18 December 2014

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Cut out ‘boring’ fillers and focus on quality, says Sands

Newspaper consultant Peter Sands has urged regional editors to examine their print content, claiming that much of it is “dull” and “boring.”

In a hard-hitting message to the industry, the former Northern Echo editor says some regional newsrooms resemble “treadmills” where “filling the paper” has become the raison d’etre.

Writing in the B2B magazine InPublishing, Peter, pictured left, says reporters are wasting too much time composing flights of nibs and re-writing material already available online.

Instead he urges newspapers to focus on quality content, as well as doing more to harness material generated by readers and local experts.

Wrote Peter: “With newsrooms pared back, it has become harder to provide genuinely interesting and fresh content. I visit regionals where the newsroom is on a treadmill, where the raison d’être has indeed become ‘filling the paper’.

“There is often far too much mortar, boring stories of little interest, running through the editorial bricks.

“I was astonished at one daily title where the reporters spent two hours a day putting together legs of shorts – ‘volunteers wanted,’ ‘coffee morning boost,’ ‘choir practice.’ People going to the choir practice already know it’s on, and the people who aren’t don’t give a monkey’s.”

“There is regularly a design issue too. Dull copy is often presented in a dull way. Good content needs to be accompanied by good design,” he added.

“If regional papers offer dull filler material, they will continue to alienate readers and the downward spiral will go on.

“Ultimately, if nothing changes, everything stays the same. And for regional newspapers, that will mean their demise edges ever closer.”

Peter urges regional papers to make more use of humour, describing this as an area where they are “generally pretty poor.”

And he claims that efforts by some papers to attract younger readers have been “very hit and miss.”

To address the problem, Peter urges editors to make sure reporters “focus purely on delivering the material that is valuable or entertaining.”

Acknowldeging the difficulties of allowing reporters to go off the diary when they have to keep “feeding the beast,” he advocates harnessing the community – “network journalism, pro bono, UGC, crowdsourcing, call it what you will.”

Says Peter:  “This doesn’t mean a deluge of unsolicited rubbish, but actively seeking those with a story to tell.”

“One newspaper group has drawn up potential amateur columnists and editors persuade them to write about the real incidents they encounter each week – they include a harbourmaster, zookeeper, hotelier and, my favourite, taxi driver, who write about the events of the weekend.”

Peter, who is a non-executive director of Northcliffe Media, hailed Western Daily Press editor Tim Dixon as a “huge supporter” of harnessing community contributors.

“His paper is packed with pro-bono copy.  He argues that it enhances the title, improves quality and adds authority and expertise,” said Peter.

He quotes Tim as saying:  “It helps us to better understand our readers, their passions and preferences, so that they form our agenda more directly than ever. It helps to bolster our audience too.

“All the contributors want to buy the newspaper which contains their picture, essay or poem. Readers who become enthusiastic fans of the paper tend to share their enthusiasm with others and encourage them to buy.”

25 Comments

  1. Spooner

    I think the problem is one of language as much as anything…

    Call it fill, downpage, wrap, support copy – whatever, it’s always suggesting it’s just there to make up the numbers and not in its own right.

    That what makes reps think any old tosh will do.

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  2. John

    Good nibs take time. Time that could be better spent on leads.

    I’d far rather papers were designed with more space for leads, and less filler was needed.

    I’d far rather reporters spent their time working on the main event on each page, rather than mucking around chasing quotes for fillers.

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  3. Freddie

    In one sense I agree … in another, look a the numbers.

    I know of one regional daily which has 12 reporters (that’s in total, not in work on a given day). Let’s say that, with holidays, sickness and days off for working Sundays there are 8 reporters in. One is at crown court which might mean he supplies one lead, two at best. Another might be tied up at city council … again, couple of leads, couple of shorter stories.

    Now we have six reporters (sometimes fewer). There are still 20+ pages to fill each day, for six day of the week. And those pages are put together by four subs.

    It just doesn’t add up, in my book. Even if those six reporters wrote three sparkling, well researched stories complete with face to face interviews (as if!!!), that still leaves acres to fill. So how do you suggest it’s done?

    The community stuff by its nature will be of the ‘choir practice’ variety.

    I don’t want to knock it but the fact is papers are still trying to do what they did 10 years ago with a fraction of the staff.

    I’ve alwasy said you could produce a newspaper with one person … how good it would be is a different question.

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  4. Any old tosh, Newsroom

    Spooner has a point, call it a secondary lead, a brief or something like that. Terms like wrap, fill and downpage foster a ‘who cares’ attitude.

    If I have four leads to write (two of which will be from scratch) every day, the 200-word piece on page 17 is the least of my worries.

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  5. lensman

    “It just doesn’t add up, in my book. Even if those six reporters wrote three sparkling, well researched stories complete with face to face interviews (as if!!!), that still leaves acres to fill. So how do you suggest it’s done?”

    …..Try using the pictures taken by us overworked photographers a bit bigger !

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  6. Capt. Starlight

    It’s all gone mostly downhill in recent years, writes V. Meldrew here, after 40 years in the more golden era of local papers which did a good job. There are exceptions of course but too many papers, with less staff, just want to fill the paper up with froth, rhubarb and bland stuff. Too few staff and little time to get stuck into good stories, follow-ups and features which were the norm in most locals in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
    Often major stories are given the whizz-bang approach these days with a big splash headline and then a piece which is light on facts. Good examples are fires wrecking homes, cars crashing through house walls etc. Often no interviews with the households and nothing a week or month later on how the family is coping with no home etc.
    Also place names or people with wrong spellings and, worst of all, the reader left with guestions unanswered in the piece.

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  7. GladImOutOfIt

    This is what many, many experienced hacks said as they were slung out of the door with their redundo cheques.
    After the experienced hacks have been paid off the few poor babes who are left behind have neither the time nor, crucially, the practical training, to do more than fill the spaces between the ads as fast as possible.
    On top of that, what’s happened to the art of writing well? Today’s newspaper stories are, by and large, poorly-written and plonking – probably the result of everyone writing for the website and forgetting the print.
    The proper journalism that Peter calls for requires time and experience to develop, even if the source is the community – it may come in online these days, but in my day it was known as leaning on the right bars. Frankly, Peter shouldn’t have needed to say this. It’s real reporting, and it’s what newspapers used to be all about.
    Moreover, If the basic news is online, your print model should contain the in-depth stuff. But this requires investment in more, not fewer, staff with a different approach. Not a hope!

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  8. Harold

    It’s brilliant being an expert from distance isn’t it? I know he has a great track record, but it’s almost like the last days of the Roman Empire, still thinking you’re presiding over great swathes of territory when in fact the enemy is just at the gates. That’s why stuff like this irritates me intensely

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  9. McNee

    I think this chap’s spot on. More humour, local columnists, less filler, snappier design.

    All sounds suspiciously right to me.

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  10. Ill-informed

    Freddie makes lots of valid points but there’s no reference to the impact on resource of preparing content for use online. One imagines that this also takes up some time?

    I’d be interested in knowing if the issues are the same for weekly titles. Regional dailies are a dying breed and I can see little reason why people should continue to buy a local newspaper on a daily basis when digital media is more up-to-date, more convenient, more user friendly (I appreciate this is subjective) and, in most instances, free. Even though newsrooms producing weekly titles have suffered similar resource reductions, aren’t they better placed to deliver the content Peter wants?

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  11. Dying breed

    The amount of dross in evening regional papers is scary!
    They would be better off worrying less about story counts and more on using pictures properly

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  12. Luddite

    If you use briefs to publish the times of a choir practice, they’re clearly a waste of space. But if you use them for ‘interesting’ snippets – like said choir needing more members or a new Zumba group forming or a fungi foray or blood donor sessions or number 26 being burgled or whatever – they increase the story count on a page dramatically and must appeal to a larger number of readers. They also serve as a two-way street with the community, publicising events and inviting UGC contributions. As for the time factor, five minutes tops. Don’t bash briefs, embrace them! By the time you’ve read this, you could have written one!

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  13. redundanthack

    Bit late now to state the bleeding obvious, isn’t it? For years our dwindling numbers of reporters/subs have been ordered to put together pages awash with nibs. I worked in one cpu where nibs were a must on every page in each evening paper. No page could be sent without em. Reporters frantically ignoring real issues to rattle out crap so I could actually send a page. Stacks of court nibs one on top of the other. Try headlining that lot! No-one listened to our protests. Now I am an embittered ex-hack as you can see

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  14. duffo

    Western Daily Press – Not the best example. This paper has been known to use the same picture twice in the same edition. Is this their way of cutting down on fillers?

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  15. redundantformereditor, Cambridge

    Does Peter, who is well known for making sweeping statements about the regional press while conveniently ignoring the causes, seriously think those regional editors lucky enough to still be regional editors put boring crap into their papers by choice? Editors are having to make the best of what they’ve got, which is mostly juniors who only went into journalism because they didn’t know what else to do and now wish they hadn’t and, if they’re really lucky, one once enthusiastic senior whose idealism has been crushed by an employer (take your pick which) who knows little of news values and cares even less just as long as there’s an editor somewhere they can blame when people start moaning about quality. Show me a regional editor anywhere in the country who’s putting out the paper he wants to and I’ll show you someone whose so scared that each day could be his last in the chair he’ll spout the company line even if it means lying to himself.

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  16. Ill-informed

    What impact does the need to upload content to the website have on editorial resource?

    I tend to agree with Peter’s core message whilst having some sympathy with the editors who have commented here about levels of resource. Given the harsh economics of regional media, I doubt newsrooms can expect to see an increase in bodies. The solution then needs to be changed working practices and some hard decisions about the value of content. If that means losing some peripheral content from the newspaper in order to have more and better coverage of topics that matter most, so be it.

    I also think there are probably different dynamics at play in daily newspaper markets and weekly newspaper markets.

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  17. Simon

    Freddie – 12 reporters! What a luxury. Our regional, which covers three counties, does it with an average of four…

    And the Western Daily is hardly a good example of using pro bono copy – its sales have gone through the floor. The only reason it’s using that stuff is because it has no staff! Two or three reporters at most…

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  18. Human Resource

    A finely turned nib is a thing of beauty and should have its place in any newspaper. Unfortunately, it’s another dying art.

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  19. Freddie

    I know the bigger city dailies have those sort of numbers of reporters.

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  20. Jo Smith

    We’re regularly told readers want “busy” pages (albeit never by readers) and are actively discouraged from writing much over 600 words per article – even for news features. So instead of getting to the bottom of anything, interviewing someone properly, providing anything approaching genuine analysis, we instead have to write a series of small pieces that are neither insightful nor interesting. And of course, it’s something of a subbing nightmare, so design tends to go out of the window. Couldn’t agree more with Peter Sands but, as other comments point out, this is a problem that stems from all sorts of deeper issues, from lack of staff to misguided editors, and solving it will require a multi-pronged approach.

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  21. In the know

    The Western Daily Press tends to just use copy from all the other Northcliffe titles as opposed to using reader input.

    Although I suppose it does have three pages of boring letters – but I doubt that will save it with the way it is going.

    And it’s hardly a shining example as it is much worse now than it was a few years ago and this is reflected in its readership.

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  22. Paul Bishop, Midlands

    I presume he took this on board during his redesign of the Newark Advertiser. I presume there isn’t a filler in sight.

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  23. Ill-informed

    Peter’s basic premise is right – most local newspapers are dull. Would they be better if newsrooms had more / better journalists? I’m sure they would but that’s not an option given the financial pressures we face. So what’s the solution? Keep churning dull newspapers? Or make some difficult decisions and redirect our finite journalistic resources such that they spend less time on unimportant content and more on the stuff that really matters? It seems obvious that local newspapers should make greater and better use of user generated content (e.g reverse publishing comments from online forums).

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  24. Peter Sands

    Pleased to have generated such a thoughtful debate. The issue isn’t about NiBs of course … but about quality. I am all in favour of interesting short pieces. For those eager to seek blame rather than solutions, or who think I don’t understand the causes, please read the original article on the InPublishing site:
    http://www.inpublishing.co.uk/kb/articles/making_every_word_count.aspx
    rather than the HTFP version.

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  25. reporterlad

    I completely agree, GladImOutOfIt.

    For the most part, it wouldn’t be fair to blame the state of papers on the people who put them together. Yes, local papers are often failing to deliver what would have been fundamental reporting a decade or two ago, and the examples Glad gives are very true in my experience.
    But is that a surprise? Fewer people have to cobble together more copy to fill the pages, and generally the people doing the cobbling are either fresh-faced trainees or recent seniors. When those people are being guided by content editors with only a few more years’ experience themselves, who are also overworked and underpaid, you can see why things go wrong.

    Add to the fact young reporters read less than ever, and are brought up expecting to get whatever information they need through a few Google searches, and you can see how hard it is to save this sinking ship.
    The battle to attain the quality of local papers from the past with a reduced workforce and the constant need to boost sales in an industry plagued by decline is, sadly, almost certainly a losing one. And frankly, while Sands strikes upon some good points about where papers are failing, his suggestions for how improvements could be made sound completely unrealistic.

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