Five quick takeaways from the first Behind Local News conference

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the inaugural Behind Local News conference in Wolverhampton.

Held at Molineux Stadium, the event was a chance for journalists from across regional media in the UK to step away from the day job and share their experience and knowledge.

Journalists can be instinctively protective and competitive where rival publications are concerned, but there was a genuine spirit of openness in the room, and a willingness to learn from each other that was refreshing.

You’ll find much more in-depth coverage of the day on the Behind Local News blog, but here are five quick points I took away from it.

[I work for Johnston Press, one of the companies who helped to organise the conference]

1. Build trust, and loyalty will follow

Newspapers have spent decades building trust, but they don’t always live up to the required standards. While trust in the national press has been hit hard by the phone hacking scandal and all manner of political ideology masquerading as news, local titles haven’t gotten off lightly either.

In his thought-provoking talk on The Future of News, Nic Newman of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism identified trust as one of the three key challenges facing the media industry (along with funding and the abundance of providers).

His research has found that only 43% of people trust the news — and 24% of people actively avoid it.

These depressing numbers were attributed to four main perceptions about news coverage:

  1. News is more biased than factual
  2. There’s too much celeb-style journalism (whether that’s journalists thinking they’re the star, or actual ‘sidebar-of-shame’-style coverage)
  3. News coverage seems more concerned with being first rather than being right
  4. Negativity and extremes lead the coverage too often

The good news for local newspapers? A larger proportion of people (63%) are more interested in local news, and local newspapers are still more trusted than their national equivalents.

Newman argued convincingly in a future where journalists are much more involved with their audience. News will always be a core requirement, but so will unique content (investigations, solutions/service journalism) and community-based content.

He highlighted the fact that the industry is desperately trying to move away from the broken ad-driven model to something that ties itself more to closer relationships with the reader, whether that’s through membership, micro-payments or subscriptions.

No small challenge, of course.

2. How language can influence engagement

This has all been quite high-falutin so far. How do you actually build trust and increase engagement in the pressurised newsroom environment?

Chartbeat is a company that’s all about “content intelligence”, so Jill Nicholson of the real-time data specialists was on hand to share some of their research.

As anyone who uses Chartbeat will know, it’s easy to develop a minor addiction to its league table-style interface, but Jill had lots to say about how to ensure readers actually read your stories.

Some of her tips for better engagement included:

  • Clickbait just does not work on any level any more – if anything we should over-deliver in what we offer once a reader clicks through
  • Language really matters: getting the headline right is crucial
  • The homepage is not dead: it’s one of the best ways to keep loyal readers
  • Quotes make a difference: human voices are vital in any story

3. Mobile, mobile, mobile

“Don’t just be mobile first, be mobile only,” was a phrase from Jill’s talk that really resonated in the room.

Nic Newman echoed this in his talk when he argued that, as journalists, “we don’t think enough about mobile”, and added that new mobile formats for storytelling are just around the corner.

The stats on mobile growth across the two main news referrers back this up:

  • Google: 2016, 50% mobile / 2017, 60% mobile
  • Facebook: 2016, 78% mobile / 2017, 87% mobile

We’re often so desk-bound these days that we still view our work mainly through the prism of the desktop view. But this isn’t how readers are consuming it.

Alison Gow of Reach (formerly known as Trinity Mirror) later suggested that trialling mobile-only days for whole teams and making use of vertical monitors were good ways of forcing journalists to think of the mobile experience.

3. Email newsletters are back in vogue – for good reason

In his workshop on newsletters, Paul Gallagher of Reach described newsletters as “the cockroach of the internet”. They just won’t die.

But now they’re more fashionable than ever, with media startups like The Skimm, The New Tropic, Billy Penn and Quartz making them central to their business models.

Paul was keen to emphasise that newsletters require TLC if you want to grow a valuable audience through them: it’s about forging relationships, not broadcasting to the invisible masses.

His fundamentals on making a quality newsletter were:

  1. RSS feed < Curated Links < Written Narrative (take the time to curate and write it)
  2. Recommendations, reviews and discounts add value
  3. Have sign-up opportunities on every page of your site
  4. Monitor opens and click-throughs
  5. Have mobile design principles
  6. Sign ups are driven by exclusive content, competitions etc
  7. The subject line is the ‘sell’
  8. Ask yourself: what value is the newsletter creating?

4. Journalists are (finally) getting to grips with data

Energy might have been flagging slightly by late afternoon, but it was revived (for me at least) by the session on data journalism.

Without going into too much detail, this was a spirited discussion involving representatives from Reach, The Bureau Local, RADAR and the BBC which revealed some of the agenda-leading stories they’re breaking every day through proper scrutiny of data.

They were all keen to make it clear that 90% of data journalism is working with spreadsheets, not coding (although it’s always a useful skill to have), and that good storytelling underpins everything.

A stat that really underlined the opportunity in data journalism was this: of all the datasets published by the UK Government, 66% are never opened, and 84% opened only once.

5. We’ll need to embrace automation

There have been scare-mongering stories around automation for years now, and suggestions that AI-generated copy will make all human journalists redundant.

Rubbish, of course.

But what is clear is that automation will have a big role to play in the future of news. Think about all those mundane, repetitive tasks that journalists still have to do, from transcribing interviews to labouring with content management systems.

What if AI could take away some of that burden, to allow journalists to concentrate on journalism?

Nic Newman believes that we have no choice but to embrace AI, and we should do it with a positive mindset.

(He also raised the example of Replika, an app that learns to write and talk like you, and can even populate your Twitter feed. I don’t remember this featuring in Blade Runner 2049 but it sounds intriguing.)

If you want to learn more about the conference, head over to



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