LONG READ: Holly and Phil show the changing face of the local newspapers on Facebook

Arthur Sulzburger was the chairman of the New York Times and navigated the company from newstand to mobile phone.

He started as a journalist in the 1970s in a newsroom of typewriters, ashtrays and journalists who were largely male.   

“Newspapers cannot be defined by the second word — paper,” he once said. “They’ve got to be defined by the first word — news.”

As a statement, Sulzberger’s is a useful yardstick to measure the transformation of the product that dominated the landscape. 

Newspapers are no longer newspapers. They think of themselves as news brands. They are titles whose masthead bleed from print to social media, email, the web and even radio.

So what about newspapers?

Nothing paints a picture as to where local news is like Holly and Phil. Why does this matter? And what’s this got to do with local news? 

Well, if a title is one of the largest in the area it matters what they are covering. It also matters what kind of content they are interested in so it can be shaped accordingly. Newspapers, sorry, news brands don’t have the staff to be papers of records faithfully covering everything that a council, police force, fire and rescue service or NHS Trust does.

There is a disconnect between comms and PR people and the reporters who work in local news. In simple terms, newspapers have changed. Clicks not print sales is the currency of news brands. Sure, we get that. But what does that look like?  

This is where Holly and Phil come in. 

They show local titles are not so much about about local news anymore.    

The data on local news shows a mixed picture

The local newspaper still have a role to play in the media landscape but the data tells a conflicting story. The Reuters Digital News Report of 2022 shows that fewer than one in ten get their news from local titles online or in print. 

However, more granular JICREG data that looks at print and online reach is often more generous. The Reach plc-owned print Birmingham Mail reaches less than one in 10. Online, the title rebranded as Birmingham Live reaches 80 per cent of the population online. That’s a mix of web, email, Facebook.

Where there used to be a strong daily title there’s often a strong shift to digital. The exception to this is often London. The Evening Standard, which thinks of itself as a national newspaper, has largely sucked the oxygen out of the capital’s newspaper market. In Brent, for example, the Brent & Kilburn Times is the largest title and reaches a mere 16 per cent. In Haringey, the largest title reaches just six per cent.   

Local newspapers aren’t all about local news 

Last September, I started a review of local newspapers across the UK mapping more than 20 daily and regional titles. I looked at Facebook as well as the print edition. It became a piece of work so involved that I’m now rolling it forward to a second year. 

What I can tell you is that the content of local titles isn’t really very local anymore. On Facebook, 60.7 per cent of daily titles was local content. In print this was 64.5 per cent. 

For Reach titles, just 51.2 per cent of content on Facebook was local.  

It’s not a surprise to me that a UK Government Department of Media, Culture and Sport committee reported that the quality of local news was compromised. Or that this was angrily dismissed by the large companies that dominate the sector. 

In the local news audience field Reach plc dominate the top 10 slots. What they are doing others will follow.  

What Holly and Phil show about the state of local news on Facebook 

And so we come to Holly and Phil the presenters of ITV’s ‘This Morning’. The rolling story is that the pair of them may or may not have fallen out and may or may not be dismissed.

The pair of them are, not to beat about the bush, catnip for clicks. It’s not just regional papers but it’s also The Guardian whose story on the story was the most clicked that day.  

How did they fare on a local title?

Well, reader. Let me show you how it fared.  

I chose Reach plc’s Birmingham Live to map. It’s local. They have reporters who cover local stories and they have reporters employed nationally to provide shared content on national stories. They are the model of the local news titles.  

In a 48-hour period, Birmingham Live posted to Facebook 59 times with 20 of the posts being Birmingham stories. Amongst the Brum content was coverage of the deposing of the Leader of the Council and a fatal collsion. 

Elsewhere, there was Harry & Megan, Harry Potter films going to Netflix, Madeleine McCann and like a bright shining beacon rolling coverage of Holly and Phil – around 10 per cent of the title’s output.  

Here it is: 

Phil’s not going to be the only casualty 16.5.23 10.25pm

Rumours of a rift between Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield have been circulating. Despite the This Morning presenters previously claiming ‘everything is fine’, things seemed to come a head this week. Here’s everything we know about the Holly and Phil ‘feud’ so far… 16.5.23 8pm

Holly Willoughby has brushed off her Phillip Schofield feud as she got dolled up for a red carpet event with George Clooney and Kate Garraway. Holly, 42, was dressed up to the nines at The Prince’s Trust and TK Maxx & Homesense Awards. 16.5.23 5pm

Phillip Schofield appears to have quit social media amid reports of a feud with Holly Willoughby. 16.5.23 10.24am

The programme is facing an exodus of guests – amid a row over double standards. 15.5.23 9.30pm

Holly Willoughby has sent a lengthy statement to fans after the Phillip Schofield ‘feud’ emerged. 15.5.23 7pm

What does this tell you? 

It’s a 48-hour period on one title. There’s a limit to how representative this is. There are many ways to look at this. 

  1. The old school journo view 

To a reporter who worked on newspapers before the internet held ascendancy this list of stories would have got a bollocking from my news editor. ‘Know your fucking patch,’ was an admonishment that still rings in my ears when I added a story from a few hundred yards off the area we covered. If it’s in the circulation area, it gets covered. If it’s not, it won’t. For a six month period the district office as a punishment I was in had to cover every council meeting large or small. Even the meetings that only had apologies for absence in public.

Using this yardstick six stories in little over 24-hours is career ending. 

2. The digital first news view 

To an editor charged with keeping the lights on at a century-old title this is what news looks like. Its about clicks, attention and interest. That interest can be quickly judged through analytics in a way that stories in print never could. Those in charge make no apology for this approach. The national content pays for local reporters to be employed. Fewer of them but none the less still employed. 

3. The Arthur Sulzburger view 

If Sulzburger’s view is that newspapers had to be judged by news not the format they were presented in I’ll wager that the judgement would be critical. Holly and Phil are news and what people want but I’m not convinced that there are more important things in Birmingham deserving equal coverage. Would those things get the same clicks? I’m not so convinced.

4. The reader view 

The fact that there’s so much Holly and Phil content means in a data sensitive environment this is what the readers want. If that’s what the readers want, that’s certainly what they’re getting. 

What comms and PR people can learn

The hard fact is that newspapers are a different product than they were 20 years ago. You can be depressed or impressed by this. It won’t change reality. 

Anybody who is making news work in 2023 deserves a round of applause. But the thing is, I’m not sure if they’ve fully told people that they actually are a different product than the one their parents bought on the way home from work.  

They are entertainment, gossip and strong reactions more than the affairs of the Town Hall. 

Newspapers have changed and to properly understand how that’s changed in your area you need to properly map the content and what they looks like. Some things you got coverage for you won’t get coverage for. Other content needs to be re-shaped. 

The one absolute truth is shovelling the same press release out of the door and expecting it to be picked up is on a listicle of pointless things for comms people to do.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: