With more diverse voices in its newsrooms, a stronger focus on digital skills for its trainees, and a measured approach to innovation, Reach plc (formerly known as Trinity Mirror) is addressing some of the challenges faced by regional publishers.
Ahead of her appearance at the World News Media Congress, 1-3 June in Glasgow, Alison Gow, digital editor-in-chief with Reach plc, spoke to WAN-IFRA about some of the group’s projects, her views on innovation in regional journalism, and Reach’s new journalism certificate, aimed at better preparing trainees for the digital environment.
Reach plc is one of the UK’s biggest newspaper groups, publishing more than 100 regional newspapers as well as national publications such as the Daily Mirror.
WAN-IFRA: Given the competition you’re in with other publishers, how do you help each of your newsbrands communicate its value and change the perception of the brand among younger adults?
Alison Gow: We are at the moment doing a lot of work editorially around our brand identity, our tone, what we want people to understand about us and how we’ve changed, and how we continue to evolve.
If you think about it, we’ve been in people’s kitchens and on their dining room tables with newspapers for, in some cases, 150 years. Only in the last ten years has the digital switch really kicked in.
We’re still in people’s hands, but we’re actually on their phones as opposed to them holding a newspaper or on their desktops. There’s a bit of a cultural switch for people’s brains.
How we are changing the way we work is that we’re very conscious that we have audiences on different platforms, at different points in the day, who have different needs at those points.
What are the metrics that you use to measure the performance of your journalism, and how have they evolved over the past years?
I think the way that you use your metrics or the ways that they evolve is because you learn something about a type of audience behavior. Then you realise that you need to know more metrics to support and grow that knowledge into other areas.
We have the big screens up in every newsroom so people can see in real-time how stories are doing. Historical Chartbeat data is also very useful to us. It shows us loyalty, and the stories that people really valued over a period of time.
Personally, I also find behavior patterns very interesting. If you can follow the metrics to see where people went after being on your site, you can quite often work out what they didn’t get from you. Is there a need that you could potentially address?
Dame Frances Cairncross said that innovation in local newsrooms can’t wait any longer. Do you agree with that or does that undermine the work that has been done to date in local and regional journalism?
I feel that innovation is such a broad word. It’s very easy to say we must innovate. Sometimes, what people actually mean when they say innovation is quite basic changes in working practices.
What I feel really passionately about is that innovation for innovation’s sake is a waste of time.
If you have a brilliant idea and it moves on how you work as a journalist, how you connect with audiences, how you use technology to bring in richer types of journalism and information services, that’s great. If you buy a VR headset and make a story on that just because you think that’s cool, and maybe 1,300 people see it over the course of a week, then you’ve wasted your time, I think.
I do think that we need to keep pushing on. We can’t be complacent about things. It really worries me if anybody in journalism, at a local or national level, thinks that they’ve made it, and finally solved the problem. You never solve the problem, the world keeps changing. You’ve got to be really adaptable.
Can you tell me a little bit about Reach’s involvement in the Facebook community news project and how that’s been working out, what you’ve been doing there?
We are currently recruiting community news journalists from really broad cross-sections of the community. People who have said they’d like the idea of working in journalism but they didn’t think that there was an access route for them. They hadn’t gone to college, perhaps, or it would mean a career change.
These people are coming in either from a geographic or a topic point of view. They’re very passionate about how they want to cover it. They’re getting expert training and support from Facebook and other companies around that, and will get an NCTJ qualification as a result of it.
I feel like it is a brilliant scheme that is not only going to benefit the individual but also the newsrooms. I think the diversity issue is something all newsrooms, especially at a local level, are concerned with.
You created a new qualification for your journalists. What was the reasoning behind it and how does it differ from the qualification you had in place before?
The qualification that we had before was structured in a way that didn’t really ask people to demonstrate their digital skills or their abilities to react quickly in a digital environment. For example, around live blogging or around seeing an incident on social media and needing to find out more about it. Or it didn’t reflect the fact that no sports journalist will ever sit in court, so why are they doing shorthand, for example.
The new qualification is called the Certificate of Journalism, and offers three options: general reporter, sports reporter, and digital producer. General reporters, who might go to court, and will be covering councils, will need shorthand, and will also be doing multimedia work and using social media. Sports journalists, on the other hand, don’t require shorthand, for example.
The digital producer option is for people who are working in the newsroom on different mediums. A social media editor, for example, or a trends writer. They need to be able to demonstrate an expertise in video, audio, in using different types of trend analysis sites or softwares, or analytics for making story judgments.