PRINT DIGITAL: Local newspaper’s past and future and why comms should be bothered

I saw the past and I saw the future of newspapers within a few days of each other.

The past? A glorious documentary on the Birmingham Evening Mail from 1993. Unbroadcast it emerged on YouTube from an old VHS copy.

The future? A blog post from the newspaper’s successor as editor Marc Reeves. In it he explained the push towards a digital-first approach that will see a re-brand as Birmingham Live.

What the past looked like

The newspapers of the past were glorious places. They were staffed by journalists whose craft had not changed for a hundred years. Build contacts. Talk to them. Build stories on what they told you. It’s as simple as it is hard. I worked in the largest district office in the largest regional newspaper in the UK. There were 12 of us and three photographers and we were a team.

The Birmingham Mail documentary captured some of that. Big stories saw a reporter go out accompanied with a photographer. The deadline was print. There were some characters.

What the future looks like

For all that I loved working on those old school newspapers when I left in 2005 they were already changing. Journalism was changing too. Where I learned how to write the new journalist wrote, took pictures, blogged, worked with FOI and posted video.

As my career in communications has evolved I’ve seen what you need to do change and evolve. There are at least 40 skills you need. You can’t do all of them but your team should.

Just this month the Oldham Chronicle closed its doors for the last time a victim of the change from print to digital. In its heyday 40,000 copies were sold. When the last rites were read there was little over 6,000.

It is tempting to be sad and declare local journalism dead. From the evidence of those who are doing it, that’s not the case. The old newsrooms are dead. I get the pain of journos who have lived through that. But I also get the excitement of new thinking too.
Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves in his Medium post ‘I Do Run A Newspaper’ shows the path he is taking. There will be a print team. There will be a digital team. There wikll be a bit of cross-over. The digital team will focus on communities. Part geographical and part community of interest.

Two lines in particular stand out:

In an analytics-driven newsroom, you go for the stories that engage more people more meaningfully — and tell them using audio, video, data and graphics, if that’s what’s needed.

In the smartphone age, only 5 per cent of the average person’s attention is devoted to news on their device. Can we build a business by limiting ourselves to 5 per cent of people’s attention, or can we own more of the remaining 95 per cent?

Why comms people should be bothered

When I started the comms team was geared around the needs of the newspaper. Some newspapers live on. But if there is no newspaper as we know it, or it has changed from the 1993 model what should the comms team look like?

It should have more than one skill for a start.

It should have the 40 skills I blogged about and more. It should be able to articulate the organisation’s own stories in content that can be shared.

It should see the changes in the tectonic plates.

It should plan a new path while articulating why these changes are being made to those inside the organisation.

It should also be able to listen, be answerable and create content for the new newspapers of the future as well as the bloggers.

Above all it shouldn’t fear change.


NEW STAND: What a Facebook live broadcast from a newsroom tells us about journalism today

What was also encouraging was talk of new uses of technology. The Saturday night sports paper the Sports Argus folded 11-years ago. The pre-internet queues I recall in newsagents for their delivery are now a memory for people aged over 40. But as the broadcast pointed out, the last edition of the Argus couldn’t carry that night’s FA Cup Final score. So a podcast, video content and sports coverage that is more fan-centric is now the order.

Data is being used more and more to look at the stories that people like, the broadcast said.

A story that’s big on a Trinity Mirror title in Newcastle, for example, can be be a pointer for what could be big in Birmingham too.

And yet, older newspaper people will turn in their graves at complaints made in the broadcast about spelling mistakes slipping into content. They’ll be even more dismayed at the level of trolling that can sometimes pollute comment boxes and Facebook threads. This is a bigger issue than many people realise. This is an issue not just for newspapers but for civic life as well.

Video is the driver for engaging newspaper content.

What did strike me was the use of video by newspapers.

Ben Hurst, Post & Mail news editor responsible for video content, in the Facebook Live broadcast said something telling:

About 12 months ago we were barely doing any video. The rise of the smartphone means that if someone is on the scene they won’t just take a still pic. They’ll take footage. It’s completely changed everything operates.

But not just recorded video is playing a part. Live broadcasts on social channels are becoming increasingly part of the media company’s armoury. Reporters are rarely first on the scene with a smartphone to shoot footage but people are. Ben was open about the fact that they are open to use people’s content.

What does this means for comms people?

It means that newspapers are still in the game. Only they’re not newspapers anymore. They are media companies. They’re not the only game in town anymore either. But they are starting to re-invent themselves.

What do you do if you are comms and PR?

It means taking a look at the content you generate. A press release with text is less effective in a landscape where newsrooms want footage and images. Text at news stands shaped by an editor’s news sense once sold newspapers. Today, content refined by data and often driven by video drives the money-creating job sustaining traffic for media companies.

As newspapers adapt so should comms people.

Picture credit: Michael Coghlan / Flickr.


WRITE STUFF: 15 pieces of advice for journalists heading to a career in PR

23106362469_a553484d8b_bSo, what is the difference was between journalism and PR? I’ve stopped and asked myself the question this week. I’ve been thinking of how to explain the difference.

For 12-years I was a journalist and rose to become assistant chief reporter of a daily regional newspaper. Back then I would have told you that the difference was news was everything they don’t want you to know. The rest is PR, I’d have said.

Eight years on and director of my own company I know the difference is more to it than that just a lack of shouting news editors and no double murders.

The truth is that if there was a Venn diagram, there would be surprising little between the two. At best, it’s a common use of the English language and the knowledge that news is people. And people like to read about people.

Here are 15 differences

A yardstick of success. As a journalist, your measure is if you’ve got the front page. Failing that, it’s a healthy number of pageleads. As a comms person, it’s a number of things. Chiefly, being able to show the material difference your content has made. The number of foster carers recruited, for example.

Criticism. I say this with love, knowing journalists will take umbrage. There is nobody so thin skinned as a journalist. I knew this when I was one. I know it now too. As a comms person you are like a sniper in no man’s land. Under fire from all sides. Your organisation and those outside will throw things at you.

Professional regard. Journalists are special. Not trusted, especially. But special. They have a Press bench and a Press pass. Doors open. Comms people have a daily battle to have their opinion listened to. Solicitors? Planning inspectors? Doctors? Their word is law. But anyone with spell check and clipart thinks they are a comms person.

Audience. A journalist, in the words of a former colleague only half in jest ‘tries to make old people scared to leave their homes.’ They used to have one main channel. Like the printed newspaper or radio bulletin. Now they have to use more. A comms person needs to know as many of the 40 different skills as possible.

Skills. While the reporter needs more skills now than ever the PR or comms person needs to draw either individually or across a team up to 40 skills.

Diplomacy. A journalist can smile politely and ask why the chief executive has failed to build 100 homes on time. A comms person needs the tact to talk through the implications of how that failure will play out and suggest a course of action.

There are no jacks under it. As a journalist, I’d be encouraged to make a story a bit more exciting by ‘putting the jacks under it.’ Outrage, slam, row. As a comms person you play it straight. You stick to the facts which are always sacred.

Accuracy. Now, here’s a thing. I was more accurate as a PR person than a journalist. There. I’ve said it. The news desk request to write a story to fit a pre-determined idea is a thing. I’ve done it. In comms and PR you need to be certain of your ground or you become the story.

A difference. A journalist can try and make a difference by holding power to account. A comms person can make a difference by drawing up the right content in the right place at the right time.

Planning. Long term planning on newspapers was often tomorrow. The concept of a comms plan to work out the business priority, the audience and the channel is alien.

Obsolescence. The journalist suffers from being in an industry whose business model is being re-invented and as a result there are casualties. Comms as an area is developing.

Hours. Long hours to make sure the paper is filled are common on newspapers – who are often renamed media companies. Hours in comms and PR are long. But it’s rare to be stood outside a burning factory in Smethwick, I find.

Writing. Just because you can write for a newspaper doesn’t mean you can write for the web. Or Facebook or Snapchat.

Your employer and your ethics. You bat for your employer as  a PR person. But you bat for your ethics first. At times you have to know your ground and say a firm ‘no.’

Innovation. There can’t be a more exciting time to be a comms person than now. The internet has tipped up old certainties. The tools we can use are evolving and the guidebook on how to use them you can write yourself. How good is that?

Like many former journalists, I admire good journalism. But don’t anyone think that being a reporter and being a press officer or a PR person are remotely the same.

Picture credit: Mattiece David / Flickr


PAPER LOVE: Seven local newspaper stories… I cried at number two and you’ll never believe number six

 

chairLocal newspapers, like the mob, has a habit of pulling me back.

For 12-years I worked on local papers writing whole forest-pulping amounts of stories on everything from table-top sales to triple murders.

More than a decade since I sent my last nib the industry keeps tugging at my coat tails.

Today, I read an earnest defence of local newspapers blogged by Ian Carter. You can read it here. In it, he defends the industry against the accusation of clickbait, listicles and falling standards. In particular he siezes on a well-documented story of a frontpage story of an out-of-date pasty being sold. It’s five years ago. Or, rather as this is newspapers there are CAPITAL LETTERS to show OUTRAGE:

“As part of the case for the prosecution, he digs out a story published five years – FIVE YEARS! – ago by the Folkestone Herald.”

Hey, maybe Ian is right. So, I’d like to share some more contemporary work in the style of a listical featured in the excellent Angry People in Local Newspapers Facebook page you can see here.

Seven local newspaper stories… I cried at number two and you’ll never believe number six

  1. CHAIR DESTROYED – Westmorland Gazette. It’s all kicking off in Kendal. However, the anonymous spokesman would have offended my old news editor greatly.
  2. CARNFORTH CIVIC HALL GETS NEW VACUUM CLEANER – Westmorland Gazette. Yet again, the Gazette is on the money. But no picture of the new Henry? Shoddy work!
  3. POLICE NOTICEBOARD LOCKCHANGE ROW ERUPTS – Wigan Today. Can nobody stop 2016 from being such a year? Bonus point for glum man next to the noticeboard.
  4. RESIDENTS PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS AFTER STREETLIGHTS TURNED OFF AN HOUR EARLIER – Lincolnshire Live. Never turned off. Always plunged. Good work.
  5. AN UN-BEAR-LIEVABLE SNAPSHOT! – Cambrian News Can I see the teddy bear in the sky like this one lucky reader? No, I can’t actually.
  6. CREME BRULEE TERROR – North West Evening Mail The very WORST kind of terror.
  7. ANOTHER BROOM SNAPPED IN HALF IN DERBYSHIRE VILLAGE – Derbyshire Times. Even more WORST terror.

So, join me to jump for joy, raise a glass to fine quality local journalism and look sad next to a pothole. There is a post I’ll write on newspapers and where they feature in 2016. This isn’t it.

 

 


CAMPAIGN JUSTICE: What Journalism 2.0 Looks Like and What You Can Learn

(5) Birmingham Mail - Google Chrome 21112014 110418It was around 2010 and as depressing conversations with a reporter go this one took quite some beating.

I was in local government communications and we had started to post gritting updates in real time on Twitter. We were talking with our residents directly without going through the Priesthood of journalists.

“The thing is,” the reporter said, “When you post your updates to Twitter, newsdesk want you to give us a call as well, so we know.”

I declined. I pointed out that they needed to be on Twitter themselves. I shook my head in despair.

Despair

I started in newspapers in the early 1990s and spent 12 years as a journalist. I still love them despite themselves and despite a further eight years in a local government communications team.

There was a time when I despaired of local newspapers utterly. Declining newsrooms, re-locating to ‘hubs’ far away and shedding staff still make me shake my head.

But just recently, I’ve had cause to think that maybe the penny is dropping and that newspapers really can use the social web and create journalism that will be relevant to the channels of the future.

Telling a story with the web

Making brilliant use of the web are the Evening Mail in Birmingham. They are telling the story of the Birmingham pub bombings which killed 21 people 40 years ago today. They are doing so with imagination and passion. The incident remains an unhealed wound in the city. Nobody has been brought to justice for it. Six people were imprisoned wrongly.

They are using thunderclap to gather support for the case to be re-opened. You sign-up using a social channel and agree to share a message.

For audio, they recreated the IRA telephone call to the Evening Mail offices which came minutes before the explosion.

Birmingham pub bombings We name the man who masterminded the atrocity - Birmingham Mail - Google Chrome 21112014 102057

For images, they created a gallery of news images from the time from their archive.

On Twitter, they used the hashtag #justiceforthe21 and #BirminghamPubBombings to promote the call to bring people to justice.

On the web, the posted the news story in which they name the man, now dead, they allege is responsible for the attack.

On Facebook, they shared content and drew scores of responses.

Also on the web, they hosted as as if real time recreation of the 24-hours leading up to the incident. Anecdotes and snaps of life from those who were living their last day. It is a docudrama told in realtime and you can see it here.   

Birmingham pub bombings Minute by minute - 24 hours that changed our city forever - Birmingham Mail - Google Chrome 21112014 103025

This is what future journalism looks like. Story telling on a range of platforms. It’s sharable and commentable and has a purpose. But above all it is human. I just can’t tell you how much I like this.

They still make me shake my head do newspapers. The public subsidy they get through the government insisting local government pay them for print small ads for public notices at a time of 85 per cent internet connectivity is plain wrong.

But the Evening Mail have shown peerlessly how to tell powerful stories on the web. This really does tower over anything else I’ve seen in the 21 years I’ve been involved with local journalism. Sincere congratulations to them. Buy shoe polish and make sure your suits are pressed. You’ll need them for the awards.

Brilliant work and the lessons to take

This is brilliant work. Genuinely brilliant. This is using the social web to tell a very human story. It’s powerful. It’s moving. But it has a sense of purpose. The purpose is to mobilise public support for a specific aim. It is is to press for justice.

Yet there are lessons here for the public sector where I now work. Just recently the #housingday initiative saw a 24-hour campaign which saw housing people talk about the jobs they do and the people they serve. Very soon #ourday will do a similar task for local government. I’m an advocate for them. They tell hundreds of stories that tell a bigger story. They empower people. They connect people too.

But wouldn’t it be something if that wall of noise was made easier to follow with a live blog? And wouldn’t it be something if there was one single call to action, whatever that was? What is the biggest issue facing housing? Or local government?

What would that campaign be?

Wouldn’t it be something if that energy was pointed at something?


FUTURE CODE: Are web developers today’s news photographer?

359759173_9c5939d67f_bA major US newspaper announced plans to fire its entire picture desk a week or two back. All 28 of them. To go.

As someone who has worked on newspapers and now deals with them as part of their job that’s a significant step.

It also underlines in it’s own small way this whole ‘the landscape is changing and pr people need to develop new skills’ thing that I’ve been writing about for the past four years.

Of course, it’s really tempting to dismiss this as the death twitch of an industry that is on it’s knees and move on. What really stopped me in my tracks was a blog by Andy Ihnatko an occasional contributor to the newspaper in question the Chicago Sun-Times.

In it he recognised the pain this step was causing but rejected the idea that newspapers just deserve to die.

He makes an excellent observation that newspapers need to get new skills and as the web and mobile web get more important. What struck me was the observation that perhaps the web developer is now doing what the photographer used to do. Their ability to produce eye-catching content that brings pages alive are now playing the role the snapper and picture editor used to.

Newspapers are a machine, he writes, adding:

“The machine was fantastic at manufacturing what readers wanted from 1850 to 1999. But it now needs to be retooled to manufacture what readers want in 2013.

“What if it fired photographers, but hired more web developers, and gave that department extra resources? Photographs aren’t than just pretty pictures; they serve many practical functions for an edition of a newspaper. They allow for a more attractive page design, they make the newspaper easier to visually navigate, and they offer the reader an alternative method of engaging with the stories.

“ A well-designed, responsive web page does the same things…with the added modern benefit that it allows a story to look great on any device. “Your photos aren’t anything special” is an aesthetic complaint. “Your site goes all screwy when I access it from my iPhone” is a report about a bug that prevents the user from reading the content.

“The point is that if a newspaper really wants to double-down on the value of their content, having a great team of web developers on staff is critical. I’d be less concerned about the sub-par photography of a site than I would about a site that’s hard to read on the device of my choice.”

So in summary, web developers are critical.

When you consider how mobile-first my own life is that has a ring of truth. My holiday frustration at the webpage that doesn’t show on my mobile to tell me the swimming pool opening times, for example.

What are the lessons for local government comms people?

It’s the importance of knowing that to present your story on the web you’ll need to present it well and in a way that people can read it. It’s getting more important that you’ll need a good web developers in your team to help you tell your story.

It also means that submitted pictures to newspapers in times of cut picture desks have real value. For now.

So, it’s back to that changing landscape stuff again really, isn’t it?


PRINT TRUTH: ‘Newspapers in print are clearly going away. I think you’re an idiot if you think that’s not happening.’

3377807208_20a6bc04b9_b

Fail to understand the changing landscape and very soon you won’t have a job.

It’s something I’ve been banging on about for some time now and It’s true whether you are a journalist, comms person or a fifth generation pit prop maker in 1983.

A bright person a few weeks ago told me that there would always be newspapers because they’d always be there.

I disagree.

People thought that about coal mines once too.

There’ll always be news but there’ll always be print newspapers? Really?

As the rise of Twitter as a breaking news medium and sites like BBC that’s just not the case.

Here’s an interesting few quotes from John Paton, CEO of Digital First Ventures who own, as their website says, more than 800 print and digital products that reach 57 million customers a month.

If you aren’t taking it from me take it from a news organisation that has a $1.3 billion turnover.

They are quotes that comms people need to know about because they represent more evidence of the seismic change in the media landscape.

But why switch to Digital First as a company name?

“Digital First is my name. I’ve been saying it long before I got here. The name originally was to say very loudly — in a headline kind of way — that what we thought we did in newspapers, we had to change 308550289_b8a4be2d44_odramatically. And that, of course, meant digital first.

“And actually “digital first, print last.” I wanted to hammer home that this idea about the Web as something else we do was ridiculous.”

“The Web was and it should be what we do. Print is something else that we do, which happens — at this moment in time — to have almost all the revenue. But that’s not going to be our future. It was something that I named to try to hammer home that message. It’s kind of funny — I don’t think they have a “digital first” strategy at Google. They have a strategy. The name, hopefully, if we’re successful, becomes very dated.”

On paywalls and digital dimes…

“I don’t think paywalls are the answer to anything. If we’re swapping out print dollars for digital dimes, I think paywalls are a stack of pennies. We might use the pennies in transition to get where we’re going.”

On newspapers going away…

“Newspapers in print are clearly going away. I think you’re an idiot if you think that’s not happening.

3588867138_ec00e587e3_o“I don’t think that news organizations are dying but are newspapers going to stop running in print? Yeah. Absolutely.”

On making the shift…

“I think we still are too afraid to take the kinds of risks we need to take because there’s so much money tied up in print. We have $1.3 billion in revenue. And of $1.3 billion, $900 million is advertising and $165 million of the advertising is digital advertising. Four years ago, that was almost nothing. That $165 [million] is going to have to more than double in three years. To do that, we’re going to have to take some risks on the print side. That’s the one thing that scares the [expletive] out of everybody.

“I love newspapers. I’m a newspaperman. My father was a printer. I started off as a copyboy. I love newspapers. But they don’t love me anymore.”

You can read the whole interview here.

That’s something worth reflecting on.

Creative commons credit 

News stand http://www.flickr.com/photos/chicagogeek/3377807208/sizes/l/

Reading http://www.flickr.com/photos/maong/3588867138/sizes/o/


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