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Newsroom 3.1 – A Progress Report

A ‘digital first’ strategy that plans editorial around readers’ habits is increasing web audiences and revenues, according to David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s online cheerleader. Steve Dyson reports.

By Steve Dyson

David Higgerson is pre-occupied as we meet for a rushed lunch at the Old Contemptibles pub in Birmingham city centre. And who wouldn’t be, facing, as he does, a fast train to London for a one-to-one meeting with Simon Fox, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror plc, later in the afternoon.

The main boss, it seems, politely demands regular audiences with his junior executives, preferring personal updates as opposed to the hierarchical process that used to stultify new thinking at the publishing giant under previous regimes.

But within minutes – and with the help of scampi, chips and beer – I manage to distract Higgerson, digital publishing director for Trinity Mirror Regionals, for a progress report on Newsroom 3.1, launched earlier this year.

The digitally-led newsroom

“It's gone very well so far. The brief was to deliver a newsroom which is digitally-led, but which continues to produce strong newspapers. The digital audience data shows significant acceleration in growth online, while print, at worst, has remained on previous trends.

“The challenges wrapped into moving from focusing on filling the book each day to meeting the round-the-clock demands of a digital audience with content which can also be revised into print are many. But the biggest change has been placing audience analytics at the heart of the newsroom, and building content around audience habits the data reveals.

“News conferences are perhaps the most critical aspect. They’re now centred purely on getting the most out of a story online, and that leads to a big change in how we approach different stories. So, whereas if something happened first thing in the morning at a newsroom with an overnight deadline, we might have sent out one person to the scene, we may send more now because there's an expectation from the audience that we’ll be getting more online sooner.

“The audience analytics approach isn't about being ruled by data – madness lies that way! It's more about looking at data and making sure we're producing content in the right way, and asking ourselves why content we might consider crucial to what we are, isn't doing that well, and how we make it more popular.

“Audience data tells us that [football] match reports aren't as popular at full-time as a piece outlining five things our main writer – the brand name if you like – has learnt from that game, so we make sure we get them online as soon as possible.”

Staff reaction

Newsroom 3.1 began as a trial at the Manchester Evening News late last year. It was then formally launched at The Journal, Sunday Sun and Newcastle Chronicle earlier this year, followed by the South Wales Echo and Western Mail in Cardiff, then Manchester for the refined version, then the Birmingham Mail, Post, Sunday Mercury and Coventry Telegraph, and, last month, the Liverpool Echo.

“The most encouraging thing has been the reaction of the newsrooms”, says Higgerson, aged 34, who was born in Solihull but spent his teenage years in Lancashire, where he now lives with his wife Amanda, a local journalist, and two young children.

“Overwhelmingly, it's been positive, with many saying 'this is what we've been waiting for'. Our newsrooms are full of very talented journalists, including many experienced ones. Training has been at the heart of Newsroom 3.1, giving great journalists the new skills and knowledge needed to succeed online too.”

But the project involves chops as well as positive changes, so are numbers up or down after so many years of recessionary purges?

“The net headcount has risen overall”, asserts Higgerson. “It was important to bring in new skills, as well as working with existing staff. New roles such as football editor, social media editor, data analyst and advance content writer – focusing on content written in advance or targeting a specific audience interest where we can get more page views – have been filled by both external and internal appointments, [although] as a result of the digital focus, some roles were put at risk of redundancy.”

Impact on revenue

And has it all started to work – both in terms of audience growth and commercial revenues? “Digital revenue is up significantly and it's important that the audience growth remains ahead of that so we have the audience to meet commercial demand. Within the audience data, the most encouraging aspect is that page view growth is outstripping unique user growth – a key sign we have an engaged audience.

“Local audience growth outstrips overall growth, too, and the growth in use of our apps has been very positive. The more users on apps the better – they’re the people who've decided they want us as a constant presence on their phone, and that's half the battle won.”

Has the ‘print versus digital’ revenues split improved, or is it still around 20% digital, 80% print? Higgerson, who cut his teeth as a trainee reporter on the Chorley Citizen before stints at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, The Journal, Newcastle, and the now defunct Liverpool Daily Post, gives no specifics away, and insists: “This changes all the time”.

But he adds: “The trend is a growing share from digital, as seen across the industry. The company's stated ambition is clear – to cherish print and the associated revenues while building up digital revenues.”

Ah, sound-bites – don’t you just love ’em! I push again for digital revenue detail, and ask if it’s true that advertisers booking print space simply get digital costs added on. What proportion of digital revenues are 'pure'?

“Again, this fluctuates in terms of percentages”, ducks Higgerson, “but it’s about meeting client demand. Some clients have only ever known print and part of our job is to tell them about digital opportunities. Others are already up to speed and want to know what we can offer digitally, as well as in print.

“And then there are clients who traditionally may not have considered us, but who we can attract with a digital offer, particularly around ‘What's On’ [sections]. Selling audience is our greatest opportunity.”

The next challenge

What's next for digital development, I ask Higgerson, who has 15 direct reports in his digital unit, with dotted lines to another 80-odd digital specialists at Trinity Mirror’s regional titles across the UK.

“Mobile is the big challenge, both editorially and commercially, and the growth of apps, making it essential we’re relevant enough to people's lives to justify them downloading us to their phone. There aren't any quick wins or short cuts here – quality and relevance of content is what matters.

“That content needs to entertain but also inform, which takes us in new directions around useful information. We've had real success here already. For example, our rolling news and information live blogs attract a large number of loyal users, while pre-planned content such as guides to the Birmingham Christmas Markets often become the most-read content once the events go live.

“There's a lot of talk about wearables, and it will be interesting to see where that goes. The biggest impact for newsrooms will be an increasing focus on how readers consume content: what are they doing as they read it? We’re already having to factor that in with the split between mobile and desktop – are they reading an iPad in the evening or during lunch?”

The social dimension

What about social media? “It's crucial; primarily Twitter and Facebook. The focus is in three areas. The first is as a tool for getting stories out to people. It's not uncommon for social media to drive at least 40% of unique users, and that’s probably even higher given some of the problems of tracking Facebook users. Part of Newsroom 3.1 is looking at what works on social media, at what times, and adjusting content decisions accordingly. For breaking news, Facebook can drive up to 85% of page views.

“The second is as a news-gathering tool. Many journalists harvest information from social media and there's nothing wrong with that. But building a community around you, and joining [online] communities related to your work will always drive greater results – but that's nothing new in journalism really.

“The third is about brand loyalty, and making sure that we're responding to what people are saying to us on social media, and creating a presence which matters. A one-size-fits-all Facebook page for a brand won't ever get us where we need to be, which is why many of our brands have multiple pages, catering for a wide range of interests.”

What about print…

What about the declining but still important print products? Higgerson hasn’t confirmed figures, but industry insiders say around 80% of revenues still rely on print. And many criticise reverse publishing (from digital to print), the blandness of templates and a scarcity of reporting staff. Is there adequate investment?

“I'm not sure that freehand-designed pages drive more print sales,” quips Higgerson. “Trinity's print templates are very good and I don't think anyone who looked at, say, the coverage of the Newcastle United saga in the Chronicle could describe the design as bland, or the smart way the Coventry Telegraph dealt with the CCFC [#BringCityHome] campaign.

“In terms of on-the-ground staff, this is as much an issue for digital as for print and something we’ve sought to address through Newsroom 3.1. We still have more people out and about, covering more stories face-to-face than any other media, and technology is an enabler.

“Print is still vital to what we do, and helps us online too. That 150 years of history we've got is crucial for helping people to get to know us online. I think we're showing that being digitally-led doesn't damage print, but can help it.”

We gently debate this, and agree that by “help” Higgerson means “not worsen existing trends of decline” and, at times, “improving” those declining trends. But will regional daily newspapers survive?

“This could go a number of ways, depending on each marketplace. Free will make sense in some places, bi-weekly or weekly will work in others. The [once daily] Birmingham Post is the best example of a brand which is building a strong voice online while producing a strong weekly product.

“The success of print will depend on how we bundle up content which people want to read at a certain point of the day, for a reason. That could be coffee break, lunch break or during a commute when people don't want to be attached to a screen. Digital data should help inform that, and the move to overnight printing has meant many newsrooms now focus on print as an agenda-setting medium.”

Higgerson needs to dash for his train now, but I still want his ‘top tip’ for new journalists and would-be editors of the future. “Make the most of the data available to you to learn about the audience. Whether you’re just entering the trade or have been in it for years, make sure you’re as close to the audience as possible. Social media’s an obvious point here, but the wealth of analytics out there and available to every newsroom is a huge gift.

“I heard a great story from the New York Times the other week about how they try to sell the excitement of digital journalism, and they say that, yes, the front page of the paper is still great, but with a push notification we can now make someone's pocket buzz with the latest news there and then. That's how close our relationship with the reader is becoming. We're still in the business of making people stop and go 'wow', we've just got many new ways to do it.”

And with that, Higgerson – a big chap like myself – is off, dodging across busy lanes of traffic and taking care not to skid in the rain as he runs for the 14:30 to Euston for his web-gazing meeting with Simon Fox. I hope he makes it.

Trinity Mirror’s regional websites, including those in Birmingham, Cardiff, Coventry, Huddersfield, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, attracted 21.9 million unique users in September 2014, according to the latest ABCe figures.

Simon Fox, Trinity Mirror's chief executive said: "For the first time we have published our total regional network number which shows we are attracting nearly 22 million monthly unique users, making us the clear number one in regional digital publishing."