Sunday, September 10, 2017

Those blinking screens & 24-hour news: why journalism is STILL great

ROAD TO SUCCESS: Editor-in-chief Darren Thwaites outside the 
NCJ Media offices in central Newcastle
IT'S 10.30 on an ordinary Tuesday morning and, in a scenario repeated in newsrooms throughout the country, morning conference is about to start.
I am back on home territory, in the Newcastle newsroom where 25 years ago I helped The Journal convert from a traditional broadsheet to a bright, modern tabloid heralding similar moves throughout the country.
Now, as well as still home to three newspapers the office marches to the beat of ChronicleLive, one of the biggest regional digital media operations in the country providing news, views, video and interaction to an audience of millions every month.
Strangely for such a state-of-the-art operation the conference guest list is largely unchanged from time immemorial with representatives from news, production, business, sport and entertainment all sharing the table to sing for their supper.
But behind them the league table of story hits, as compiled by Chartbeat, flickers and burps its way through real-time consumption showing how many people are engaged with a particular story and how long they spend looking.
IN COMMAND: ChronicleLive  editor Helen Dalby driving
the desk in 
the middle of the newsroom
It is incessant and relentless and impossible not keep glancing at it.
There is a newslist, a complex matrix of who’s doing what and when, which continually evolves during the day. But the editor of ChronicleLive, Helen Dalby, kicks off with a review of the numbers from yesterday revealing which stories captured attention and for how long.
Flying the flag for sport is Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas. There is no longer a sports editor, a reflection that the Toon (plus Sunderland AFC to a certain extent) are the biggest games in town. By the close of conference, the top three stories in the all-seeing chart behind him are all Newcastle United – and this on a day when nothing has really happened.
Content editor Sophie Barley confidently chaperones the meeting through the news list, which probably isn’t the most exciting ever seen but does lend itself adding some creativity. She knows not to worry. In just the next 24 hours headlines like ‘Suspect on the run’, ‘Body found in house’, ‘Police seize thousands of cannabis plants’ will be dominating the news agenda.
Business, Production and Entertainments have their say too and all of it under the watching, cajoling eye of Darren Thwaites, editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror North East and the man charged with driving this unremitting beast of hits and hopes.
Darren’s cheerful demeanour and twinkling countenance bely his 49 years but are a testament to his lifetime of experience in the regional media from hometown Huddersfield to Aberdeen and then 12 years editing in the north east, six in Teesside and six in Newcastle.
Back in the day, Thomson House as it was then, was home to three independent newsrooms all with their own reporters, photographers and production teams. The Evening Chronicle printed multiple editions during the day, the Journal printed during the night for morning delivery and the Sunday Sun was its own adrenaline fuelled version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
NO HIDING PLACE: Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas
prepares for morning conference under the all-seeing eyes of the
Chartbeat monitor registering real-time audience engagement
The system thrived on competition, rather than co-operation. Sometimes three reporters from the same building were at the same event chasing the same people. With advent of computers skills were acquired at the dark arts of hacking into a ‘rival’ database to look at their stories.
But for a modern media business this was a bonkers way to run the operation and in 2009 the newsrooms were combined into a single entity and in 2012 Darren was appointed to run the show.
There is still a sizeable number of journalists – 120 in all across Tyneside and Teesside – involved from hunter gatherer reporters to ‘story editors’, the latest incarnation of the endangered species of sub-editor.
Print is by no means a poor relation here. The production desk has the pick of all the stories that have been created during the day. The usual mix of breaking news, diary jobs and stories put forward by specialists from environment to entertainment.
The Journal and the Chronicle have a distinctiveness that the team seem to know intuitively what treatment will work best. Designers still craft individual pages and template pages are a guide rather than a leader. Story editors still lovingly craft headlines and captions, although they are now as likely to be from the new breed of ‘grow your own’ as from the grizzled grey cardigan variety.
“Print must be as successful as it can be,” says Darren from his neat, tidy and respectfully not expansive office next to the newsroom. “And we need to have the same standards online as we’ve always had for print.
“There is still an appetite for edgy, challenging journalism and the quality standards are still there.”
Darren passionately explains how the audience is spread over five areas: print, desktop, mobile, app and distributed platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Different masters with different demands, but behind it all is the content generation that has always been the heart of the operation.
He has the realism learned over 25 years in regional journalism and is not afraid to tackle some of the current concerns head on. “The economic reality is that we've had to find ways to cut the cost of our newsrooms right across the industry,” he says.
FAST PACED: News editor Sophie Barley and a two-screen life
“It's never easy to make those kinds of decisions but I'm pleased that our newsrooms have retained the skill and scale to do the job properly. Without our investment and belief in digital, we simply wouldn't have been able to maintain the quality we have.”
Helen Dalby has made it to Regional Head of Digital for Trinity Mirror North East as well as Editor of ChronicleLive through a digital route rather than traditional journalism, but that doesn’t stop her getting caught up in the thrill of it all.
“The job consumes me,” she admits “and I find it difficult to imagine not being in the thick of news publishing. The buzz in a newsroom when everyone is pulling together on a developing story is quite intoxicating.
“It’s a cliché, but no two days are the same and that’s hugely exciting. I’m proud of the content we publish, and it’s gratifying to have at our disposal analytics which prove that we’re answering the questions local people are asking, and doing so responsibly, ethically and with strong brand values at our core.”
Both Darren and Helen exude authority and friendliness and take great satisfaction from the people they have brought on and the systems in place to make it happen. Helen leads most of the monthly skills workshops that staff attend and every reporter has a quarterly one-to-one to look at their own individual progress.
“I get a lot of job satisfaction from seeing the training I’ve delivered helping both experienced and new reporters to reach the biggest possible audiences,” says Helen.
Those monthly sessions are an opportunity for each department and run through their audience figures. “We invite everyone in the team - managers and reporters - so we can all learn together about what worked and why,” says Darren.
“We look at why some stories didn't do as well as we thought they should. It might be something simple such as a headline that had no search value, poor timing of publication or a failure to engage fully on social.”
HOME FROM HOME: The Printer's pie in its
newly-painted pomp back in the mid-nineties
“We also sit down quarterly with individuals to learn from their data and reinforce good practice. They're positive and constructive meetings, supported by monthly training modules. Our pledge to the team is for them to be the best trained and most informed in regional media. We're fortunate to have a positive bunch that want to succeed.”
It has a been, to use Helen’s words, a thrilling and intoxicating day for me too. To see the daily dramas unfold first hand under the all-seeing eye of the metrics counter reminds me how far journalism has come.
But I don’t want to leave the Toon without two trips down memory lane. First to the Printer's Pie pub built into the ground floor of the NCJ building where many a newsroom experience has been shared over the years. But, now renamed, it is dark, dingy and shut with its secrets locked away behind the grimy curtains.
So, on to Northumberland Street, Newcastle’s main shopping thoroughfare where I am searching for the street vendor joyfully singing out the charms of that day’s Chronicle.
Unsuccessful, I ask a patrolling police officer. “Oh, I don’t think they do that sort of thing any more.” Maybe not, but they do a lot more instead…

THE VERDICT

Rather like they used to say that all young people should do National Service I think all journalists over 50 – especially those not involved in front-line newspaper journalism – should go and spend some time in a thoroughly modern newsroom like this.
They will find committed, capable people confidently handling all the channels of delivery with a dexterity that can only be marvelled at.
Much has changed. All those blinking screens telling you what’s hot and what’s not are a far cry from the “I know what my readers like” finger in the wind editor of not that long ago.
But much is the same too. The excitement when a big story breaks, the leadership needed to steer it in the right direction and the boots on ground skills of talking to people and delivering what you find out quickly and succinctly.

  • This article appears in the September 2017 edition of PJ 'The voice of news publishing and printing'.

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