He said the traditional “gut instinct” of editors for choosing local news stories was being edged out by web analysts in “faraway offices,” risking “insurmountable” damage to papers.
Richard, pictured above, edited The Sentinel from July 2013 to October 2014 and is now a senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Derby.
He wrote: “As an editor, I was asked to make decisions on story placement based on how well they performed online, this is now gaining momentum in some quarters.
“It may have some merit, but falls down on some key principles. Firstly, as we all know, stories which perform well online do so because the audience is different.
“If the performance of stories online was reflected in the front pages of our daily papers then editors would be forced to make their front page splash football gossip, food hygiene reports or a trivial video showing probably a cat or dog performing some bizarre trick.
“So if a front page story has low ‘engagement’ on the web, the editor will undoubtedly get the cane from the headteacher for failing to pick the right story to feed the web monster.
Added Richard: “The long term damage is insurmountable. Local newspapers are all about trust. Once the trust is broken, the game is over.”
“Obviously, content analysts with little soul and far removed from the heart of any community, just won’t get this because it’s all about chasing figures, not longevity, and who cares if the audience comes from America or Japan… maybe the advertisers.”
His comments come after National Union of Journalists’ chapels in Birmingham and Coventry earlier this month passed motions of no confidence in plans by Trinity Mirror to give individual journalists targets for online audience growth which will be written into their job descriptions.
Last week Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield told the Society of Editors’ regional seminar that such a move was a “worry” and would lead to the creation of “‘clickbait’ stories and listicles.”
In his blog post, Richard also said the use of web analytics had also hampered attempts to lighten the news agenda by splashing on good news stories.
“When I was an editor I was told there was too much doom and gloom on the front pages and the audience was being turned off by this sort of news, move over Martin Bell,” he wrote.
“So the editorial team against its own gut instinct splashed with a happy story, only to be told there’s no engagement online and sales dropped. Basically, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
“Meanwhile, the story which did well online, usually with the word sex in the headline, which is just a brief because it is 40 miles outside your real circulation area, flies on the web.
He added: “Asked why you didn’t splash on that story, head in hands, the editor says ‘because you asked for a happy, positive story and no-one buys the paper in Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, our paper is for the people of Lincoln, Bristol, or Hull.’
“The argument has always been that web and newspaper content are different. However, this is ignored by those who believe analytics are more accurate than the instinct of an editor.”