Trinity Mirror’s plan for ‘news by numbers’ ignores what people want from journalism
By Professor George Brock
There are many ways to describe what has been happening to journalism since the start of the 21st century and they range from predictions of terminal decline to dizzy digital optimism. One way of describing the change is to note that journalism is ceasing to be an industrial activity.
The de-industrialisation of journalism captures the decline of mass media – and newspapers in particular – in the digital age, the dismantling of the working culture which grew up with big city newsrooms. Media is less of a manufacturing process. Nothing dramatises this dismal story better than the announcement by Trinity Mirror that journalists in its shrunken newspapers in Birmingham and Coventry will in future be held responsible for growing the online audience by setting targets for the number of clicks.
The new policy, which will apply to the 68 journalists who work on what were once five papers, is dressed up as “Newsroom 3.1” by the owners, who are naturally opening another voluntary redundancy scheme (and will sack journalists if there aren’t enough volunteers).
Digital technology makes measuring online activity easy. It is only one of the revolutions which is changing how journalists work. Whether measuring the impact of local reporters' stories is the best way of using the opportunity which technology offers is another question. The National Union of Journalists certainly doesn’t think so, calling it “a major departure from industry norms”. The editor of the Birmingham Mail resigned. “Pretty much what the newspaper death spiral looks like”, tweeted US media guru Jay Rosen.
The story from Birmingham and Coventry is not depressing because work is being measured in a new way, but because both sides are looking at new realities through a 19th-century lens. The regional press in Britain is now so hollowed out that it barely deserves to be called an “industry” any longer, let alone have “norms”. Making reporters responsible for growing the click rate suggests that neither the management nor the union have much grasp of what is happening to them.
Most journalism in free societies has to try to balance commerce with public service. Commerce, because economic self-sufficiency is the least bad way to remain independent – and public service because journalism isn’t, and never was, a purely profit-making activity.
But when news media grow to an industrial scale, as they did in most developed societies a hundred years ago, taking a really hard look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it is extraordinarily hard. The company has daily, urgent operations to be run and capital invested. No one stops to ask: what are we doing and why are we doing it?
If Trinity Mirror top brass did pose this question at executive away days, they have not come up with much of an answer. Quite apart from the limp, tired name of “Newsroom 3.1”, the idea of trying to improve performance with detailed numbers of “hit rates” or “impact ratings” has been tried and doesn’t work. The journalists in Birmingham and Coventry are being chained to a procedure which has already been left behind by agile online news start-ups.
It’s true that one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the those start-up newsrooms was a screen showing, in real time, the hit rates of the latest stories. The most famous of these was the “Big Board” which dominated the offices of the scabrous and snarky New York gossip site Gawker. Its founder Nick Denton thought it encouraged competition: “Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith.”
But the Big Board was demoted from being the mesmerising symbol of Gawker’s aim to chase big traffic numbers. This year, partly because he was beaten in the traffic race by the even more popular Buzzfeed, Denton acknowledged that simple traffic was a crude and unhelpful measure. There were, he said, better measures than simply clicks.
When researching my book Out of Print recently, I interviewed two founders of news start-ups in New York. Both had begun by insisting that their writers hit “post counts” – every working day they had to write and publish a minimum number of stories, many of them written fast and not involving original reporting.
But this way of doing things turned out to be growing pains. New sites must generate enough material to get their chosen community’s attention and to start the ads flowing in. Rapidly written clickbait wasn’t a good way of keeping reader loyalty; reporting new stuff did better. One of those founders, Jake Dobkin of Gothamist.com said this:
I want to make New York and other cities better. But there’s a tension: I have to have enough money to pay my writers. I don’t want to make money without purpose.
Most people running local media would say the same, irrespective of their organisation’s age and history. But ways of delivering and consuming information have radically altered the way in which journalists establish a connection with a user, reader or viewer and the way in which income is generated.
So Trinity Mirror’s executives have one thing right in their new guidelines: journalists can’t just rely on doing what they did before and they must pay attention to what their audience cares about. Readers, users and audiences can choose from a wider range of sources of news and opinion; they can argue, interact with and influence those same sources. They cannot be taken for granted in the way that they once were.
One way of helping – rather than scaring – Trinity Mirror journalists might be to concentrate on demonstrating that what they produce is valued by people in Birmingham and Coventry. Simple clicks are evidence of passing interest or curiosity, not of a piece of journalism being valued. Journalism really can’t be taken as a given; it has timeless aims and values – but in the information-rich age of smartphones, Facebook and 24-hour news channels, journalists should add value to peoples’ lives – and be judged to do so. A good deal of mainstream journalism, inspired by the pre-digital era, still doesn’t pass this test.
When people live in a torrent of information which mixes gossip, hard news, bus times and pictures from the moment they wake up, just asserting that journalism is valuable and important isn’t enough. That’s a habit left over from the industrial age of news.