth is, it’s all three. Most importantly, however, it’s an industry that is at its most powerful when it has an industrial strength. Within that industry there should be all sorts of ownership models – non-profits, memberships, small businesses, large businesses. Any organisation that is committed to the future of journalism should surely be welcome.

So if we have the audience (and won’t scare them away by demanding they pay) and more revenue, are we all set? Not quite. There remains one area which threatens to be a bigger Achilles heel than anything else I’ve written about so far: diversity, representation and inclusion. Journalism is populated by caring, committed and devoted individuals across the country, but it can only be enhanced if we can make our newsrooms more representative. That means reviewing how we encourage journalists of the future, asking how we dismantle barriers to entry, and how we show in every story that we’re seeking to represent the community, beyond just informing it.

It also means changing the conventional news agenda. Too often, the only time you’ll see a reporter on a council estate is when something bad has happened. Not covering the bad thing won’t solve the problem – but finding other stories from those communities could inspire someone locally to consider a career in journalism.

The Comscore numbers speak for themselves. There’s no doubt we’re reaching more people than ever, and basic maths concludes that will be a diverse audience. But do our newsrooms reflect the communities they serve in a way which means everyone feels represented by them? This isn’t just a “right thing to do” issue, although it is that. It’s a business-critical issue. As an industry, we need to work out how we turn the 43.8million visitors into the sort of loyal readers who seek us out to be their trusted news and information source, and see us as champion of their interests, no matter their background. The news-seekers in VE Day Birmingham knew to turn to the Birmingham Post. We have to make sure the latest generation wants to turn to us.

David Higgerson is chief audience officer for Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror).

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