How newspapers are re-inventing themselves for a chance of survival

As a keen junior newspaper reporter, I was once told the key to writing features was to put the best quote in the intro.

So, John Lennon’s ‘Beatles are bigger than Jesus’ should always shout from the first paragraph to reel the reader in.

I was reminded of this gem listening to Marc Reeves, editor-in-chief Reach Midlands, talk at the FirePro conference about what the present and future of newspapers looks like.

First, a disclosure. I’m from newspaper’s past. I started off on a hot metal newspaper, learned shorthand on an NCTJ Pre-Entry certificate and learned how to write a news story to deadline and quietly keep something back for the over-night schedule. I loved being a reporter. But all the newspaper offices I’ve ever worked in have closed and the industry as I knew it is dead. But a new one that can look the 21st century in the face has emerged.

Second, a disclosure. I’ve known of Marc Reeves for at least a decade. His ideas around Business Desk‘s online business news service helped shape in part shaped the partnership that became comms2point0. Six links in the morning? That was originally an idea that translated.

Here are NINE things that could be the first paragraph.

‘I can reach 40 times the audience online compared to print.’

When I had my interview for my NCTJ Pre-Entry certificate in 1994, I was asked what impact the internet would have on newspapers. “Until,” I replied “people can read the internet on the toilet, on the bus or while watching the telly it won’t totally overtake it. But there should be enough time to work out how to use it.”

Newspapers used to be licenses to print money. And then came the internet to take their lunch, dinner and breakfast. Small ads are now ebay and buy and sell groups on Facebook. Sports reporting is now Twitter and the podcast. Lucrative property ads have moved online.

What remains is a hollowed-out industry that has has cut jobs, cut corners and cuts and pastes your press release to get a page away. Print revenues have declined in line with the glimmer of hope in the eye of the freshly minted journalism recruit.

‘I can reach 40 times the audience online compared to print,’ says Marc.

‘The press release is almost obsolete’

What matters is a decent story well told. So, the days and weeks spent on signing off a press release is becoming increasingly fruitless.

‘We’re creating a digital lifeboat for when print sinks.’

Reach are rolling out new brands that build on what came before but are different in look and feel. For the Birmingham Mail this is now online BirminghamLive on Facebook and online.

The switch works fine in Birmingham. But county boundaries don’t slice so easily. So, news from the Staffordshire market town of Uttoxeter in DerbyshireLive jars for some people.

But 14k print sales of the Birmingham Mail and 450k daily uniques on BirminghamLive says in numbers where the future lies.

“We’re creating a digital lifeboat for when print sinks,” Marc says.

‘There will be fewer newspapers.’

Smaller titles will close, Marc warns. More will go.

Just days after he spoke, Johnstone Press was put up for sale and bought to shed more than £100m of debt.

‘Journalism used to be a one way process. We shouted and you listened. Not anymore.’

I remember the role of the central role of the newspaper as the absolute gatekeeper of what was news and what was important. What they’re becoming better at is looking at the stats to see what works and what doesn’t and seeing what is important to people.

Reporters get to know their patch by joining Facebook groups

Back in the day, on my first proper newspaper I had the patches of Cradley, Hayley Green and Hasbury. I got to know them by ringing around contacts and going out on them. I met the newsagent and the florist who became a vital source of stories.

For the Birmingham Mail / BirminghamLive the beat includes joining the Facebook group, too. But interestingly, Marc says the same rules apply. Their reporters need to build trust and be careful to nurture it.

Video remains key but standards have improved

Video as a driver of traffic is not new but the quality threshold if anything has risen. Not just any old video, please. Good video that tells a story on a subject readers want to know about, Marc says.

Big newspaper groups have a better chance

Big groups like Reach have a larger clout in the sector so have a greater chance of success. The group has more than 100 titles. The often quoted line about print dollars and digital dimes has a ring of truth.

The role of journalist has changed

Days after this session the Birmingham Mail – or BirminghamLive which ever way you want to look at it – appointed a replacement for local government editor. Jane Haynes is the new editor politics and people. I bumped into Jane about 12-months ago on a train. She’d left local government to go and complete a masters degree in mobile and multi-platform journalism at Birmingham City University. She wasn’t sure at that stage where that would take her. But I remember thinking that the doors it would unlock would be hugely interesting. Rather than file copy from Full Council she’ll be live blogging or using Facebook Live or whichever platform best works. That’s exactly what we all should be doing.

Almost a decade ago, then BBC journalist Robert Peston spoke to say the blog was at the heart of everything he does. I was reminded of this as I was following the latest twist with Brexit. It wasn’t the newspaper I was waiting for. I was using Twitter and Facebook to see Robert Peston’s take along with the BBC’s Laura Keunnsburg as well as @thesecretbarrister for the legal position.  Then it was the BBC Brexit podcast for a more considered take on the breaking news.

What does this tell you if you are a comms person?

It tells you that the world is changing, that the press release is not omnipotent. That newspapers are not omnipotent. That if they change they have a chance. That there’s a chance for you to be in newspaper-free desert. That the newspaper that hasn’t radically changed probably won’t be around for longer.

But beyond that, it confirms that newspapers are no longer the only show in town. But by putting a hand up to recognise that that’s no bad thing and by doing so newspapers can re-invent themselves.

Of course, the real proof of the pudding with newspapers will be if they survive financially. They can do this by providing a product that people want. For all the applause they get for the new approach if their site opens with three pop-ups, a quiz and a auto-playing video with sound that’s something they’ll struggle with.

There’s a confusion over the differing names of the website and the print edition. But as the print audience dies out you can see this being quietly dropped.

Finally, the one constant is people. They haven’t fundamentally changed. They still want to know what’s happening in their area. It’s just that the way they can find out has changed.

As a comms person, if you want to talk with people, it’s useful knowing the landscape.

Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

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