Ignorance isn’t bliss: Journalism needs the numbers to stack up — and journalists are best placed to do that

Petrol prices are always news for readers — but do we feel the same?

By David Higgerson, Chief Audience Officer, Reach PLC

Local journalism has undergone massive change during the last two decades — the move to online, the dominance of third-party platforms, the rapidly changing revenue sources — but there are some constants which remain.

We have always needed local people to value the journalism we produce. And we’ve always needed a business model to underpin our work.

The difference in 2022 to, say, 2002, is that the two necessities above are now more entwined than ever. Whether your business model is free to air, or a subscription service which asks readers to pay, every act of journalism is much more closely linked to the sustainability of that journalism than ever before.

For journalists, this can be empowering — but also not without risk.

At any given moment, a journalist knows how widely-read their work is, and how it is being received generally. This is undoubtedly a double-edged sword, but if you believe, as I do, that the future of local news depends on understanding your audience, then we have to adapt to the online world as it really is.

The biggest threat to local journalism is irrelevance. Warren Buffet’s famous quote is worth remembering here: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”

The tide went out on local journalism during the 2000s. As the verticals — motors, property, recruitment, classifieds — moved online, so did the revenue which underpinned journalism locally. Declining circulation trends made it very clear, at the same time, that many readers no longer felt they needed to buy local news in the way they once did.

That was brutal for local journalists — but it also exposed a growing separation between what newsrooms felt readers needed, and what readers felt they wanted. In hindsight, the model of old risked disconnecting newsrooms from their readers. At its worst, if we didn’t like what readers had to say, we could ignore them.

Fast forward two decades, and local news in the UK reaches more people than ever before. Latest Iris data shows local news produced by commercial publishers is read by 75% of the population every month. More than 1bn pages of local news were consumed in January — the highest number recorded to date.

Much of that growth has been built thanks to having open conversations with journalists about what does and doesn’t work online. All publishers have to decide for themselves where they choose to lead readers and where they are led by readers, but for local news to thrive, we need to start with an honest view of what people find interesting.

Then, when we identify subjects which we believe should appeal to readers but for whatever reason, aren’t connecting, it’s our job to find ways to turn this around (not our job to berate readers about what they ‘should’ find interesting).

And it works. Council and local political journalism is often described as ‘dry.’ It is also important — so important in fact, we need to find a way to make it reach as many people as possible. Across the company I work for, journalists — we call them agenda editors or agenda writers — use data to find ways to get their stories to as many people as possible.

The same is true of court journalism. A 500-word write-up used to be what readers got, now many spend up to 30 minutes a day following a live blog of a big trial, because court reporters are informed by data about how people want to read what is happening.

I believe putting the onus on us to attract readers to important public-interest journalism is a far healthier, and far more sustainable, approach to local news than the counterpoint which often sounds like ‘local news has a divine right to be here, and readers should know they should jolly well be paying for it.’

Which brings up the issue of numbers in newsrooms, a hot topic again recently after Reach launched a new trial geared to putting journalists and their expertise at the core of our strategy. It’s called ‘Accelerating Performance Development’ and is based on detailed, ongoing analysis, of how different subjects resonate with readers in different parts of the country.

From that, editors can share with journalists what would be expected from their role and subject matter. It ensures a conversation about what can be done to ensure journalism reaches more people takes place in an open, constructive way.

We’ve taken this approach because there are so many variables in journalism. Platforms can turn cold against a title. One news event can suddenly command all reader attention. An unexpected press release can inexplicably go viral. But there are always things within our control: How to present a story, how to promote it, how to develop it. All of these require conversations.

The reality is that local journalists have always had a numerical judgement against their work. Newsrooms were judged on their newspaper sale, or the profitability of their title. Newsrooms had their own targets too, derived to try and help newspaper sales. Story counts, front pages per reporter, letters to the editor are all numerical judgements I’ve seen used with the best of intentions but all were, at best, abstract. And I’ve seen in my own career what a lack of clarity around these measurements can lead to — confusion, passive aggression, the breakdown of team spirit.

The only difference now is that some organisations are choosing to directly involve everyone in the newsroom in the discussions around the numbers — and numbers which aren’t abstract, but an immediate reflection of whether we’ve successfully managed to engage readers.

If your business model is built on subscriptions, you have data which tells you what works and what doesn’t. If it’s a paywall, you know the articles which drive conversions and which paying customers return to.

Those who argue against this data being central to discussions in newsrooms are presumably arguing that ignorance is bliss. It might make you feel good in the short-term, it might make life a bit easier for now, but it only stores up problems for the future. Those with a long-term interest in the viability of local news want to avoid that at all costs.

A friend once told me of a time in local newspapers where management joked that if they were short of the revenue target for the month, they told the classifieds team to open the windows a bit more to let more money in. Those are portrayed as halcyon days — and maybe they were. But those times came to an end, and when the tide went out, we weren’t exactly fully clothed. And that was a surprise to many journalists.

Surely it is only logical for journalism businesses to involve journalists in constructing a growing future for their work. That some commentators lurch to catastrophising about clickbait, rather than understanding the detail, suggests an unwillingness on their part to fight for a sustainable future for local journalism — and a patronising view of the apparent inability of local journalists and editors to distinguish between the right way to support local journalism, and hitting a ‘target’ for the sake of it.

I firmly believe local news can and must be a successful business. Not a charity, not a luxury for some or a cultural accessory for those who can afford it. We want people everywhere to actually want it. We must ensure that they want to visit us in their precious free time — that we can give them the information they need and the stories they want.

While I believe every media outlet should be held accountable for mistakes and committed to improving their content, I also see a worrying trend in criticisms of what is often called clickbait but may simply be “content I think I’m too good for.”

Critics turn their noses up at what people want — be that an article on where to get discounts, TV news, fun articles celebrating local identity (all staples of local newspapers in print, lest we forget) — and want them to want something that is, in their minds, better. And something that, actually, never existed in isolation anyway.

A more thoughtful, empathetic observer would wonder, why exactly is this one of our most popular articles in this area? Could it be that readers in Oxdown — actual living human beings, flock to the content because this is essential information for them? Should helping them with this information be something to sneer at?

Having worked in newsrooms at a time when we had little visibility on the business side of journalism, and in the business now where the page view tracker is omnipresent and the ability to use journalism to sustain and grow journalism, I know which one I’d rather work in.

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