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.


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?


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