If my mind could be compared to a tumble dryer, one issue has been the sock catapulted around it for days on end, never quite emerging in a satisfactory condition.
Since I started doing my current job around ten weeks ago, I have been wrestling with how the modern regional journalist balances the – at times – competing demands of print and web.
I still have no silver bullet answers, but I think I might be ready to put that metaphorical sock back in its drawer.
(Which is just as well, since I’m running a course called Squaring the Web Circle this week.)
When I talk to journalists, many find themselves in a state of mild conflict.
They are torn:
* Torn between finding parochial stories for their rural editions and finding material of wider interest that will do well online
* Torn over whether their time (or that of their colleagues or staff) would be better spent covering the traditional fare of council meetings and non-league football away games, or by writing TV reviews and Premier League analysis.
* Torn between the instincts and values that got them into this profession – of making a difference in a community, of holding those in power to account, of nailing complex and controversial situations through incisive writing – and the moral maze of so-called clickbait, a world where you could be forgiven for thinking dogging and D-listers hold sway.
I have read some fascinating pieces
This blistering attack by the blogger Grey Cardigan
But in the end, it comes down to something boringly familiar, and mechanical.
Balance. And analysis.
It’s important to get one thing clear.
Journalism is changing, and that’s no bad thing.
We are no longer the pompous gatekeepers of privileged information, lazily deciding when news should be imparted, and sticking to our buttoned-up, this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it routines.
We have more sources of breaking news than ever before, more platforms and storytelling mechanisms than ever before, and better ways of knowing what our audience is reading than ever before.
And let’s not get too precious about the Good Old Days. The local newspapers of the 18th century were packed with the comings and goings of the celebrities of their day, and peppered with national and international news – even if it was hopelessly out of date.
And many of their 20th century counterparts were filled with incredibly tedious accounts of incredibly tedious events.
The workings of newspaper website advertising are byzantine at times, but to cut a very long story short, there is no value distinction between 10,000 eyeballs on a carefully-written SEO-tweaked question-answering World Cup story and 10,000 eyeballs on a planning scandal just down the road.
And there is no binary choice between these two kinds of journalism.
They are both part of the digital newsroom cake.
But we need to get the right balance of ingredients.
We need writers to feel fulfilled and all journalists to feel that their values chime with those of their newspapers and websites.
We need to ensure that we’re never too dependant on one source of traffic, because what works one day may turn to dust the next.
We need to keep learning from each other about content, scheduling, quality vs quantity, social media, SEO, timings, weekends, and data journalism. And, while we will never out-Buzzfeed Buzzfeed, its success has shown us how serious stories can be told in new and engaging ways.
We need to keep using the analytic tools that prove time and time again that online stories which achieve the greatest engagement are also the ones that should be in the mix for page one consideration.
And at the end of the day, we return to what has always been one of the best questions to ask when determining coverage and copytasting priorities, whatever platform you’re dealing with.
What are people talking about?
Sometimes we’ll be ahead of that game, and sometimes we’ll be playing catch-up.
But that question should be in our minds at all times, helping us to get the balance right as we mix our newsroom cake.