Journalism skills – has the digital tipping point been reached?


For the past two decades the local newspaper industry has been wracked by change due to the rise of the internet and digital tools.

This impact of digital change on local newspapers has been long documented by commentators, practitioners and academics, with methods of producing and accessing news demonstrating how digital tools have revolutionised the industry.

But while hacks of old might not recognise the landscape of modern news, up until recently they might not have had much trouble getting an interview or job on a newspaper, despite little or no knowledge of using digital technology.

In fact, research shows the skills required for news staff working on newspapers has changed very little over the past two decades – meaning traditional skills have remained more highly prized by employing editors than digital capabilities.

This was proved in 2011, when the NCTJ decided not to change its curriculum following a study which showed editors’ continuing preference for traditional skills.

Only recently have studies started to show gaining value of digital skills, with recent research by Dr Lily Canter demonstrating that employing editors across the news industry were starting to acknowledge digital skills as being as equally important as traditional ones.

However, research has not indicated that digital skills have started to outweigh traditional ones in terms of desirability, until now.

Collection of recruitment advertisements from – the main news and jobs site for local newspapers within the UK – over a three month period from November 1, 2014 to January 31, 2015 has shown a definite tip towards digital skills preference.

Collection included all job advertisements for news positions on local and regional newspapers in the UK, including editors, newsdesk roles, specialist, senior and trainee reporters, online journalists and roles which fell into an ‘other’ category.

Collection did not include feature writers, sports journalists or jobs advertised for anywhere other than local newspapers in the UK.

To analyse the adverts two keyword sets were identified – a digital set and a traditional set.

The traditional words identified skills and qualities associated with news journalism prior to the introduction of digital technology.

Traditional keywords

The digital words identified skills and qualities directly associated with digital tools in the newsroom.

Digital keywords

In total 102 adverts were collected, four of which were later dismissed as ineligible. The remaining adverts were assessed for inclusion of the keywords, including how many times keywords appeared and where in the text they first appeared. The employing company and job category was also noted.

Any words which appeared but were not relevant in the context intended by the study were dismissed.

The results

Of the adverts assessed there was a significantly higher number of digital keywords over traditional – with 56 per cent (496) of keywords used coming from the digital set and 44 per cent (395) coming from the traditional set. This was despite only 16 of the 19 digital keywords actually being used in the job descriptions, with ‘likes’, ‘podcast’ and ‘code’ all not being used at any point.

Overall keyword use

Of the digital keywords used, ‘online’ was the most common, followed by ‘digital’ and ‘social media’. Of the traditional keywords used, ‘print’ was the most common, followed by ‘NCTJ’ and ‘ideas’.

Digital keywords overall

Of the employing news groups, Local World placed the highest number of adverts with 33, followed by Newsquest with 22 and Trinity Mirror with 16. Johnston Press, the fourth of the large newsgroups within the UK placed no adverts during this time, perhaps due to recently announced redundancy plans across the company.

Trinity Mirror placed the highest emphasis on digital language, with 73 per cent of the keywords it used coming from the digital set. Newsquest had 54 per cent from digital and Local World had 52 per cent from digital.

Archant, which placed eight adverts, gave higher emphasis to traditional language, with 59 per cent of its keyword use coming from the traditional set. The remaining smaller newsgroups and independents were grouped together – with 70 per cent of their keywords overall coming from the traditional set.

Recruitment for reporters was highest with 35 positions, closely followed by trainee reporters at 34. The remainder of the positions were all under ten advertisements each, with no deputy editor positions advertised.

The difficulty presented by this study of course is the fact that it projects results from a limited time frame – therefore giving a snapshot rather than the big picture. This collection is the first part of an annual three-month collection taking place over four years in order to track any changes and trends. It will also be complimented by additional surveys, observations and interviews to establish skills priorities within newsroom practice.

Overall, these results show a clear preference for digital skills in terms of both keyword use and order of placement within the advertisements. But before it is assumed that this situation follows suit in the newsroom, caution must be voiced. The preference for digital over traditional could merely be indicating a desired state of a newsroom or company, rather than reality. It could also indicate an urge to demonstrate the importance of newer digital skills in contrast to taken-for-granted traditional ones. The research falls in line with the findings of Dr Lily Canter in terms of digital skills being at least as equally important as traditional. However, it contrasts her study which suggested qualifications like the NCTJ were no longer of great importance to employing editors.

There is still work to be done to establish these findings as set in stone. However, as a snapshot, these results strongly suggest the digital tipping point at local newspapers within the UK has been reached.

Conference news from south Wales!


The Civic Hall in Cardiff where the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference took place
The Civic Hall in Cardiff where the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference took place

Ok, it’s been a while since I’ve written a hefty blog post – mainly because I’ve had a busy summer passing my PhD transfer upgrade (meaning I qualify for my second and further years of study) and preparing for the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference in Cardiff.

The conference happened on September 10 and 11. It was my first foray into academic rather than practice-based conferences and so I was nervous to be presenting my own research as I was quite concerned I would be caught out as a ‘pretend academic’.

However, I need not have worried as I was surrounded by other hackademics (journos-turned-scholars) and people with similar interests and fields of research. I met some fascinating people and some people who I suspect may turn out to be friends or regular acquaintances over time.

It was a real honour to be able to present at the conference – only one third of applicants were invited to attend and present, so I feel privileged to have been among them.

My presentation was on the first piece of research I have conducted for my PhD study, concerning skills requirements for news journalists working at local newspapers within the UK. I’ll be putting more detail on this blog page in just a couple of days, so watch this space.

Putting the prize chicken into the paywall basket – is the Northern Echo’s move going to pave the way or fall foul?

Northern Echo 1
The paywall pop-up which is activated on the Northern Echo website after clicking on ten different stories in a month.

Sarcastic and doom-mongering comments abound over the news that Newsquest title The Northern Echo has launched a tiered paywall system – making it the only regional news title in England to charge consumers for its online product.

Splutters Mr Angry 2, among others, on Hold The Front Page: “If digital were going to work it would have by now. It simply doesn’t make any money. It may save print and distribution costs but advertisers hate it so what’s the point?”

While theMarkmag mused on the Guardian’s frothy coverage of the change: “Seems like one of those pointless browser dependent paywalls. I would imaging I’ll end up using the county wide news on BBC as a first view, then occasionally visit the Gannett site using multiple browsers on multiple platforms. Ultimately the hassle will just mean I’ll use it less, and never worry about hitting the limits anyway.”

None of this type of response will come as much of a shock to Newsquest or its US mother company Gannett. After all, it may be the only paywall in England, but it is the second introduced by the company in the UK, with the first being the Glasgow-based Herald website.

And it’s not the first attempt at introducing a paywall for an English regional title online either. Wolverhampton’s Press & Star enjoyed a brief dalliance with a paywall experiment in 2011 and in 2010 Johnston Press engineered a badly thought out paywall test which lasted only three months.

What’s different about this particular foray into the world of paid-for news is, firstly, it’s the company’s most successful northern title that’s been chosen to host the paywall and secondly, this move doesn’t give the impression of a temporary suck-it-and-see test.

In the last half of 2014 the Northern Echo ‘enjoyed’ an ABC rating of -9.6% – fairly dismal one might conclude – until that is you see the results of the other Newsquest titles in the north, with the Bradford Telegraph & Argus rating at -12.8% and The Press in York bagging a drop of -11.7. Then compare the -9.6% with the other daily titles in the north of England – with the mean ABC rating coming in at -11.4% – it turns out the Echo isn’t doing as badly as its competition in terms of flagging newspaper sales. The Echo also purports its website to be growing by more than 28% every year, with a ‘mature’ online audience of 313,919 unique users a month – meaning adults aged over 40 who in theory have more money to spend and more loyalty to the brand.

Rather than making an apologetic attempt at keeping up with the times by introducing a paywall on a badly-run website, as Johnston Press did in 2010, Newsquest has picked one of its flagship titles to run a crusade of getting people to pay for a successful product rather than expecting it free of charge. The pop-up that appears on the site when you go over your ten clicks is not stumbling over itself to cajole readers into coughing up – it is simply pointing out that readers should pay for decent journalism. Its message, complete with a no-nonsense picture of Echo editor Peter Barron, is firm but fair. It makes no suggestion of a trial period, it makes no excuses, it suggests to the reader that the paywall is here to stay, so pay up or get lost.

Northern Echo 2
The paywall stops readers from seeing more than the first few paragraphs of a story

This is all very well in an ideal world, but as pointed out by many of the Hold the Front Page commentators, people won’t pay for something that they can get free elsewhere. And this is where the challenge lies. The mantra of paying for a service you are accessing is one that most logical adults wouldn’t argue with, but only if you are getting value for money, otherwise why pay at all?

What the Northern Echo needs to do is provide is something unique, something nobody else offers and something that’s enough of a draw to want to return again and again. It needs to put its money where its mouth is, by investing in the website and ensuring that the content is as captivating, newsy, entertaining and up-to-the-minute as possible. But with round after round of redundancy across regional newspaper companies it is hard to see how the staff that are left will be available to dedicate the time and investment needed into creating a truly fantastic website. Newsquest needs to do a Trinity Mirror and pledge itself and its money into becoming a 24-7 go-to site filled with content from paid-for bloggers, online and digital journalists and, dare I say it, curating decent input and engagement from engaged and informed readers.

Currently the Northern Echo site looks a little flat for its cost. Its home page offers a range of stories to choose from, including the predictable weather summary, police and crime stories and charity coverage. There is little obvious in the way of interactive media, video or analysis or investigative journalism. Perhaps it is the sports pages in this instance that will draw and retain an audience. And hopefully a percentage of those who used the site regularly last month will now cough up for the privilege of continuing to have access.

Northern Echo 3
A snapshot of the Northern Echo’s homepage

The industry is choc-full of naysayers predicting doom and disaster. While people like Mr Angry 2 are wrong about digital not being the present and future of regional news, Newsquest has taken a bold step in putting its prize chicken into the paywall basket.

It’s going to take pants of steel and a grip of iron to prove those cynics wrong. I, for one, wish them luck trying. If this works, it could pave the way for others to follow. And while people might not agree that it will work, it’s likely that we do all agree that good journalism should be reimbursed.

And if it fails it might be the hammering of the nail in the coffin for paywalls in the sector forever; which at least will do the industry a favour in helping divine the path of the murky and unpredictable beast that is the digital future of news.

Changing voices, attitudes and focus – Mojocon 2015

Authenticity over authority, consumer power over journalism qualifications and the importance of being there – three themes which were revisited again and again by speakers at the first ever Mojocon – mobile journalism conference – which was held in Dublin in March 2015.

Gerd Leonhard’s screensaver

Rather than this being an academic conference, at which theories, papers and research was presented, this was an industry event which explored the realities of mobile journalism in newsrooms across Europe, the USA and even further afield. But while there were representatives from countries as diverse as Norway, India and Australia and from news units including newspapers, television and digital start-ups, the themes which returned again and again were the same. The industry across the globe has been united by the same change caused by the same factors – technology development and availability, advertising revenue cuts, global economic downturn and dilution of impact due to myriad news providing options. No longer do journalists find themselves in a hallowed position, choosing and creating the news. Like it or not, as so eloquently phrased by keynote speaker Richard Sambrook of Cardiff University, ‘the consumer is firmly in charge”. And to be honest, the word ‘consumer’ was probably only used in that phrase due to a lack of suitable noun to describe the role now taken by that person – they are news gatherers, documenters, historians, sharers, seekers and consumers. They have the same technology needed to capture and upload breaking news as the journalist, and, being in the right place at the right time, they have the authenticity which whets appetites. Like it or not, journalists are finding themselves moving from being the news providers to being news curators by choosing and honing information provided by a much more authoritative audience. Michael Rosenblum hit the  nail on the head when he said: “We make it  you watch it is an old model,” adding: “Everybody participates”.

None of this is news to people who have been keeping tabs on journalism in recent years. But what was interesting about Mojocon was the impact and effect of this change – rather than pining for the past, delegates at Mojocon were looking to the future, sharing ideas and, it has to be said, salivating over shiny new apps, technology and toys. Long has this change been a painful process, a difficulty in acceptance, a denial and a doomful prophecy of an industry in crisis. But Mojocon showed the light at the end of the tunnel – at least for  this particularly difficult stretch of the journey – with practitioners innovating and sharing and showing how brilliant things can be done with just an iPhone and a couple of handy apps.

Perhaps the presentation which best illustrated the path of change and things to come was that by Shadi Rahimi, a producer for Al Jazeera network AJ+. Her work documenting the Ferguson riots was not polished, it was raw, emotive, fast, immediate and utterly captivating. No voiceover telling the viewer the news and delivering edited sections to back up that choice, but instead voices of the event telling the story and carrying the viewer with them. It was obvious it had been filmed on a phone and similarly it was obvious why it had been filmed that way; no video camera crew would have had such intimate access to the action. This was the kind of footage which would captivate the longed-for youth which has so long been the target of news outlets across the world – it wasn’t dictatorial, it was truth.

What was missing from Mojocon was perhaps the evidence of curation of consumer material – while it was talked about significantly, the demonstrations of it happening were less present – perhaps at  the next Mojocon we will see more of this in action.

Despite the BBC forecast, regional news is not dead

Future of News

The BBC has been making headlines this week after publishing a report into The Future of News, in which it analyses the possibilities of news-making, opportunity and the direction that news provision and consumption might take over the next decade.  It’s interesting  and insightful but not altogether original and, dare I say it, shockingly smug.

In fact, the self-satisfied tone of what’s been produced almost makes me want to stop paying my licence fee altogether. Within the document, which sets out the importance of mobile devices, data journalism and quality community reporting, the BBC sticks a great big knife into the back of regional newspapers… and then stands back to watch with glee while its suffering rival splutters for life on the floor. Take this patronising paragraph for instance;

“Devolution and the decline of the regional press are creating a real need for local news coverage: the BBC is going to have to do more to provide local news that properly serves all parts of the UK. And the BBC has always been an innovator in news. The opportunities of the New Journalism are plain to see – in data journalism, personalised news services and engaging our viewers, listeners and users so we have genuinely activated audiences – and it’s time to do so again. In the internet age, the BBC’s job is to be the place people come to for the real story.”

Gone is the charade of a potential partnership with regional newspapers it seems – after all, why would the Beeb want to bother with that when it could simply step into the still slightly warm shoes of all the dying newspapers it is now trampling across?

I don’t disagree when the report states that: “The economic issues facing the newspaper  business are not of the BBC’s making, nor will they be alleviated by the BBC standing aside.” The problems being faced by regional newspapers have little to do with Auntie; instead it’s a complex mix of digital technology, changing audience, lack of investment from publishing companies and devastating cuts – much of the decline of newspapers  is down to the management at the very top.

However, the BBC has too quickly written off regional newspapers, they are not quite dead yet. What the report has failed to address is the online work being done by the depleted regional newspaper teams; while many papers have gone weekly they are producing good quality, up-to-the-minute news on their websites. When the report says:

“In 2012 Johnston Press announced it was stopping daily publication of the Halifax Courier, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Peterborough Evening Telegraph, Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph and Scarborough Evening News, a newspaper which started its daily reporting in 1882.
Today in Scarborough there is a small commercial radio station, no daily newspaper and perhaps surprisingly, very little local or community blogging about the news. Considering the town
hit the national headlines earlier this month as its hospital declared a major incident, there were very few news boots on the ground to hold those responsible to account. Where did local people go to find out what was happening at their hospital?” 

Erm, the Scarborough News website? Let’s have a look shall we…

Now I can’t go back in time, but a quick Google shows me the news surrounding the Scarborough Hospital major incident. Unsurprisingly the story was covered by several news outlets; the BBC and the Scarborough News being two of those.

Scarborough News major incident latest BBC major incident latest

While most of the nationals made it a major story once, both the BBC and the Scarborough News broke the story on the same day, returned to it the following day and then continued to revisit the story. While the BBC has since done an online feature about the situation at the hospital, the Scarborough News gave the most recent ‘news’ update; that an investigation was being held into what had happened. This demonstrates that the local ‘weekly’ paper did just as well as the BBC in covering the news as it happened, but also that it stayed with the story after the others had gone – continuing to inform the Scarborough readers of what was happening to their hospital. Just as you would expect a regional news provider to do.

So, thank goodness for the BBC, without it we would be living completely in the dark about what’s happening on our own doorsteps. Or perhaps not.

To explore the point further I went onto the BBC”s home page for Leeds  and West Yorkshire just after 10am today and then went to have a look at a couple of daily newspaper sites so see what comparisons could be made.

This was the BBC’s home page:

BBC home page Leeds West Yorks January 30

Of the three top stories on the page, none had been published or updated today. In fact, the most recent thing on there, ironically, was the twitter feed which displayed a story from weekly Johnston Press title the Pontefract and Castleford Express which had been tweeted at 10.13am.

Let’s look at two daily regional titles for West Yorkshire, what was on their home page at this point in time?

YEP home page January 30 Telegraph and Argus home page January 30

The Telegraph & Argus, covering Bradford, was packed with stories from the day – including which schools were closed due to snow and a story and video of a runaway van which had caused chaos  in part of the  city that morning.

And the Yorkshire Evening Post – covering Leeds and West Yorkshire – had three top stories, all of which had been broken or updated that morning, two of which had video accompanying the words. Laughably, the video on one of the stories was preceded by a paid-for video advert for the BBC’s iPlayer (see below).

YEP third story January 30

Now, coming from a weekly and daily newspaper background I know I could be a little over-sensitive to its content, but I also can’t help feel like the BBC is not only smug in its assessment, but also just downright wrong. Rather than kicking regional newspapers when they are down, perhaps more acknowledgement and credit should have been given to the good work that is being done and that could be complimented by better provision from the BBC in the future. Competition is healthy and good. Monopoly – even if it is dressed up as ‘saving the  day’ – is not.

This report was about the future of news – and with the licence-fee not going away anytime soon, despite people using their televisions, laptops, smartphones and more to access news from myriad places – often NOT the BBC –  and many paying subscriptions to other content providers as well,  the corporation is perhaps being a little complacent in its ‘vision’.

We are paying for the BBC’s future whether we like it or not. But the future of newspapers is not as cut and dry; the revenue stream is still not nailed on, print circulations are declining and it’s likely many more will close in coming years. But some of the regional newspapers that exist today will continue to provide local content in new ways, reaching a growing audience through various platforms and continuing to try, despite the difficulties, to provide the best service possible. And I for one know they will continue to give the BBC the run for its money that it deserves.

Je suis Charlie

Devastating news from Paris. As said by Gerard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo: “A newspaper is not a weapon of war.”

Je Suis Charlie

Coverage of the shootings from the Guardian here.

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



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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