NEWS AGENTS: How to get local media coverage in 2023

I often find myself reaching these days for a film quote to sum up a tricky scenario.

I have a whole lexicon of well-worn cinematic phrases to celebrate the good, the life or death and call out the awkward.

One in particular phrase I’ve been using quite a lot of late.

“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

It’s a homely pair of slippers of a line. It’s from 1939 Oscar-winning movie ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ A timeless phrase said by the character of Dorothy who has just been swept up by a tornado and plonked down with her dog in a different world.

This week, I saw a hugely helpful webinar organised by the Midlands CIPR ‘Meet the Media.’ Two senior editors from Reach plc’s regional titles Graeme Brown and Natalie Fahy joined the UK Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobbitt.

I started in newspapers when they were print-led and the main show in town. In 2023, they have truly evolved. No longer calling themselves ‘newspapers’ they are news brands who have a print offering but also are online and available via a website, email, Facebook and TikTok.

If news is breaking they want to be online within minutes. The idea that people will wait until 4pm tomorrow for the next edition to come out is as obsolete as silent movies.

Newsbrands have content editors, agenda writers and data analysts.

To an ex-journo like me Truly, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.     

Here’s a summary of the advice…

News brands are not papers of record anymore

The paper I worked on sent a reporter to every council meeting and went to every court and inquest every day. That simply doesn’t happen anymore. There isn’t the resource or the interest. The public sector, therefore, can’t commend an expectation of coverage. It has to be earned.

News brands are digital first 

This is not new but it bears repeating. In the riots in 2011, my local paper couldn’t tell their stories until the next day. That wouldn’t happen today. It would be straight on the website and across social media. 

News brands are driven by data

A few years ago, I heard a Reach plc person talk about how some content in the print edition may have been read by almost nobody but it was impossible to tell because there was no Google Analytics for page six of the paper. Insight now drives what stories are covered. In basic terms, if there are clicks in it there’s more chance of coverage.

News brands are worried about news avoidance

Avoiding the news is an active lifestyle decision for many people. Let’s face it the news has been pretty rubbish for more than a decade. We’ve had austerity then we had COVID. Then we had three Prime Ministers in a few months and war in Ukraine. It’s enough to make anyone stop wanting to go out to the paper shop and buy a 50 page edition and pay through the nose.  

News brands are defensive about ‘clickbait’ 

One criticism that was brushed off was that news brands use clickbait and plenty of it. ‘Click bait’ they maintain is a headline that doesn’t marry up with the story. I can see this argument. I think the criticism goes deeper than that. I think of the nine stories in 24-hours on Birmingham Live when Phil and Holly jumped the queue at the Queen’s Lying in State at Westminster Hall. That nudging forward of the story may not fulfill that definition of clickbait, sure. But this is not the local news content that people have grown to expect from local newspapers. I don’t think journalists can  

News brands don’t need PR people to fill space anymore

As newsbrands are heading to be digital first there’s less opportunity to fill column inches with content that isn’t all that. Which begs the question about what is wanted. ‘Don’t tell us, show us,’ is one approach.

Reach plc titles are ‘proudly mainstream’

The audience for local news, Reach say, is mainstream. So much so that ‘proudly mainstream’ is a slogan amongst the editorial hierarchy. This means they’ll be keener on content that works in the mainstream rather than something niche. 

What content works #1: Don’t tell us, show us

This is fascinating. One of the Reach plc people spoke about how in the olden days an inflation rate announcement would have made a page lead in the business-focussed Birmingham Post. They don’t do that anymore. Instead, they’ll cover the story by sending someone out to buy a basket of supermarket goods and tell the story through the 3p on a pint of milk.

Apply that ‘don’t tell us show us’ approach elsewhere the grant for the football team isn’t words but images, footage and quotes of the kids playing with the news goals in their new kit. In itself, this isn’t new. Back in the day, this would be gold standard. Now, gold standard is more minimum standard.

What content works: #2 building a relationship with reporters

Hearteningly, the personal relationship is just as important as it ever was, the session said. I always found relationships with reporters a fine balance of fear and ego. Fear, because as a reporter you didn’t want to miss out on something. Ego because every reporter wanted the front page or a byline. That’s the public credit for a piece of work.

Interestingly, the feedback from the news profession was that they are more likely to listen to someone they have a relationship with on the issue of a representation for more time to pull together a statement. That certainly chimes with the old ways of doing things.   

What content works: #2 building a relationship with Local Democracy Reporters

The BBC scheme sees 165 reporters working to help fill the gaps left by declining news rooms. Their brief is to work more off diary and steer away from press releases. This is potentially rich ground for the public sector.  

What content works #3 Solutions journalism

This was really interesting. What’s meant by this is that newspapers – sod it, I’m calling them that – are looking at the issue but also ways to solve it. So, worried about fuel bills at winter? Here’s what you can do to save money. That’s a really interesting take.

What content works: Useful things for people to do

This is something the public sector can really excel at. 

News brands are reversing from Facebook towards email newsletters

Facebook has announced its intentions to move away from news. No doubt in part because of demands from news brands that their content deserves paying. Facebook have already closed down their journalism projects in a clear sign the romance is dead. The clock is very much ticking on news on Facebook

Interestingly, they also have a clear view of their audience on Facebook. It’s female and aged around 40. 

One place news companies are looking at in more detail is email newsletters. In the West Midlands, Reach now have more than 40 newsletters people can sign up to. Certainly, email lists means that they are not at the whims of a tech company’s algorithm. That’s not just important for comms people to know as its illustrative of how people consume news. It’s also potentially a direction of travel for the public sector’s own.

Sport is a separate thing 

Sport is ‘content vertical’ at Reach plc. This means that sport reporters in Stoke report to regional sport editors rather than the Sentinel and Staffordshire Life editorial team. This is itself doesn’t mean much to public sector comms people. It is, however, interesting to see how sport spins off from the news Facebook pages. So, there’s a Manchester Evening News Facebook page with a million and a million following their Manchester City coverage on a dedicated page and another million following Manchester United.

There is so much change and it’s fascinating to watch.

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