Trinity Mirror title Birmingham Mail ran a Facebook Live from their newsroom as part of a national day to celebrate local newspapers. To one former hack it was both reassuringly the same but gloriously different.
by Dan Slee
"I love newspapers," veteran newspaper editor Harold Evans once said, "but I'm intoxicated on the possibility of the internet."
That's a statement that I love.
For 12 years at the start of my career I was a journalist. Starting in hot metal in rural Staffordshire and ending as assistant chief reporter on a busy regional newspaper. I left that for a communications job in local government.
On my last day I newspapers I went into the press hall where thirty foot print towers roared and a river of print ran above my head to produce that night's paper. Even after a decade I was still just as impressed at this feat after more than a decade as I was when I first saw it.
I've never lost my love of newspapers but I've despaired at them ever cracking the code that would see them harness the possibility of the internet. It's hard to change the print-led formula that for centuries has been a licenc e to print money.
When we started to use Twitter at the council I was at a journalist from one of the local papers rang me up and asked us not to. Or if we did, would they ring us when we posted something?
I declined this offer.
There is now hope in newspapers
For years, I pointed to the declining print sales of newspapers as an argument for comms people to create more than just press releases. There are genuine warnings about how the industry is about to fall off a cliff from industry veterans like Roy Greenslade. Ofcom have also warned that newspapers are the least popular way of getting news. Many have closed in the past decade and those that remain have fewer staff.
But newspapers are now much more than places that produce print.
Take the Birmingham Mail, a Trinity Mirror title with 300k Facebook likes in a city of 1.2 million people and a declining print readership.
The title has gone through real pain in shedding staff and cutting its newsroom. Anecdotally, stories that would have made a prominent place in the paper have been overlooked for more web-friendly popular content.
But looking at the title now, there's some sign of optimism for the future.
Marc Reeves, editor in chief for Trinity Mirror Midlands, spoke at a brewcamp a few months back. He said the Holy Grail of newspapers being self-sustaining through digital revenue was now being reached. The digital-first approach of getting the news online is starting to work.
What the Facebook Live told me
Marc took part in a Facebook Live from the Birmingham Mail newsroom. You can watch the full 40-minute broadcast here.
What was reassuring is that newsrooms are still populated by people who thrive on breaking news and story telling. During the broadcast Sunday Mercury's Mike Lockley was mentioned. Mike, who gave me a week of work experience when I was still at college, is as old school as it is possible to get. If he can make the transition from print-led to digital there is still hope.
What was also encouraging was talk of new uses of technology. The Saturday night sports paper the Sports Argus folded 11-years ago. The pre-internet queues I recall in newsagents for their delivery are now a memory for people aged over 40. But as the broadcast pointed out, the last edition of the Argus couldn't carry that night's FA Cup Final score. So a podcast, video content and sports coverage that is more fan-centric is now the order.
Data is being used more and more to look at the stories that people like, the broadcast said.
A story that's big on a Trinity Mirror title in Newcastle, for example, can be be a pointer for what could be big in Birmingham too.
And yet, older newspaper people will turn in their graves at complaints made in the broadcast about spelling mistakes slipping into content. They'll be even more dismayed at the level of trolling that can sometimes pollute comment boxes and Facebook threads. This is a bigger issue than many people realise. This is an issue not just for newspapers but for civic life as well.
Video is the driver for engaging newspaper content.
What did strike me was the use of video by newspapers.
Ben Hurst, Post & Mail news editor responsible for video content, in the Facebook Live broadcast said something telling:
About 12 months ago we were barely doing any video. The rise of the smartphone means that if someone is on the scene they won't just take a still pic. They'll take footage. It's completely changed everything operates.
But not just recorded video is playing a part. Live broadcasts on social channels are becoming increasingly part of the media company's armoury. Reporters are rarely first on the scene with a smartphone to shoot footage but people are. Ben was open about the fact that they are open to use people's content.
What does this means for comms people?
It means that newspapers are still in the game. Only they're not newspapers anymore. They are media companies. They're not the only game in town anymore either. But they are starting to re-invent themselves.
What do you do if you are comms and PR?
It means taking a look at the content you generate. A press release with text is less effective in a landscape where newsrooms want footage and images. Text at news stands shaped by an editor's news sense once sold newspapers. Today, content refined by data and often driven by video drives the money-creating job sustaining traffic for media companies.
As newspapers adapt so should comms people.
Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.
Picture credit: Michael Coghlan / Flickr.