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A comeback for local news?

Behind local news

There has been reports of the decline of print newspapers for a while now, especially when it comes to local and regional press. However, when you analyse local news titles opening and closing since September 2020, across print it pretty much balances out and for digital there has been quite a bit of growth. This shows that the appetite for local news is still very much there. 

The challenge is how to capitalise on this and appeal to new audiences and those that have lost interest. The Behind Local News Autumn Conference addressed these issues and also covered topics such as safeguarding journalists and how hybrid working has changed the newsroom. Below are our key takeaways from the day: 

‘Newsrooms should be data informed and data led’ – David Higgerson, chief digital publisher at Reach plc 

Insight and analytics into online articles and content has been prevalent for a while now but are newsrooms using it in the right way? David Higgerson argued that the two key metrics to look at are who the readers are and where they are. This can be gleaned through the data tools available but also by running surveys on the website as well. This will then inform the reasons readers come to a local news site which might be to be informed, to be inspired, to be indulged or to be involved in what is going on. If you know this information, then this can help deepen engagement with the readership by giving them more of what they want to read. 

David Lord, editor of the Evening Telegraph, went on to add that readers want local news that is ‘TRUE’ – Truthful, Relevant, Unique and Engaging. This acronym needs to be applied to every news story that goes out if you want to keep people coming back to your site. 

‘Readers notice and appreciate content that ultimately speaks to them and their identity’ – Lynda Moyo, head of What’s On & emerging content at Reach plc 

With such a wealth of content to choose from online, it is more important than ever to produce stories that people can really connect with. That is why Reach plc launched the ‘Belonging Project’ which aimed to feature a variety of voices and help reconnect with local communities. This second part was especially important in the wake of COVID-19 to actually get out into the community and hear about the real stories and issues affecting people. This in turn helped to connect with underrepresented and minority communities as stories were being told from their perspective. 

Readers are also connecting and finding their content in different ways – mainly through social media. Tiktok and Instagram is quickly becoming the main source of news for those aged 16-24 so if you want to appeal to a younger audience and get them reading local news, then you need to have a presence on these social media channels. Autumn Lewis, social media and engagement manager at Newsquest, spoke about how meaningful news for the younger audience needs to be bite-sized and delivered in a way that is easy to consume. Tiktok won’t generate direct pageviews but will get people engaged with the brand, whereas with Instagram you can include links and content is much more shareable. 

‘Online abuse is a daily reality for us’ – Callum Parke, senior reporter at DerbyshireLive 

The various social media channels do offer more chances to promote and share content, but they also provide an opportunity for people to vent their frustrations and abuse those who are reporting on the news. There were three bits of advice offered up as to how journalists can deal with this: 

  • Create separate profiles for personal/private and professional personas. It’s important to have strict settings on the personal/private account and keep this locked down to protect yourself and friends and family. 
  • Avoid reading comments outside of working hours. 
  • Practice swarming – backing up colleagues in a positive way if they are faced with abuse. 

Publishers/organisations should also have a structure in place to support journalists facing any abuse, both on an individual basis and as a team. 

‘Visuals are important to get people clicking and get them engaged’ – Nathan Judah, digital sports editor at the Express & Star 

We mentioned earlier that social media is an important way to attract new younger audiences and quite often the best way to appeal to them is through visual journalism. Nathan Judah spoke about how the Express & Star team has increased the number of videos they put out to around 15-20 a week, as well as four podcasts, and the engagement with this has been great. He also mentioned how important a good fun thumbnail can be to get readers clicking through to the content. This has worked especially well for them with sports reporting. 

These new formats and innovative ways to create pieces of content are proving popular with readers. Jody Doherty-Cove, special projects editor at Newsquest, has created mini-documentaries into local true crime stories and published them in video format on YouTube. He has also been able to put together graphic visualisation of timelines and crime scenes to further engage the audience. This has then been turned into a podcast and a Facebook group has been set up allowing people to share their stories and drive new angles. 

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