Five things regional newspapers should aim for in 2011

How do you answer this question…

What do regional newspapers need to do in 2011?

…in less than 100 words?
It taxed my brain sorely last week when Peter Sands asked me for a few pars in response to include in his annual newsletter; I eventually sent back this:

Don’t waste time and energy wondering how to charge for news online; readers won’t pay for commodity news, and unique content has a half-life of 30 seconds. Instead, build thriving, engaged communities that can be commercialised by marketing and advertising teams, growing relationships across all platforms through data-capture, collaborative reporting, contextual and behavioural ads, crowdsourcing, linking and conversation.

I’m not sure it’s the single most important thing newspapers need to do next year but I believe community is a far more significant indicator of a newspaper’s online performance than we always appreciate or give time to.
Also I just don’t buy that page impressions without context satisfactorily address advertisers’ needs; as customers become more aware of the transient nature of web traffic, I reckon advertising sales teams will increasingly find themselves being quizzed by clients about specific details on page views and unique users.

I’ll be interested to see the responses of others he asked. Also, as I start a new job, with new responsibilities and accountability for addressing just such issues, in 2011 I’ve found myself thinking about it as the days have passed. So, what would I have said regional newspapers need to do in 2011 if I had had no word count to work to? So many things but in no particular order…  

1. Communicate better
I suspect that grammar should dictate this read Communicate More Effectively but I couldn’t bring myself to write the phrase in cold blood. Communicate better with the outside world, of course, but mostly I mean internally. Between departments and between colleagues in the same departments; a journalist working in digital can often offer a different perspective on things because they spend a lot of time unconsciously noting trends as part of their job – what people are commenting on, what’s trending on Twitter, how fans on Facebook reacted to a specific story, and what tone their conversations took – digital desks can lightening responses, in 140char sentences, and these offer valuable insights. Equally, painstaking research by a reporter into data could be sped along by involving others (including PAs – the true Excel Gunslingers in a newsroom). Communicating between departments can so often depend on knowing the right person to go to, or knowing an approachable person to go to; sales reps know they can go to the newsdesk if a customer has a story, but would a reporter know who to go to in Advertising with a client lead? Ideas and opportunities stifled by lack of dialogue must be a feature of every business, not just newspapers, but we’re the ones that purport to be experts at communication.

2. Accept change
In our newspapery heart of hearts we don’t always accept change. We talk about cultural chance, structural change, changes in the way we produce and distribute news, and we perceive that more change is inevitable – consider the debates about paywalls, or about iPads, but I don’t think it’s the same as accepting change. Accepting it all the way down to your journalist’s soul means we make digital is as much an understood part of the day as missing the last print deadline by several minutes. You don’t ask ‘did we get video?’ you discuss in advance how stories should be told across the different platforms your brand has because, frankly, video may not be the best option, and you don’t do things based on your gut – you do them because you know your audience, talk to them and listen to what they tell you.
That’s accepting change – making an iPad app that is basically a page-turner of your paper isn’t the same thing at all.

3. Be creative with shovelware
In today’s newsrooms, where Churn – by which I mean relentless writing and filing of copy, not the rewriting of press releases – is a fact of life, much online content can be a mirror image of print  – aka shovelware.
Using the wit and thought we’d put into a print headline to make shovelware sing should be a 2011 goal. It doesn’t have to be static – something as simple as a reader comment can take a story in a totally different direction as readers move from what the journalist has written about to adding their own views and links. Shovelware can accrue layers of interest; sometimes I start reading the top articles on the Guardian website from the bottom up as I know the essential facts of the piece (from the headline and intro, or from radio or a discussion on Twitter) and what I’m interested in is how people feel about it. The comments add a layer, and sometimes links in the comments add further layers.
Knowing how your audience feels about something allows you to make more informed editorial judgements, whether it’s to repackage comments, or more follow ups (or to stop ramming a hobbyhorse down their throats).

4. Not every training need is filled by a law course
Not every story needs to be seo-ed within an inch of it’s life, not every article needs a page break to drive up impressions. And even a little bit of creativity within content – like a street view grab, or a quick visualisation – adds something valuable and potentially memorable for the reader.
We need to ensure all journalists  have the right skills to source information properly, use online tools to interpret and present it in ways that are relevant and valuable to audiences, and that make the collection and collation of such information simple, rather than painstaking, even if there’s a digital team dedicated to making online content.
Knowing that data can be scraped, that rss feeds can be pulled together in a reader, or that postcodes in spreadsheets to populate maps quickly is time-saving, valuable information. Legal training can keep a newspaper out of court and, rightly, it’s the hardy perennial of pdrs. Learing how to use an Excel spreadsheet and online visualisation tools might not help a reporter challenge dodgy Section 39s, but it would help him or her quickly identify which magistrates were most likely to impose incorrect orders or easily research potential postcode lotteries surrounding local courts, court officials, and severity of sentences.  

5. Collaboration can led to commercial opportunities
Use online analytics and ad tools to create better, richer, more appropriate content for audiences, and use that information to build thriving, engaged communities that can be commercialised by marketing and advertising teams, growing relationships across all platforms through data-capture, collaborative reporting, contextual and behavioural ads, crowdsourcing, linking and conversation. Seek opportunities for collaboration: Internally, with marketing, advertising, newspaper sales teams who really know (via data, not hunches) what sells what people are searching, reading, buying and talking about, online or otherwise. Externally with audiences via crowdsourcing, data investigation, social media, and being engaged in conversations.
You’re less likely to hear the phrase “We already do data journalism – it’s called school league tables” now than even four months ago, but to do data journalism to the best of your ability and resource can seem like a commitment. But from those papers who have used it (like Birmingham Mail’s Race for a School Place) the payoffs have been tangible in print sales and online value.  
Also, whenever we can (and whenever technically possible) making that data freely available so others can use it to create content. should be an aim Link out to sites that have relevant data, link in to stories you’ve previously done on the subject, and credit externals who have done work that you then benefit from (like posting FOIs on What Do They Know?)

I didn’t plan to write about five things I’d like newspapers to do better in 2011 but those are the headings I started to note down when thinking of a response for Peter. Of course, ‘five things newspapers should do better’ actually translates as five things I’d like to do better in 2011. Maybe in January 2012 I’ll have a look back at this post and see whether I managed that.


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