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.
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.