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.
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.