I never thought I’d start this new era of my newsletter talking about a local newspaper - or by linking to Hold The Front Page, long the natural home of digital-sceptical holdouts - but here we are.
The fact that an MP chose to hold back the news that he was quitting the Labour party until it had run in the local paper
is remarkable only in that it was worth remarking on.
What does it say about the state of our audience engagement that it wasn’t such an obvious choice? Surely, the natural place for an MP to tell something to his constituents is in the local paper. It’s deeply symbolic of our loss of contant with our readers that people are surprised by the decision he made.
In the UK at least, local papers have often been at the forefront of a collapse in audience engagement. My local rag — the Shoreham Herald
— has a journalist shared with other local titles, and works from two towns along the coast. The website often runs stories of zero interest to folks in Shoreham-by-Sea
. With a clear and defined audience, the paper should have an easy task of building trust and engagement. And yet, it fails to do so. Eight years ago, the now-defunct Brighton Future of News Group ran a day’s open journalism project in an empty shop in the town
, to great effect. (Sadly, every single link in that post is now dead…)
This should be a model for local news. Nowhere is face-to-face engagement more feasible than the local press. But it no longer has the staff or the proximity to do so.
And that’s a tragedy.
Engagement means rebuilding trust at the ground level
For all the high-level initiatives to address trust in journalism, we seem to all too often miss one critical one: how many people have every encountered a journalist in their day-t0day existence? Back in my B2B days, one of Estates Gazette’s great strengths was that it sent our journalists to meet and interview readers all over the country every week. Although I’d never have phrased it as that at the time, it was one of the best audience engagement strategies I’ve ever encountered. Sadly, that too has been abandoned, thanks to a downturn in ad revenues in the regional sections of the print edition, with a consequent loss in reader loyalty.
The early part of this decade has proved how easily this business lets go of a genuine relationship with its audience. We dumped comments on our sites, because we weren’t committed to managing them into a useful part of our business. We decided blogs were passé, as were podcasts - until we rediscovered them again. And we handed our audience engagement over to Facebook and the other social platforms, without truly considering the impact of that. We, in effect, gave our audiences away to Facebook, for convenience.
That’s not just a mistake, it’s a tragedy of business-destroying proportions.
The rapid return of audience engagement to the forefront of editorial thinking is a vital step towards rebuilding trust in journalism and news. One — big — part of the fight against misinformation — “fake news” — is building trust in individual titles and journalists again. And trust is a function of genuine, two-way relationships.
That’s something I’ve been passionate about for my whole career.
Back to the 2000s in audience engagement
The reason this (about-to-be-paid) version of the newsletter exists is that, as an industry, we’re starting to revisit some of the key ideas we were working on over a decade ago. Over the weekend I heard about an American publisher starting to build out forums on their site — something I was working on back in the late 2000s. Everything old is new again.
Surprisingly few of the people who were leading the audience engagement (usually referred to as “community management” back then) efforts at the time are still in the industry. Some, like Joanna Geary
, have gone into the platforms. Others have departed for more lucrative fields like PR and marketing, which valued those skills more highly than journalism did. The net result? Much of the expertise the industry needs is gone from the business, just when we need it most.
The journalism world has a terrible record of losing institutional knowledge - look at the fuss last year when The Guardian
claimed, incorrectly, that they were launching their first daily news podcast. It was their second - but that knowledge had been lost
With over 15 years experience working in this space, I believe I’m in a unique position to provide context and analysis for what’s happening now. If I can do that in a compact and useful format, that helps people in their day-to-day work, I hope that will be something people are prepared to pay for. If it is, it will free me up to spend more time researching, and hopefully, starting to produce interviews and other research material that will help this aspect of the industry grow.
On with the links…