Tag Archives: Advertising

Journalism Technologies: 13. Disruption!

We’re into the second term of the academic year at the University of Huddersfield and the Journalism Technologies module resumed with the focus switching from the major online and social media platforms, to how media companies are adapting to the rapidly changing technologies which have turned their worlds upside down. Arguably the most significant impact has come on the balance sheet, with the old business models that funded journalism if not destroyed, then certainly coming under significant and sustained strain, and that was the subject of last week’s lecture.

First year university students, born at around the turn of the millennium, have grown up in the smartphone, on-demand, social media era, so I spent much of the lecture filling in a few of their blanks on how things were before. As I did, I was thinking to myself that newspaper classified ads, extended one-minute TV ads and local radio spots for double glazing all seem like media from decades ago. It’s so long since even I read, watched or heard one, trying to explain how significant they once were (and, in some cases, still are) to a room full of 18-year-olds is a bit of an odd thing to find yourself doing.

When having a go in the seminars at analysing the local newspaper’s website (ahead of a visit from the editor the week after next), this became even more clear. The ads were almost universally the bit everyone hated. Too prominent and too irrelevant, the students said, and that was just the verdict of the ones not routinely using ad blockers. When I covered this topic last year there was still some optimism that BuzzFeed’s extensive use of sponsored content might offer one way through the financial mire for under-pressure digital publishing executives. But its recent round of redundancies, and admission it is again seeking to diversify its business model yet further, suggests that making news pay is as tough now as it has ever been.

Leeds MA International Journalism Course, Lecture 4

My latest lecture to my international MA students at the University of Leeds was about hyperlocal news. It’s something I know a good bit about, having set up and run Saddleworth News for a couple of years, so hopefully I was able to give them an interesting perspective on this area of the media.

I explained to them that, while I learned a lot from running Saddleworth News, I was unable to find an answer to the problem of how to make journalism, and in particular websites featuring local journalism, pay. But then if I’d found that secret, something tells me I don’t think I’d have been there today giving a lecture!

Here’s the presentation: http://prezi.com/ckqvhfsdym7y/ma-lecture-4-university-of-leeds/

I’ve got one more lecture to give after Easter, and I’ve been doing a series of eight practical sessions teaching them practical journalism skills too. I’ve also been doing more teaching with the first year Broadcast Journalism undergrads, and I’ve got them all to find a local site in their hometowns to discuss in seminars later in the week, so it’ll be interesting to get their views on the value or otherwise of hyperlocal.

Leeds MA International Journalism Course, Lecture 1

Today I gave the first of five lectures to MA International Journalism students at the University of Leeds. I’m also taking them for eight practical sessions, and it’s all part of a module aimed at giving them multimedia journalism skills, to go with some of the more academic work they’re doing in other modules.

The students are from several different countries, so I decided to use the first of the formal lectures to give them a bit of background on a few of the major challenges and possibilities facing journalism. I’m a journalist and not really an academic, so it was more of a personal perspective on some key issues rather than an in-depth critical analysis, but hopefully it’ll help put the practical skills I’m teaching them into a bit of context.

You can have a look at the presentation here: http://prezi.com/kgmt_p-4zioc/ma-lecture-1-university-of-leeds/

Journalists And Selling Adverts

A local advert. Selling these is harder than it looks.

Modern journalists are expected to have a wide range of skills. There are old ones, like how to spot a story, conduct an interview and write an article. There are ones which other people used to do, like write headlines, take photos and record and edit audio and video. Then there all the new ones, ranging from blogging and linking to Tweeting, Storifying and handling spreadsheets full of data.

But, with news companies large and small grappling with the problem of making money, one skill which journalists seem reluctant to discuss is the one which has been helping to pay their wages up to now. Selling adverts.

The divide between journalists and ad sales folk at media companies can be deeply entrenched. I recall working at a radio station, in which most of the open-plan office was filled with desks of people who seemed to bash phones all day, while ever-increasing numbers appeared on a nearby whiteboard. Even though I sat just a few yards away, I had little idea of what they were doing, just as they didn’t offer an opinion as to what should be in my five o’clock bulletin.

Not that I was particularly bothered. After all, even an imaginary barrier between the commercial and editorial parts of a news company seems like good sense. At one time, the drive show was sponsored by the local police. Yet if I had to run a story which was critical of the police in some way, I didn’t feel any pressure from anyone to do things differently. Which is as it should be.

But when I came to the question of how I might fund the hyperlocal website I used to run, Saddleworth News, I realised that nobody was going to sell ads for me. So I had to have a go at it myself. I set up an account with Rick Waghorn’s Addiply for text ads, and started trying to sell display ads directly to local business people.

Adverts like this helped cover the costs of Saddleworth News, but not much else.

I ran into several problems. The major one was that I found myself to be not much good at selling things. It’s all very well to suggest that, because journalists are able to do a ‘death knock’ on a bereaved family, cold-calling businesses should be a doddle. Maybe for some people it is, but I found selling my site to a reluctant shop owner to be a lot tougher than getting information from a reluctant member of the public.

Specifically, I discovered it was hard to convince business owners to part with cash for an advert on a website, even one which had a relatively large audience like mine. The butcher, baker and pub landlord generally have little knowledge of advertising or media trends, and are usually happy to do what they’ve always done, and stick an old-fashioned ad in a paper or magazine every so often. We might know about how the paper’s circulation is a fraction of what it once was, but not everyone does.

The adverts I was able to sell were usually taken by people who used Saddleworth News as readers, and so understood the value of being on the site. Often the advertisers ran internet-based companies themselves, so they could easily see the number of clickthroughs they were getting from me, which helped encourage them to stay on.

The traditional separation between commercial and editorial inevitably got a bit blurred. If one of my advertisers came up in a local news story, I’d always mention the fact they were a supporter of the site. Indeed, I found my amateurish sales patter tended to work best on someone I’d just interviewed (“Thanks for sparing the time to chat, by the way, you can advertise on my site too you know, it’s got thousands of readers a month…”).

But even though at the site’s peak I usually had 12-15 advertisers at any one time, it was only enough to cover costs and keep me in a bit of petrol and beer money. Fine when I was only doing it for a couple of hours a day, but in order to bring in enough cash to make the site my full-time job, I would have been forced to spend most of my time selling ads rather than writing stories. Not an appealing prospect, and a key reason why I ended up handing the site over to students.

I’m sure that, over time, and especially as more local papers go weekly or close altogether, small businesses might see the value of spending a bit more of their advertising money with a quality hyperlocal site. I’m also sure that, with a bit of training, journalists like me could learn to sell ads adequately enough. But I’m even more sure that adding yet another difficult task to the skillset of the modern journalist wouldn’t go down well with anyone. Perhaps this is one skill too important to be left to amateurs.

Thirteen Lessons I’ve Learned From Running A Hyperlocal Site

I set up Saddleworth News in February 2010.

I thought it would be a good way to keep myself involved in journalism while I stayed at home as a full-time dad to my young daughter, and I hoped it would become a source of information which would be read and valued by people in the local community. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to say whether the site achieved the latter, but I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it.

I’m now in the process of handing control of the site to digital journalism students at University Campus Oldham, part of the University of Huddersfield, which has put me in a reflective mood about the past couple of years. I’ve learned a lot about journalism, the internet, social media, and much else besides.

So I thought I’d share some of those lessons in a blogpost. Before I forget them all.

1. We need to lower our threshold of what we think news is

An old quote from an old American newspaper editor has it that “News is anything which makes a reader go ‘gee whiz!'” While it’s unlikely that anyone has actually said ‘gee whiz’ for several decades, even if they did I’m certain it would rarely be in response to a story about a missing cat. Which I suppose is why you don’t often see missing cat reports in the media.

But for every snarky journalist who mocks the idea of running an appeal for information on Tiddles from Tiddletown, there’ll be other people in that specific locality who are genuinely interested. And that is what makes it news.

Jasper the cat was found after an appeal on Saddleworth News. So there.

2. It’s not worth trying to be comprehensive

If you’re running a hyperlocal site, the chances are it’s not your full-time job. So you won’t have loads of spare time to devote to it. Trying to make it to every council meeting, every football match and every coffee morning is a sure way to tire yourself out, and make you quickly resent what should be an enjoyable thing to do.

If you can’t make a local event because you had something else on, be honest with your readers and say so. Maybe one will be able to supply you with pictures or a report, or you could link to coverage elsewhere online. Focus on doing what you’re able to do and do it well, rather than trying to take on the impossible.

3. Don’t cover the same things the local paper does, unless you can do it better

An easy trap to fall into would be to see a story about your area in a newspaper, and quickly rush around trying to speak to the people quoted in the article so you can put together your own version of it.

This would be pointless. Instead, find a distinctive angle for a piece of your own and link to the original story (always give credit where it’s due). Or, even better, spend the time researching and writing an article on something local that’s not being covered by any other media. That’s the sort of content which will get people to visit your website first.

4. Running a one-sentence quote is a waste of everybody’s time

Take a look at a newspaper article. Any one will do. See those quotes at the end? All those single sentences from councillor so-and-so and spokesman rent-a-gob? Must have taken a bit of time for the reporter to get, but they’re not exactly adding much to the story are they?

Newspaper stories traditionally feature quotes at the end so they can be easily cut down by sub-editors to fit into whatever space is available. It’s a tradition which doesn’t have to apply online. On the internet, you’ve got as much space as you want. So if you interview someone, do them and your readers the courtesy of quoting them properly. Besides, if you’ve gathered the material, you may as well run as much of it as you can.

Journalists getting ready to take down lengthy quotes which will later be cut out by a sub-editor.

5. There’s lots of information out there already

It used to be that you’d have to go to a council office or a library to have a look at, say, the minutes of a meeting or the documents relating to a planning application. But now lots of this official information is freely available online.

Searching through pages of apparently dull scrutiny committee reports can yield wonderful nuggets of information. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a table showing that just one person had turned up to three public meetings as part of a consultation on £2.6m cuts to council children’s services. A bit of patience often leads to a great story.

6. Politics isn’t boring

A lot of people in the media are fond of saying that politics is boring, that nobody really cares. But these people are wrong. It’s not politics that’s boring, it’s them.

If you can’t find at least three stories worth writing from a council meeting of just about any description, then you’re not looking hard enough. Even if your local councillors give the impression of being boring, they spend large amounts of time talking about issues and making decisions that affect everyone who lives in your area. Try writing about it, and see the reaction you get.

7. Serious reporting leads to serious access

I wondered when I started Saddleworth News about whether I’d be taken seriously by people in authority, especially as I had to take a baby around with me every time I went out to cover a story. I shouldn’t have worried.

The council media team let me and junior into press conferences. I interviewed David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband with her sat on my knee. If you cover issues in a responsible way, you’ll get respect and access to the powerful in return. Regardless of how unusual your personal circumstances might be.

Clegg was forced to defend the controversial rusk tax.

8. You can cover the same story as many times as you like

Editors have lots of excuses that they give to reporters when they don’t want them to cover a particular story. They include ‘I’m bored of that’ and ‘We did that last week/month/year, find something else.’

You don’t have to run your story ideas past an editor. If there’s a small development in an ongoing issue in your area, go ahead and write another article about it. Then another. And another, all the while linking back to your previous coverage. Soon, you’ll have built up a huge archive of material on the topic, adding a context and depth to your reporting that a newspaper can’t hope to match.

9. You don’t need to wait until Thursday to publish the local sport

When I was a wee lad I used to play football for my school team. I would look forward to Thursday’s evening paper, because that was when the column about the previous weekend’s school football was published. It was pretty exciting to have a reporter actually pontificating in print about the way my team had played, even if it was just for a few sentences.

Minor sport often turns up in newspapers in the middle of the week because on Mondays and Fridays the pages are full of the goings-on at the biggest local teams. But you can publish the results as soon as you get them. Clubs, perhaps overlooked by the football-obsessed media, will often be delighted to supply match reports, help you get interviews and all sorts besides. The people who play for those teams will find your coverage just as thrilling as I did back in the day.

10. Twitter is useful, but your readers are on Facebook instead

Look, Twitter! Isn’t it exciting? All those fashionable people on there, retweeting each other. All those other people, talking about Justin Bieber. Ooh, shiny! Not like Facebook, which even your uncle is on nowadays, and you couldn’t reject his friend request because that would be rude, and now you can’t post any photos of anything good. Boring old Facebook.

I found Twitter useful for creating a community of people from the local area who are internet-savvy and keen to help, supplying story ideas and tip-offs about things to investigate. But in terms of clickthroughs to Saddleworth News, the numbers from Facebook have always been far higher. Ordinary people are on Facebook. And your readers are, mostly, ordinary people. In a good way.

Roadworks. A classic hyperlocal concern.

11. It helps to be able to stand up for yourself

When you start publishing material about anything, especially if you’ve set yourself up as a local news source, you’ve got to expect a bit of conflict sooner or later. Whether it’s with someone you’ve written about, or a newspaper which has pinched one of your stories.

Be sure of yourself legally. If you’ve got doubts about something, ask a sympathetic journalist or lawyer for advice (Twitter can be useful for this, too). But if you’re certain you’re in the right, be prepared to get stroppy with whoever you’re in dispute with. If they’re trying it on, they’ll soon back down.

12. Try to avoid seeing councillors in the pub

Journalists and their sources have always got together to talk about things, often over a few drinks. They probably always will. Sometimes they help each other, sometimes they fall out. It’s the way things work.

But the equation changes a bit when you’re reporting on a small community in which you also live. It can be embarrassing to say the least if you’ve written something critical about councillor so-and-so, and then you bump into him in your local on Friday night. And again at the shops on Saturday. My advice isn’t to avoid being critical if you feel it’s necessary, but to stop yourself getting too friendly in the first place.

13. It’s not about the money

I’d describe this as the $64,000 question facing journalism, if I thought anyone was capable of bringing in that kind of cash. Maybe it should be the $6.40 question, which is at least enough to get a couple of pints in. Well, some rancid domestic lager anyway. If you want to make money, become a plumber or something.

I was able to cover my costs on Saddleworth News by selling some ads, a skill that didn’t come very easily to me. You might find selling easier, and good luck to you if you can make a few quid out of your site. But if all you want to do is use your skills to help your local community, then tools like the WordPress on which I’m writing this have made that easier and cheaper than ever. Whichever approach you take, it’s unlikely you’ll be drinking too much hyperlocal-funded bubbly anytime soon.