The finger-clicking good news for journalists who care about public interest stories

Rather than argue about the merits of popular journalism over public interest journalism, Reach chief audience officer David Higgerson argues the two need each other — now more than ever:

This week, we saw photos of mile-long queues for KFC. Conventional wisdom is to roll your eyes and wonder why it is so many people are desperate for a bit of the Colonel’s secret recipe.

But the adherence to conventional wisdom, of what we *should* think about something, of what we *should* consider important in life, has for too long damaged journalism, especially local journalism.

Over the last decade, journalists have been presented with an abundance of new tools which provide the ability to peek into the lives of readers, and the things they are interested in. Social media — or some, at least — give us the chance to eavesdrop into conversations, and try and work out what role we play.

Like everything, too much of one thing is bad of journalism. Set your journalistic compass entirely by riding the Crowdtangle interaction curve, or chasing down the next Dataminr spike, and something gets missed. We all know the trending topic of the day on Twitter is very unlikely to be the main topic of conversation away from there, for example.

But the insight from your Chartbeats, NewsWhips and yes, even your Twitter trending lists does at least mean we have a greater appreciation of what people what to talk about, and spend time reading about.

And I’d argue that such knowledge, acted upon sensibly, has not only helped local journalism in the UK do amazing things during the Coronavirus pandemic, it’s also helped keep local journalism afloat.

There are several things to look at here. I’ll start with the most obvious one.

1. Money

The accepted wisdom is that the Coronavirus epidemic has brought news websites record audiences, but tumbling revenue. It’s important to distinguish between record audiences being worthless and worth less. It’s the latter, not the former.

Fewer companies are advertising because fewer companies are open. Those that are can advertise for less because there is less demand. And despite evidence showing that adverts on stories about Coronavirus actually perform better for the advertise on non Coronavirus stories, Coronavirus has made it on to the blocked words list of many advertisers.

That means the stories which are brand safe in the eyes of advertisers command higher premiums. The stories which the academics, the ex-journalists, and the NUJ leadership sniff at are the ones which also reach an awful lot of people. Lots of eyeballs + brand safe ad slots = revenue publishers can’t live without at the moment.

Don’t for a second confuse the journalists who write popular, audience-led content with some sort of page view mercenary who’ll do anything to grab your attention. Not in the newsrooms I work with, anyway. They research and report in just the same way any other journalist does. It just so happens that some in our industry choose to connect ‘lots of clicks’ with ‘low quality.’

2. A new window for public interest content

Something else that often gets overlooked in the argument that somehow popular, consumer content is somehow produced to the detriment of public interest content: The former often sends readers to the latter.

Almost without fail, every time I see an article’s validity as local news being challenged on social media, I can see it has sent readers on to something which would pass journalism’s sniff test. This is thanks to a combination of human intervention and machine learning. We put the links we hope people will click on manually, while automated boxes around the page serve up what historically people with similar behaviours have read too.

So those 500k page view stories about the re-opening of KFC, or the latest random thing ‘in the middle of Lidl’ aren’t to the detriment of public interest journalism — they actually help people discover it. People don’t necessarily search for public interest news, and those that do tend to be direct readers already — but may click on it if presented with it while reading something they were looking for.

The likelihood of them doing that depends on whether those writing public interest journalism have embraced point 4 below.

3. The Halo Effect

We live in world where forces beyond our control determine what gets read. The big 2 — Facebook and Google — use a variety of indicators to determine what they show people. Broadly speaking, popularity is at the heart of much of this.

Stuff that people search for, share, comment on and so is more likely to be seen by more people, and there’s a world of evidence to point to a wider halo effect for news brands, which in turn provides the chance for public interest news to get into feeds as well. Simply writing, sharing and announcing ‘this is important journalism’ is a recipe for something to go unread. And when unread, it can’t have the impact it should.

Like point 2, the benefit of this is largely determined by the use of point 4 below.

4. It’s the way we tell ’em

One of the more insulting arguments around so called ‘low quality’ journalism from its critics is that they don’t blame the journalists producing the stories. After all, they just want a job, the argument goes.

The argument allows those who wish to belittle the work of some to do so without facing up to the fact they are also criticising the hard work of individuals.

So strong is this view — they’re doing it because they have to, not because they want to — that the NUJ’s Local News Matters campaign chose to focus on the danger of ‘mundane’ articles, rather than any number of real threats to local journalism — shift of ad spend, dominance of algorithms, political attempts to undermine news and so on — when launching its campaign:


Imagine the RMT splitting its members into two camps: Those who drive important train services — such as those subsidised because they don’t turn a profit — and those who drive the profitable ones, which are packed to the rafters.

My experience is somewhat different. The people writing popular, audience-led articles are some of the smartest journalists I’ve met. Smart — and proud about what they do. They’re the people who study analytics, observe what is going on around them on the internet, and craft stories based on what they think people will want to read about.

Their role in the newsroom isn’t just to provide the financial income on which public interest journalism can have the freedom to explore. The best public interest journalists I know — I’m lucky to work with many of them — don’t sniff at the work their colleagues are doing, they seek to learn from it.

How to pitch the story, how to sell it, how to present it, where to share it, how to engage readers in it.

The Coronavirus pandemic has hopefully reminded people of the importance of local journalism and the role it can play in their lives. At Reach, the company I work for, not only did we see a record spike in audiences in March, we retained it in April too, as readers moved from reading just about Coronavirus to lots of other things too.

It’s arguable that local political journalism has never been as well read. But we shouldn’t assume that’s because readers have suddenly had some back-to-the-80s-must-buy-a-paper-and-make-myself-an-informed-civic-citizen moment. That’s the crackers conventional wisdom creeping in again. The civic journalism which is making an impact is the journalism which being told in a way which is designed to engage readers.

At this moment in time, we should be embracing our ability to connect with readers through the things they want to know about, and use it as an opportunity to talk to them about the things we feel they should care about too.

What we write shouldn’t be about supporting our sense of self worth, but about providing something of worth to our readers. Page views provide a proxy for the latter, so long as it’s supported by other evidence, such as social sharing and active engaged time on page.

Indeed, low readership isn’t a mark of quality journalism either — or at least, it shouldn’t be if we want quality journalism — that is researched, accurate journalism whatever the subject — to survive.

Like it or not, what I’m seeing at the moment is that the work some like to sneer at is actually helping sustain local journalism at the very moment local communities really need it.

This first appeared on Behind Local News and is published with their permission.