The ghost of newspapers past… what’s in store for 2015

 

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It’s been another tumultuous year for regional newspapers, with titles closing, ‘bold’ digital-only moves being made by some publishers, job cuts, promotions and, unbelievably, the advent of new titles rising above the doom and gloom.

So what does next year hold for the regional press sector? If 2014 is anything to go by, here is a possible run down of what 2015 might bring:

1. While Johnston Press execs talked of a ‘digital tipping point’ for online revenue in 2014, Trinity Mirror trumped the news by closing its newspapers in Berkshire and taking the titles online only. The announcement, made just before Christmas, saw around 50 job losses. In 2015  the proof will be in the pudding when the critics and industry counterparts will watch the progress of the sites with eagle-eyed interest. However, 2015 will not see rival newspaper companies following suit – they will only take that step when their online commercial profit seriously outweighs the revenue made by the print titles. In the meantime, news companies will continue to experiment with ‘free content’  and look to see how more can be used in order  to cut costs. And watch this space to see more daily titles going weekly.

2. Similarly while some national titles turned off online commenting this year, regional news will not follow suit in 2015. Instead news companies will start to give more direction to journalists about expectations over interaction with commentators and using more comments and view points in the printed product than ever before.

3. Newspaper websites will increasingly blur the lines between paywalls and free content with the introduction of more advertising which holds power over the user. Readers will find themselves more than ever before having to click on or interact with adverts to have the full text released to them. Advertising will also start to link to the geography or subject of the news story on the page, with debates being raised about who makes the decision over what stories are tagged and who does the tagging; editorial staff will argue it is a commercial decision and responsibility.  There are bound to be  some clashes and ethical blunders along the way.

4. It will be the year for partnership working. This year saw Local World, Newsquest and Johnston Press join forces with local media businesses to create a new advertising portal which should offer serious weight and competition to online advertising space. 2015 will be the year for this project to take hold – if it proves a success it may pave the way for other partnerships between the once-rival news companies. It may also be the year that the BBC joins forces with regional newspapers and their websites to provide a conjoined multimedia offering – although this is questionable due to the long rocky road this potential partnership has already walked.

5. Newspapers will continue their cull of editorial staff, cutting costs and merging small teams into larger ‘news factories’ based in ‘central’ locations. Critics will continue to raise questions over quality and local knowledge.

But it’s not all bad.

6. With more and more journalists finding themselves jumping or being pushed from the newsroom in 2014 an army of talent has started to identify opportunities in terms of niche publications up and down the country. In 2015 this trend will continue, with new publications opening both online and in print, courting readers and revenue away from established titles. Many of these will cater for a specialist market governed by micro-location or hobbies and interests – stepping away from the traditional newspaper route of being one publication for all people.

7.  The industry will continue to recruit, but those recruits will be expected to have dual capability online and in print. Digital and social media skills will be cited to be as important as NCTJ qualifications and news sense.

8. There will be some excellent, innovative and exciting coverage of 2015’s big events – not least the election in May. Speaking of which…

9. …Following hot in the footsteps of Newsquest’s The National – which has given its backing to Scottish independence – will come a UKIP-centric title determined to prize votes off just about anybody in time for May’s election. Inside the first edition there will be a life-sized campaign poster of Farage brandishing a pint. Lovely.

Let’s revisit in December 2015 to see if any of this proves correct.

Season’s greetings and best wishes for the New Year

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Board will strengthen the voice of newspapers – now time to start work on diversity

 

The New York Times newsroom 1942

Above: The New York Times newsroom of 1942 – not a woman in sight.

Have you ever watched a TV drama in which an unscrupulous journalist has done just about everything possible to get THE story? The tired portrayal of a hard-nosed hack is trotted out by many a scriptwriter, cementing the image of a person who would quite happily sell their own grandmother in exchange for a crumb of a story which would make a front page. I remember watching an episode of Doctor’s once (I was off sick, although that’s no excuse, I know) in which a rookie reporter desperate for the tale stuck their foot in the front door frame of a grieving mother’s home in order to be let into the property. On being shoved back out of the house the reporter then proceeded to shout threats through the letterbox before going on to publish a pack of lies on the front page of their local paper. Note to non-newsroom readers, this is NOT what happens in real life. In real life most reporters (not all, admittedly) follow a code based on law and ethics which would have seen them politely ask if the grieving woman wanted to pay tribute in the paper. If she said no the reporter would then leave and not return. They would not go on to print a lot of made up stuff in order to get revenge for the lack of story, but instead might file nothing, or might report the basic facts provided by the police or coroner. But sadly, due to some unscrupulous journos, some unimaginative scriptwriters and one very long Leveson Inquiry (which put all journalists on a par with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, bankers and expense-fiddling MPs) the reputation of journalism and the industry has become very shaky indeed.

So, in my mind it is excellent news that the Newspaper Society – which represents local and regional press – and the Newspaper Publishers Association, which acts on behalf of national press providers,  is to merge to form a ‘united voice’ for the industry, as reported today on Hold the Front Page.

In an ever changing world in which news is being accessed by a growing audience in myriad ways it makes sense to tackle issues that challenge all newspapers as a united front. Leveson may have barely touched upon regional news provision during the inquiry, but the fallout of the hearing was strongly felt in newsrooms up and down the country. I felt it keenly as the editor of a weekly newspaper at the time; despite working hard as a campaigning newspaper, celebrating the community we served and supporting businesses, charities and good causes, I was regularly quizzed about my thoughts on ethics, my team and their reporting methods. One occasion (when a trainee reporter had failed to adequately cover a charity raffle story) I was told all I cared about was selling papers and asked quite aggressively asked ‘how can you sleep at night?’ (I did point out this was a bit of an overreaction and the accuser did apologise, but it stung all the same).

I do think things have improved. Time is a great healer and most editors work hard to make sure their teams behave in an ethical way which reflects well on them as individuals and on the newspapers they work for as well. I don’t think a unified board at the time of Leveson would have stopped the perception of journalism being a crooked practice, but it would have strengthened the voice, experience, values and opinions being provided by  the industry as the counter balance. It would have allowed regional news providers to seek support and fellowship during difficult times and it would have shown the vast extent of the ‘good’ journalists against the handful of ‘bad’ who had so damaged the industry’s name.

I do have to say though there are still huge mountains to be climbed in the industry. It is a real shame and quite indicitive that in representing an industry of thousands, there is only one female board member. Local World’s Lisa Gordon sticks out on the list of white men in suits like a sore thumb. Jeremy Spooner is correct in saying ‘the news media industry is a diverse and vibrant sector’ but while the new board represents the bredth of publishers in terms of  ‘family-owned local newspapers alongside large national titles’ it is also sadly representative of the inbalance of men to women running these companies. Let’s hope that the board recognises the mirror it holds up to the industry and works to implement change in order to bring more diversity into newspapers’ workforce and senior management structures.

Hyper-local: While the online debate continues, Made in Leeds marches onto our screens

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Work has been going on behind the scenes between regional newspaper publishers and the BBC to allow all parties a satisfying slice of online hyper-local video sites. Well, according to Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield, that’s the case anyway.

Highfield said this week that JP had been in talks with the Beeb to come up with a solution to a problem that’s been lingering like a bad smell for several years now. The conundrum up until this point has been that in launching hyper-local sites the BBC would use its vast resource to monopolise a market which really belongs to someone else, thus probably putting already impoverished and super-stressed newspaper journalists out of a job. The fear was that Auntie would squash the work of regional newspapers in her mighty wake and really, it just wasn’t fair. The BBC, wanting to play nice did back off from its hyper-local plans (they were going to cost too much anyway)  and then the bid was thrown out entirely.

But the Beeb still needed to do better, as did newspaper sites which were growing audience but not meeting the expectations of quality. Cue, a lot of behind the scenes jiggery pokery with exec types (and probably quite a few corporate lunches) to come up with a brand spanking new idea which would be just the ticket for everyone involved: shared content and platforms. Rather than the BBC setting out a lot of very expensive hyper-local sites which it would then have to grow an audience for from scratch, why not instead use the audience already provided by well-established local titles and their existing online visitors? This will allow newspapers with struggling staff and equipment resource but with well-established online audiences to share that valuable asset with the BBC in return for production-quality broadcasts made by the corporation being screened on their websites. And most  importantly for business, both parties get to claim the shared audience as their own. The bosses will see this as a win win for everyone. But it’s likely that the journalists on the ground will have a different opinion – with questions over product identity and voice being just some of the hot topics up for discussion.

While everyone’s back has been turned focusing  on hyper-local video something completely new has snuck into the mix. A hyper-local television station. Made in Leeds  – a television channel made for, well, Leeds, launches today. The channel, which has been lauded on my own freeview set as ‘coming soon’ for a number of weeks now, is available to watch on Freeview 8, Virgin 159 and, later this month, Sky 117. But it has to be said, that is pretty much all I know. Despite having worked until last Friday for the Yorkshire Evening Post – the newspaper for Leeds – I have seen or heard very little of Made in Leeds. While the channel has been in the planning for at least three years, I don’t really know who the actual people are behind the production. I also don’t know what to expect  aside from a 24 hour daily schedule or where it slots into the market. It appears Made in Leeds is doing a soft launch, presumably to iron out any immediate problems before the flock of vultures descend and start picking over its potential carcass.

Competition is not a bad thing. And Made in Leeds might be just what viewers in the city are looking for. It’s got a great studio and has, so I hear, employed a lot of young talent, many of whom will be fresh, enthusiastic and throwing themselves  into every opportunity the channel provides. But I struggle to see where Made in Leeds fits into the existing mix. Is it pitching itself at students and culture vultures – like a televised The City Talking – or is it going up against big hitters like Calendar, Look North or BBC Leeds? Is it spreading itself too thinly with a 24 hour offering rather than focusing on eight hours of specifically targeted programming? And what about online? Much of the information I have found out about it so far has been via Google rather than its own website. It has an exceptionally large twitter following (6,232 at  last count) but doesn’t seem to really have set out its  stall. In this world of millions of media offerings vying for a limited audience’s attention – an audience which is more and more watching online rather than over traditional television sets – has Made in Leeds done enough to get  people to sit down, switch on and stay tuned? I’ll certainly take a look when I  get home tonight, but I’m yet to be convinced I’ll still be watching in six months’ time.

You know it’s significant when you change your Twitter handle

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This morning I did something significant. I changed my Twitter handle.

Now, it’s not so long ago – ten months to be exact – that I did exactly the same thing when I started working as the head of news at Yorkshire Post Newspapers. That action marked a massive change in my life. A new job, new colleagues and an amazing ten months working on some huge stories.

Today I changed my handle again. For a similar reason, but perhaps even a bigger change in my life. Because today is my first day of not working for a news corporation in a decade. And Monday will be my first day as a university employee and PhD student. If you had asked me ten months ago if I had expected to be in this position today I would have laughed.

I had been interested in teaching journalism at degree level for some time. But I never imagined the opportunity would arise so soon after moving to YPN. So when it did it was an excruciatingly difficult decision. It was a choice between a buzzing newsroom, great colleagues and friends and a well paid and esteemed position or teaching new talent, exploring my own capabilities and developing a career I had always hoped for – a completely new challenge.

I could easily chosen to stay. But the pros of this exciting new opportunity were too much to turn down. So I took a deep breath. Took the plunge and changed my Twitter handle.

Wish me luck!

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