FEATURE 

The benefits of a centralist approach

JPI Media’s centralised approach to design, investigations and data journalism isn’t just about saving costs but driving innovation, writes Meg Carter.

By Meg Carter

The benefits of a centralist approach
"It was recognised that we had some particularly good investigative reporters on our teams."

Lowering cost does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with maintaining quality, let alone raising it. But to assume the two are opposites is a mistake. “People can confuse the process of cost control with reduction in quality,” according to Tim Robinson, group content development director at JPI Media. “But that isn’t necessarily the case.”

True, the centralisation of design, investigations and data journalism at JPI Media – with 130+ news brands across the UK ranging from very small to large and regional, one of the UK's largest local and regional multimedia organisations – was driven by a desire to control both the company’s cost base and resources.

But as important a guiding principle has been to create content in a less labour-intensive way while making it more compelling to its audiences, not less. “All local media have been really challenged over the past decade and necessity has been the mother of invention,” he explains.

As group content development director, Robinson looks after JPI Media’s centrally organised editorial teams, its community news function.

Tim Robinson: “Necessity has been the mother of invention.”

This comprises community news reporters who look after ‘lower-level community news’ across the country – not necessarily live breaking news, but news that comes in from its communities and forms the backbone to its printed papers.

“We have a network of about 80 reporters across all our newsrooms that produce that. And we have a community sports section that focuses on lower-level sport – not Premier League, but more community-based sports that touch lots of people in those markets,” Robinson adds.

He also looks after the centralised print design team.

“A number of years, ago we centralised our production function and most of our papers are produced with a high amount of templating, but we also have a core group of designers who design the front pages and special treatment pages that require proper high-quality design,” he adds.

“And I look after out central data investigations team, and all the external contracts where we buy in content – from people like PA and Getty.”

The strategic aim for these centralised teams is simple: to maximise its audiences in an engaged way.

“We are organised regionally, so each of our regions has an editorial director and each sits on a board with people like myself and the central digital director, led by our editor-in-chief Jeremy Clifford,” Robinson explains.

“We are trying to continually engage our readers in a way that encourages them to buy the papers. But we also recognise that the papers are declining, so we are continually trying to move that engagement online by giving them reasons to consume our content digitally in an engaged way.”

And pay for it, of course. Which means it’s all about relevance.

“A lot of focus is on local content. The content produced by a lot of my teams is the stuff that cuts right cross – stories that can be produced in one place but used many times,” he says, citing as an example a “base story” created by the central data team which can then be re-versioned by local teams.

The strategic aim for these centralised teams is simple: to maximise its audiences in an engaged way.

Investigations

A similar principle lies behind JPI Media’s centralised investigations team.

“It was recognised that we had some particularly good investigative reporters on our teams turning out some fantastic investigative content,” Robinson continues.

“We wanted to scale that up to a national level, so we selected people from across our regions to act as a virtual network of investigative reporters and set them free to come up with ideas.”

He adds: “They use a variety of techniques – mass Freedom of Information requests to government and other sorts of institutions, for example, and data analysis. They focus on the kinds of things an individual title might not have time to investigate but which, as a collective effort, can result in fantastic things.”

The team’s investigation into British ex-service personnel experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression and a stalled NHS suicide prevention plan – which prompted the government to subsequently announce a raft of improved support – was recognised at the MIND Media Awards in 2019.

A centralised approach is also supporting the embedding of data journalism within its newsroom culture.

“As part of its recent charter renewal process, the BBC had to commit to funding a number of things, including local democracy reporters reporting on courts and councils across the UK – many sit in our newsrooms, paid for by the BBC – and a shared data unit, where they train and equip people from the regional press with data journalism skills,” Robinson explains.

“We send people three times a year to the BBC on a long secondment to learn data journalism processes and understand the skills required, then they come back to us and form an alumni of people who have skills completely new to our newsrooms: data analysis, website scraping, producing content from publicly available data.”

He continues: “We then took a number of people and formed a small data unit which generates data content for the whole group. So, they will produce stories either on data made available to them readily or things they’ve sought out by FOIs, then write stories that can be replicated hundreds of times across our portfolio.”

As print grows more niche, pressure to innovate is growing exponentially.

“We can’t afford to just serve up the same content and the same presentation in print or online, we have to continually look at how to add to the marketplace,” Robinson points out. “This gives us a lot of impetus to be innovative. And that process will never end.”

You can hear Tim Robinson being interviewed by Ciar Byrne on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Acorn Web Offset, the Yorkshire-based specialist A5 and A4 magazine printer.

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