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News vs Clicks

Are some regional newspapers getting their news values in a twist? Posting stories with little or no news value just to chase clicks or commercial revenues, makes Jon Griffin wonder what has become of the industry he entered over 40 years ago.

By Jon Griffin

News vs Clicks
Breaking news…

There’s a highly poignant plaque on the wall above the entrance to the Burton Mail editor’s office which reads: “We’ve got the best job in town.”

The quote is attributed to Richard Wood, ex-Burton Mail journalist, a reporter / sub-editor who worked for the newspaper for more than 30 years.

Although I worked with many, many journalists over the course of more than 41 years in daily newsrooms, I never encountered Dickie, as he was fondly known to colleagues, but I like to think we would have got on.

Dickie was a skilled operator who apparently liked a beer and a laugh, and was good enough to hold down a job on the Burton Mail for decades before his death in 2007, aged just 49.

Tragically, Dickie, who had been the Mail’s longest-serving reporter, was killed when he walked in front of a train in Burton in February 2007. The inquest heard that he had suffered psychiatric problems, including money worries and struggles with new technology at work.

I came to learn of Dickie and his awful fate soon after I started work as a freelance news editor at the Burton Mail in August 2017. A colleague pointed out the plaque, with Dickie’s timeless words from yesteryear looking down upon the tiny newsroom.

I could never reconcile myself to a world in which great exclusives were now given away scot-free before appearing in print.

Remembering the buzz

Just like Dickie, I had always believed that journalism – particularly a reporting role – really was the “best job in town”, if not the best paid. I had enjoyed more than four decades in daily newspapers, beginning at the Peterborough Evening Telegraph in June 1975 and ending with voluntary redundancy at the Birmingham Mail in July 2015.

To non-journalist friends, I often described my life in regional newspapers as ‘like a kid in a sweetshop’. The job took me from parish councils and village fetes in Peterborough to interviews with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Prince Charles – and even Ronnie Kray.

Occasionally, I was given the chance to report on history – the Piper Alpha oil disaster in Aberdeen, the Stardust Club fire in Dublin, the Marchioness boat disaster, the 1984-85 miners’ strike and so much more.

My longest-serving role – as business editor of the Birmingham Mail – was also the most enjoyable, from covering the closure of the Longbridge car factory to the Cadbury takeover and much else. The job brought me immense workplace satisfaction, foreign travel, status, occasional Michelin-starred meals. What more could any journalist want?

For more than 40 years, I had loved the buzz, the adrenaline, the newsroom banter, the friendship of like-minded souls, the beers after work. But nothing lasts forever, and that buzz and banter was turning distinctly sour by the time I opted for redundancy in the summer of 2015.

The pressure to conform to an uncertain digital future – which had become a newsroom mantra in Birmingham – was too much for my largely analogue psyche. I viewed the new world of online journalism – and the ever-present ‘digital-first’ creed – with a combination of fascination and horror.

I was – and always would be – a print man. Newspapers were in my blood, and I could never reconcile myself to a world in which great exclusives were now given away scot-free before appearing in print.

So I left, with no job to go to. I survived for a couple of years, picking up business magazine work plus occasional one-off assignments. Life was generally tolerable, but I knew that in my heart I was missing newspapers.

In early August 2017, I took a call from an old friend in the West Midlands media world. The Burton Mail – just down the road from my home in Tamworth – needed a news editor.

I was sceptical at first. The Burton title was by now owned by my old employers Trinity Mirror - since restyled Reach plc - following the takeover of Local World. Did I want to go back to the very environment I had left? In any case, would they want me, and my aversion to so much of the digital world?

I turned up for an interview with the editor and deputy editor slightly late after a taxi-driver took me to the old Burton Mail office, with its ornate exterior clock and padlocked offices, a sad throwback to the paper’s Iliffe days. I found the current office also locked – the receptionists had been laid off some months previously.

Gone were the old-style calls to police, fire and ambulance, with their human contact and potential for further tip-offs.

Keeping the outside world out

The Mail’s hermetically-sealed office provided a significant clue to what lay ahead. A newspaper with a proud local history and a still loyal, if declining, readership was cut off from the outside world, or at least to passers-by with potential stories. (Coming back from lunch one day, I once had to help a bewildered pensioner trying to hand in a Soroptimists press release to a reporter sitting at her desk behind the locked doors).

After two days’ training, I found myself back in a daily newsroom, two, three, four, and sometimes five days a week. I enjoyed the buzz of knocking stories into shape, dealing with real news again – Burton is a cracking patch – helping young reporters with intros, pointing out fresh angles and errors, suggesting follow-up stories, even picking up the odd story myself as I walked around town during my lunch break.

Of course, there were considerable limitations to the role of a part-time news editor with a largely analogue outlook in a digital world, and I missed writing, my first journalistic love. But for 18 months or so, I generally enjoyed life on the Burton Mail – it was a welcome and unexpected bonus to be able to add another chapter to my daily newspaper career.

It was fascinating to view the reporter’s modus operandi at close hand. I was told in my first few days: “Reporters get most of their stories from social media.” Police Twitter feeds provided news of accidents, stolen cars, missing persons etc. Gone were the old-style calls to police, fire and ambulance, with their human contact and potential for further tip-offs.

Rarely did anyone from the outside world – the mayor, councillors, local MPs, even local eccentrics (of which Burton has more than a few) venture into the sealed newsroom. The phones were much quieter than those in the frenzied newsrooms I recall down the years – regional journalism had largely been reduced to conversations through screens, both internal and external, reflecting much of the outside world.

Any attempt to change the very nature of news for commercial ends in pursuit of arbitrary click targets is probably doomed to failure.

What’s important now

Every second or third word in the newsroom seemed to be ‘Facebook’. To directly quote one of the senior Burton Mail journalists: “We should not be writing anything that we cannot Facebook.”

Or: “There is no point doing things if it is not going to hit Google, otherwise we are not going to get the numbers.” Or: “I hate to say the P word.” A common newsroom mantra was: “How can we make this work on the web?” Stories were judged for ‘doing well’, in other words, clicks.

As the months went by, it was clear that the obsession with all things digital was increasing. The electronic ‘Chartbeat’ monitor in the corner of the newsroom was all-powerful, highlighting the most clickworthy (if such a word exists) story. (The system was far from foolproof, as sometimes a rogue item from months back would suddenly rise to the top of the tree.)

Sometimes, I felt like Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984, with Chartbeat the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother. But, as a freelance, I had no personal targets (thankfully), although occasionally the odd press release I bashed out might be given an extra reporter’s byline online if that individual was struggling to meet his or her weekly digital quota.

I studied the effects of this target-driven environment on reporters closely. Every week, journalists – the oldest of which were only in their early 30s – were judged on stories published, average engagement times, days worked, total pageviews, Twitter followers, Facebook friends / contacts, which story worked well, which story didn’t work well, standout multi-media, galleries, videos, and more. The newsroom was effectively a ‘clickbait factory’ – the newspaper, whose advertising revenues still paid a large proportion of the business’s bills, seemed a sad footnote to what I came to view as an electronic ‘news’ circus with an ever-changing gallery of performers.

And what an entertaining circus today’s online journalism provided to this observer. On my last day at Burton, I took a note of a few of the stories I desked. They included ‘KFC launches monster burger’, ‘Everything you need to know about the Midlands lad entering Love Island’ (he was from Leicester) and ‘RSPCA appeal after squirrel killed in Cannock’ (40 miles from Burton).

Where once newsrooms would avidly discuss page leads, exclusives, tip-offs and all the rest of what makes – or made – regional journalism so enthralling, a conversation would break out over why an online query ‘Should you say thank-you to the bus driver when you get off?’ had attracted 6,600 comments from screen-happy souls.

The best reporter in the office was sent out to take on a monster breakfast challenge at a cafe in Swadlincote and was warmly praised for clocking up thousands of clicks. “I wouldn’t have got this sort of reaction for uncovering Watergate,” he remarked wryly.

Learning the lingo

An entirely new language was being spoken daily in the newsroom. Where I had once heard regular mention of stone subs, copy-takers, stop press columns and the like, now the talk was of CrowdTangle, Facebook Pages, Reddit subreddits, Tweetdeck, Push Notices, Live Blogs, Data Units and all the rest. At times, I felt as if I was studying for an MBA in technology jargon rather than news desking…

Two hugely important caveats are necessary. Most importantly, my colleagues at the Burton Mail were all exceptionally hard-working, sharp-witted and talented operators determined to forge successful careers. I have nothing but admiration for them – they were always willing to help an analogue soul caught up in a digital universe.

Secondly, I can quite understand why Reach plc, faced with falling circulations and revenues, continue to pursue the digital dream. But I would argue – based on my experiences in both Birmingham and Burton – that the messenger is increasingly being mistaken for the message. Giant burgers and Love Islanders from miles away – however toned and photogenic - are not news, and any attempt to change the very nature of news for commercial ends in pursuit of arbitrary click targets is probably doomed to failure.

I may be proved wrong and a golden era for journalism could be around the corner. For the sake of my former colleagues, at Burton, Birmingham and elsewhere forced to dance to the remorseless digital tune, I hope so.

But if the late Dickie Wood’s words are to have any relevance in today’s print / online world, I would suggest changing the phrasing on the plaque in the Burton Mail newsroom slightly – to, “We once had the best job in town”.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.