Go small, AND go home: the future of regional journalism

It doesn’t take much to make me feel guilty.

And so I’ve been feeling guilty about Facebook.

I’ve neglected it recently, a bit like I’ve neglected this blog.

And I’m not the only one. Whether because – like me – people have been spending more time on other social media such as Twitter and Instagram, whether there aren’t enough young users coming through, or whether we’ve just lost interest in vicarious enjoyment of our friends’ and relatives’ social lives, we’re spending less time with Mark Zuckerberg’s creation.

The wonderful BBC media editor Amol Rajan has written some really incisive analysis on what could be the beginning of the end of Facebook’s overwhelming dominance of so much of our lives.

My lack of engagement with Facebook means I’ve probably seen fewer news stories than I otherwise would have, although it’s all part of a pretty complicated picture.

Mr Zuckerberg actually wants people to spend less time on his platform, so that their experience is one of quality rather than quantity. And loosening ties with news providers by tinkering with Facebook’s algorithms is one way to do just that, he has decided.

For much of the regional media, and for significant swathes of the rest of the industry, Facebook has become akin to a drug, with some websites relying on it for up to 70 per cent of their traffic.

When Facebook decides to change tack, when it decides that journalism is more trouble than it’s worth, that doesn’t just move the goalposts: it changes the game entirely.

The social media giant says it wants the workings of its algorithms to protect local news and information.

But that hasn’t stopped the latest spasm of cuts at my old employers Trinity Mirror, where 49 jobs are under threat.

More of my friends will lose their jobs in the next few weeks, while others will have to work in offices with far more empty seats. And the website of my beloved Bath Chronicle is being dismantled.

I have been very, very careful to avoid public criticism of the leadership of firms such as Trinity Mirror. There are senior managers such as David Higgerson for whom I have massive respect, particularly for their willingness to engage with their critics. And I need to preserve good relations so that the door is always open to my students for visits and work placements.

But it’s tempting to conclude that a line has been crossed here in terms of commitment to quality journalism and community involvement.

And I need convincing of the merits of merging websites at a time when those Facebook changes will reduce the number of people coming to your stories via social.

For the sake of my students, and for the sake of my friends still doing the very best they can in newsrooms across the west of England, I have to view my glass as half-full. And I still do.

cock

But it makes me more certain than ever that the shareholder model for the news media is, if not broken, definitely on the mechanic’s ramp.

There will certainly be a lot of people looking under the bonnet at Trinity Mirror after it moved to buy the Express and Star titles, a decision that will see more journalists looking for new jobs in the next year.

The media organisations of the future will either have to be small, locally-focussed and locally-owned – or catering for a high end niche market prepared to pay for specialist information and insights. In both cases, they will be serving a real community, or community of interest, providing a unique service.

The Guardian doesn’t fall neatly into either of those camps, and its subscription/donation model may work only because of its specific demograph of left-leaning people with a bit of money to spare.  But the success of that model shows the potency of turning your audience into your champions and supporters.

On the subject of paywalls, they’re not some kind of panacea for all our media crisis troubles, by the way. Unless you’re bringing an awful lot of added value, you won’t succeed.

There’s a sense in which less has to be more. Either you focus on a smaller geographical area, or a smaller, more specialist area of interest.

That point was underlined at our alumni day on Friday, when some of the greatest optimism for the future came from the deputy editor of a tiny Welsh weekly, and a designer working on niche magazines.

 

They were on a panel with reporters from Sky and a news agency, and PR professionals from big name sports clubs and from a forward-thinking agency.

All loved their jobs. All seemed in control of their destinies. All exuded confidence and wisdom beyond their years. I hadn’t taught any of them, but I was immensely proud.

Above all, they gave me huge comfort and reassurance that studying journalism is a damn good thing to do.

For months, I have looked at a lot of our third year students and thought: I’d give you a job now if I had one.

There is no shortage of talented young people ready for work in the media industry if only we can find the right business models.

I don’t have a lot of hope that Theresa May’s inquiry into the sustainability of the local and national media is going to come to much.  It’s classic long-grass stuff, both to delay the painful decisions hanging over from Leveson and to postpone any stance-taking on the regulation of Facebook and Google.

But we do need some radical thinking, which ought to involve everyone from the NCTJ to those new media companies, and to build on the success of some hyperlocal publications as well as co-operatives where the audience is also the owner such as The Bristol Cable.

It would be splendid if a way could be found to persuade our friends at Facebook to put some money into an extension of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Scheme so that its work in covering local and regional corridors of power could be expanded into the courts.

Decisions on which media should be given public notice advertising should be made on the basis of their commitment to continued and comprehensive coverage of local government.

There are no easy answers to any of this: if there were, we’d have found them by now.

But we are approaching a perfect storm in which an industry spreads its resources ever more thinly across huge, arbitrarily-drawn, artificial coverage areas while the communities that matter to most of us get smaller and more self-regarding by the day.

 

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