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Marc Reeves: It’s not all about vegan sausage rolls

As the regional newspaper industry adapts to the digital age, publishers have faced regular criticisms about modern newsgathering techniques, “target-driven” newsroom cultures and the use of so-called “clickbait” – some of which have been carried on this site.

Today Marc Reeves, editor in chief of Reach’s Midlands titles, gives his own view of the state of the industry, challenging what he terms the “narrative of decline” and highlighting the valuable journalism, growing audiences and constant innovation taking place within regional newsrooms.


marc-reeves I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to write blog posts or address conferences on the subject of ‘the future of regional journalism’.

The first was at least 15 years ago – probably more – and I used to throw myself into the challenge with enthusiasm, because we had a good story to tell.

While we were certainly in the midst of the biggest existential crisis in the history of the media, the regional news industry was – after a hesitant start – driving innovation and learning at a breakneck pace.

Sure, plenty of mistakes were made on the way and it sometimes looked like we might not survive the flight of advertising bucks as well as readers to Google and Facebook.

The press, perhaps understandably, focused on the terrible cost to jobs and livelihoods wrought by the online tsunami, but behind the scenes was an industry rapidly transforming itself from complacent incumbent to radical innovator.

With baby steps in video and social media, the green shoots of the future of the regional press were visible for anyone who cared to look for them, even a decade ago or so. But the narrative that stuck – and remains today – was the one of decline and atrophy.

So many commentators seem to regard it as heretical to point to the extraordinary growth in the regional news media’s online audience, as if we should never depart from the journalistic articles of faith carved on the back benches of 1970s newsrooms. If it’s not published in print it doesn’t count as journalism, they declare.

Those same grey cardigans will also gleefully and insultingly dismiss the extraordinary efforts of today’s journalists to keep and hold the attention of increasingly fickle audiences with a range of hard news, sport, entertainment and gossip. Academics pile in, Googling furiously to find evidence to support their predetermined theses that journalism isn’t what it was back in their day (Greggs vegan sausage rolls, anyone?).

Of course today’s newsrooms are a world away from what went before. There are countless more ways than before to get news and share it – and also, crucially, to understand what people are interested in.

In those fabled good old days, the pub, corner shop, church and community centre were where people lived their lives – and therefore where reporters went to find stories.

All these remain, but not only have they declined, but people spend more of their time interacting with online communities – mostly Facebook. Journalists should be where the readers are, and to a large extent, that place is now online.

The grey cardigans might rail against it, but it’s a fact.

So, over the years, I’ve largely given up trying to persuade the unpersuadable and concentrated instead on working with the extraordinarily talented journalists, editors, and product developers who are leading the charge to keep the trade and the industry alive.

One day, I like to think, their efforts will get the recognition they deserve from those who are only too happy to ignore what they accomplish every day – and continue to achieve.

Of course the challenges continue, and it’s not an easy task, but there is much to shout about as well.

Just a few examples come to mind, from my vantage point running a region for Reach plc:

•    Valuable journalism, from long-form to video that supports positive change in our communities. Titles and papers across the North teamed up to fight for better investment in rail infrastructure, and BirminghamLive is telling the story of people affected by HS2 in this podcast. Then there’s DerbyshireLive’s mental health campaign… I could go on. Tell you what –  instead of Googling ‘Greggs sausage rolls local press coverage’, try actually visiting some local news sites to get a flavour of the important work they do for their communities. You’ll find investigations into homelessness, spirited campaigns for local amenities, stories of personal courage, essential information about schools and hospitals – it’s all there if you care to recognise it.

•    Growing audiences, growing revenues. ‘Ah it’s all very well, this online growth’, say the eeyores, ‘but where’s the money coming from?’. Well, actually, it’s coming from this online growth. There’s a thing called online advertising, and the more content we get people to read on our sites, the more advertising our sites can carry. And people pay us to advertise. Brilliant, isn’t it! Last year, my region chalked up around 1.2 billion pageviews – beating our target by some margin. That over-achievement saw more revenue come in to the business as a consequence.

•    Great new products and innovation. We’re getting way better at playing nicely with partners across the board. With the BBC on LDRs, Facebook on community reporters, Google on podcasting and other initiatives, we’re learning more and finding new ways to serve readers and make the business more sustainable. But on our own terms, too, we’re seeing incredible innovation, as evidenced in the boom in data journalism across regional publishers in the past five years. And take a look at Reach’s InYourArea hyperlocal platform, showing new ways to serve even the tiniest of communities across the whole of the UK.

So I’ve just broken my own promise not to prattle on about the future of the regional press any more. Sorry about that, but I doubt any of this has persuaded the critics to change their views anyway.

And that’s fine, because the future of our industry is not in their hands, thank God.

Instead, it’s in the hands of thousands of dedicated journalists, sales people, product boffins, marketing experts and strategists who know that the industry they work in is a thousand miles away from the one portrayed by those who would talk us down.

8 comments

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  • January 23, 2020 at 10:36 am
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    Mr Reeves makes some valid points. And I’m not going to take issue with those. And he’s unhappy with those who have a condescending view of the current media landscape. I get that.
    But his cynical/sarcastic tone of their opinions comes across as equally as condescending. And quite arrogant.
    Now I’m off to buy a new grey cardigan. Then I’m off to church to thank God the future of the media industry is in Mr Reeves’s hands.

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  • January 23, 2020 at 10:59 am
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    He’s not just being condescending, but effectively dismissing the tried and tested traditional methods of newsgathering. I’m not saying that reporters immersing themselves in social media is such a bad thing if there’s news to be had there, but it’s by no means the sole source. Then we have his truly condescending comment about online advertising. With plummeting print ad revenues, digital has to be the way forward but Reach still missed their 20% year on year increase by 6% in 2019, although that was an improvement on the previous year. He should bear in mind that their websites fail to stop ad blockers working – I see no advertising on my regional Reach website other than advertorials, and there are millions of people using ad blockers.

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  • January 23, 2020 at 2:35 pm
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    Marc can bang on about the brilliant work being done by Reach titles. He may be right – although I’m not too keen on the news values of the Gloucestershire lot.. However, if you are in a NewsQuest or a Johnston Press area the scene is very different. Rural areas get very badly neglected. All the news that appears in my local paper each week is obviously picked up off social media (the inaccurate stuff) , press releases (the uncritical) or the police and fire voicebanks and is almost never followed up.
    . Half-stories abound. Some of us even spend time on the comments sections, correcting the inaccuracies and filling in the gaps in our local patches!
    The editor knows what he is doing and it shows, but he can’t work without capable resources and the rest is rubbish. The website is hopeless – it can take five minutes for one page to load in our area – and there is \absolutely no scope and clearly no desire at the top for serious journalism.
    I note that none of the commenters on here have even bothered to mention the absence of any form of subbing – that battle was lost long ago, tragically. I know Marc and love him to bits, but boy is he living in a city-centred ivory tower!

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  • January 23, 2020 at 4:22 pm
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    That is quite some diatribe from Mr Reeves (who actually looks as though he might wear a ‘grey cardigan’ himself), with his comments clearly triggered by Jon Griffin’s recent excellent article on here about clickbait factories.
    I agree with the first comment by Past and Present that Marc makes some valid points, but there is also a great deal to take issue with.
    Firstly, no-one I know is dismissing the “extraordinary efforts” of today’s journalists. On the contrary, people are sympathising with them for the unenviable position they are in of constantly chasing the next clickworthy story.
    Secondly, Mr Reeves talks about more online growth equalling more online advertising. I am sure that is true, just like print advertising revenue is based on circulation. But, while he boasts about 1.2 billion page views it is noticeable that he only refers to “more revenue” without giving any facts.
    This just enforces the widely held view that one ad in a newspaper is worth vastly more than a corresponding ad online, regardless of how many views.

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  • January 23, 2020 at 4:29 pm
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    The misguided pursuit of clicks and disdain for readers and former experienced and knowledgeable staff is an accurate summary @Total Reporting, but it isn’t unique to Reach, it seems to be part of the job description for all editors in chief. It certainly is where I am anyway!

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  • January 23, 2020 at 5:03 pm
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    As Marc himself said in the piece, I doubt whether any of this would persuade the critics to change their views anyway. We at HTFP are, nevertheless, very grateful to him for taking the trouble to write it and for giving us his perspective on the changes taking place within the industry. In my view, it brings some much-needed balance to the debate around digital transformation and is a much-needed corrective to some of the cynicism that surrounds it.

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  • January 29, 2020 at 3:32 pm
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    My two cents, at least as far as In Your Area is concerned, about which Reach seems to be making a lot of noise even though it actually directs readers to the websites of its competitors more often than not:
    I just set up a feed for my town and the two nearest hamlets. Today it contains, in descending order: story from 25 miles away; two classified adverts; display advert; lottery advert; story from ten miles away; story from 25 miles away; advert; story from ten miles away with the wrong photo on it; traffic report with no current information; property ad (from my town, to be fair); two stories from 35 miles away; property ad; three entertainment listings; and, finally, a tweet about sewerage problems which is actually relevant to me. My town has a Nextdoor network and several Facebook groups; on this evidence, why on earth would I choose to use In Your Area (more than once, that is)?

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