Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Why Local World's David Montgomery is right and so very wrong

With almost impeccable timing David Montgomery, chairman of Local World the publisher which swooped on the former Northcliffe Group of local and regional newspapers, announced he wanted his papers, or rather its websites, to "harvest content and publish it without human interface."

This, he said could all be achieved within four years. He argued that newspapers “cannot sustain a model from the middle ages, where a single journalist goes out on a single story, comes back and writes it up”.

He is wrong, of course. But not quite so wrong as some of his loudest critics have argued.

For the time being, since you are probably one of the journalists who will be affected by this, let us concentrate on why he is wrong.

Within days of him making his ill-judged comment something happened in a corner of south east London. Drummer Lee Rigby, leaving Woolwich Barracks, was run over in a car by two fanatics who then attempted, at least according to reports, to hack off his head.

Although the initial incident was not captured on film, at least as far as we know, all the subsequent events were. From the attackers' blood soaked preaching, to the angels of Woolwich, to the gunning down of the pair. All were caught on mobile phones, in colour, with sound and from a dizzying array of angles. Hollywood itself would have been proud.

So how did this shocking footage make it onto the television screens and websites bringing the full horror shocking horror of what had happened on a British street into our homes? Well, there is the problem for Mr Montgomery... it was down to the "human interface", the very outdated model he believes is a thing of the past.

It was that human interface which was able to get the footage immediately from the dozens of eyewitnesses standing around - to stop them before they uploaded it to YouTube or put it on Twitter - that gave them the scoop and the huge rewards that go with it.

A lot of that footage and the subsequent interviews were also free.

But, under the brave new Local World, this would not happen - although let's be realistic how many local reporters were at the scene? And even if they were there, for how long? 

Indeed, for many papers fighting ever shrinking circulations and decreasing ad revenues Mr Montgomery's vision is in fact a reality.

So let's not be so fast to lambast the man who is at least saying what he believes in. There are a fair many publishers who are already doing this by stealth. The one man operation already exists in many newsrooms or, indeed, Starbucks.

The ultimate logic for Mr Montgomery is of course the further closure of offices and the  even further moving away from the patch that is already part and parcel of many reporters' working lives. The weekly visit to the patch - especially in wealthier areas where rents are too expensive for a journalist on sub-£20,000 a year salaries to afford - being not unlike that of the parish priest who must tend his flock from afar.

No, the absolute conclusion is that reporters locked in aircraft hanger-sized newsrooms, hundreds of miles from their patch, never going out, never seeing the community they are meant to be working in, is the future.

What happens then is that stories go wrong, subtleties get lost, basic mistakes get made, press releases become news, sometimes those press releases will be countered by opposing press releases or statements. Meshed together they form the basis of a story. That is sometimes, not always.

Sometimes those press releases might even be good.

Those press releases and Twitter and Facebook and YouTube become the non-human interface of 21st Century newsgathering.

But these sources are flawed. Could you, would you, dare trust them on their own? Can - let alone should - journalists even rely on press offices (which themselves are subject to periodic cutbacks)?

However, let us put aside our natural prejudices on this matter and again remember, in too many newsrooms that is already the reality for too many stories.

(Some years ago I wrote a press release for a friend's restaurant. It was written to be cut at five, 12, 20 and a whopping 40 pars. It went to all the local papers and apart from minor changes to the intro went in at five, 12, 20 and 40 pars - even I was surprised by the latter.)

So again, let's not jump down Mr Montgomery's throat for outlining his vision. 

Only like those papers the veteran newspaper man has forgotten a few things. Those papers are all shrinking in circulation.

Because who still buys newspapers? It is readers. People who still read for pleasure and  information. In the rush to emulate The Sun's still sizeable circulation, editors cut the length of stories down to 15 par max "page leads". The art of writing was lost in order to cram even more "news" onto its pages.

And what news it was. Garden fetes, appeals, charity collections, coffee mornings, annual fairs. In fact so much of news that could be found stuck to the lamppost in the average town.

In fact everything except that you - or the casual or first time reader - might actually want to read.

All of this, and a propensity of some of the more baser editors to exaggerate so-so stories with ever ever increasingly hysterical headlines, made real readers disappear in droves, even those who still believed in the importance of community news.

Even more importantly those new readers attracted to the garish, brash, made up stories, were hardly the prime targets for advertisers.

Local papers became dull rags. Something that, to quote one reader: "You always felt that you'd be missing out on something if you didn't buy the paper... you never did."

How long does that go on for?

Now let us put aside our higher notions of what a newspaper actually is. Look at it, as every reporter or editor should now do, for what they really are in the commercial world. Let us, for a minute, be grown up about it and deal with the real world. 

Strip the news - the baubles that entice the readers to pick it up or buy it in the first place - from its pages and what are we left with?

The answer, though we may be loathe to admit it, are the adverts. Those things that pay the wages, that keep the whole operation running.

And when advertisers read a paper that appeals to them and their customers, then they will carry on advertising. That, and not simply insisting upon saying "advertisers and readers" whenever talking of them is the nub of a newspapers long term success.

Occasionally this has been tried. For a short while, there was much talk of using Mosaic to target readers. It didn't work. It didn't work because too many editors had no idea how to change from the formulaic approach they had used for years.

So in areas that were seeing a boom in wealthy younger pensioners, newspapers made little or no effort to capture a potentially lucrative market. They played to core audiences, insisting that hundreds of pictures of children - or worse pictures by children - would sell papers. This on the basis that the mother would by two copies, so would an aunt and a grandmother and so on and so forth...

Of course they wouldn't be doing that the following week, indeed, it would be the turn of the next doting parent. No one else would get a look in. That is, unless they were running a coffee morning.

And in other areas house prices booms saw entire areas change readership profiles. Would you believe it from what you are reading? The content remains stuck appealing to its traditional public sector housing estates readership, the paper itself is cheap, the layout grey or tabloid brash.

Meanwhile, all around them, smart publishers produce glossy magazines, with little or no actual news content but rich in advertising.

Important, real news, is lost forever because, ironically, news is a parasite on advertising and newspaper advertising, of itself, cannot live without the news.

And so let me return to the news "without human interface" and why it is a danger, not, for loss of news, but for long-term advertising. For this symbiotic relationship the advertising need to feed on something and in the brave new online world local papers have only one thing: Local news.

This is the very advantage Local World has. It already has in place its very biggest advantage, the largely trusted brands it bought from Northcliffe.

Pulling away from the medieval model may make sense commercially in the short or even mid-term. But losing - or even downgrading - the paper version now or even four years time does not make sense.

To do so puts the online content on a par with the one-reporter set-up of the local news blog. Set up by those with drive and a vested interest, other than advertising. Look around the country and more and more are springing up.

Too often they fail, not least because one man bands are difficult to sustain. But good writing and investigative reporting attracts new writers, those who want to be associated with a local brand. And that writing and those investigations are improving.

(Again, I know this from experience. As a local newspaper editor at 10 to 20 percent of content came from writers willing to offer their services or content for free. The time saved was reinvested back into the news content of the paper making it more attractive to readers. Poor articles were rejected, somewhat mercilessly to maintain quality.)

Now imagine poor content from a paper with a "non-human interface", written far away from the very people it is meant to be serving. Online does not have the high overheads of the newspaper industry. Any slob with a computer and a will can write (as you are reading). 

How soon before they attract real advertising? Before the directors of small local firms decide they prefer the content of this upstart online media publisher? Before small groups of local writers staff to form together to challenge the big conglomerate, whose local HQ is 60 miles away? Who offer cheaper advertising to cover wages and not profits?

Local newspapers, as they exist, need to change, Mr Montgomery is right. They cannot go on forever as they currently do. We need a change in the way news is gathered. A smarter way to collate the information, sent back to a newsroom (perhaps even hundreds of miles away) is packaged for individual newspapers and web by teams of subs. Not because they know the area but because they know the target audiences of each of the areas. Subs who will know how to use Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest as a secondary and not a primary source. That should remain the place of the reporter.

1 comment:

  1. I reckon a lot of journalism could be automated

    If we could work out the formula used by some of the more predictable newspaper columnists, we could write an algorithm (well you could, I can't) and then use artificial intelligence to react to events of the day.

    Simply input the key words e.g. "Lady gaga" + "controversial outfit" + "enraged parents" and the article would write itself