Just last week while delivering training something struck me that had been right under my nose.
You do not need a picture editor on the internet. The thought had never occurred to me before.
A picture editor when I was a journalist was the gatekeeper who decided what image went where. They could pick a page one pic over an inside lead. Always, on the newspaper I worked on they were upright shots. Why? Because that’s the size of the hole on the page template. Always, they were people pictures. They were ‘tight, bright and upright.’ Portrait sized, with groups of smiling people with every piece of the picture busy. It’s an art.
News pictures are dying
A while back I carried out an audit for a council press office. The aim was to see what content worked across print, web, radio and TV in the city they served. The result was surprising:
Half of pictures in the print edition were news pictures. Posed with a caption. But not a single one was used by the newspaper online. Police mugshots, CCTV stills, user generated content and library images were instead used.
With that in mind, the skill should be how to source your own images to attach to content that you post or send out. Once you’d send out an image with a caption aiming at the print edition. Now, send out a stock image to aim for their Facebook page.
Yet images remain powerful. So what do you do?
Sourcing your own images
I’ve written before about the amazing compfight that searches Flickr’s six billion images. Remember to search for creative commons pictures and you have images that you can re-use. Here is a list of alternative copyright free sites but be warned. Many are not searchable.
Sourcing your own image library
Flickr isn’t nearly as cool as Instagram and hasn’t been for years. But it is an effective place to upload and tag your images. And it costs about £30 a year for a Pro account. Make them public to save yourself the hassle of finding that image and sending it on. Give them a creative commons licence to allow them to be re-used.
Sourcing residents images as user generated content
With sites like instagram growing like topsy, millions of images are posted across your area. Go onto Instagram yourself and approach people for permission to re-use an image on the website or elsewhere.
“I love newspapers,” legendary Sunday Times editor Harold Evans once said, “But I’m intoxicated by the power and possibility of the internet.”
I get that.
It’s hard not to be a participant or a watcher in the media landscape in 2016 without being fascinated at how fast it evolves.
There was an excellent interview by Alex Spence on political website politico with the outgoing director of communications at the Prime Minister’s Office. Craig Oliver spent six years in the post. Leave politics aside, he has some really useful observations. You can read full post here. Here are a few highlights:
On the changing political media: “The reality is that we are not in a 24/7 news cycle. We are in a 360-degree, 3D news cycle, when news is coming at you all the time, constantly, and the next headline is not the top of the next hour on a 24-hour news station, but in the time it takes for somebody to type out a tweet.”
On which media — TV, radio, newspapers, digital, social — now has most influence on political news: “You’re saying, ‘Is the TV news the most important thing?’, and actually that feels slightly dated as a question. Yes it’s massively important but I still think, what are we saying to the newspapers, what are we saying to the broadcasters, what are we saying to social media, I treat each of those quite equally. They all bleed into each other. Increasingly you have news organisations that do websites, podcasts, vodcasts, you know, essentially mini-TV programs, little videos, little audio bites, it’s all merging together. It’s how are you impacting traditional newspapers, how are you impacting the traditional broadcasters, how are you having an effect on social media and that kind of digital world. It is starting to mesh and move but you still do have to think in each of those three ways about each story.”
On the enduring influence of the newspapers: “Anybody who did this job who didn’t think that newspapers had a very powerful influence on the political debate in this country would not be understanding the situation properly.”
These are points that any comms, PR or social media person needs to understand. It echoes something I’ve been saying for a while. Know your landscape. Know your stats. Don’t be a channel fascist and close things out entirely. Use the best channel. Not the sexiest.
This is significant: printed newspapers have become the least popular way that people use to keep up to date with what is going on in the world.
According to a report in the Guardian the annual Ofcom news consumption study will say that 31 per cent of the population read a printed newspaper to keep informed. This is a fall from 41 per cent the previous year.
On the other hand, TV news on 67 per cent, the internet with 41 per cent and radio 32 per cent are all comfortably ahead of breaking news on the news stand.
To anyone interested in the media landscape this feels like hugely landmark news in itself. To communications teams geared-up to service the needs of newspapers first and foremost this feels especially important.
It’s also further evidence that while newspapers used to be practically the only show in town they are not any longer.
The full report doesn’t appear to have been published on the Ofcom site. Their reports always bear reading and the Ofcom Communications Market 2015 report should be required reading for all comms and PR people. I’ve blogged the findings here.
To look at this from a newspaper perspective, they would argue their websites and social media are included in the internet column. So, ‘it’s complicated’ maybe one summary.
The Guardian report also had a few more significant bulletpoints:
25 per cent of people use their mobile phones to keep up to date – up four per cent.
14 per cent of people use word of mouth to get their news – up three per cent.
Young people are more likely to go online (59 per cent) than watch the TV (‘around half.’)
BBC1 was the top news source on 48 per cent, ITV second with 23 per cent, the BBC app or website 23 per cent, BBC News channel 14 per cent and Facebook 12 per cent along with Sky News.
A major US newspaper announced plans to fire its entire picture desk a week or two back. All 28 of them. To go.
As someone who has worked on newspapers and now deals with them as part of their job that’s a significant step.
It also underlines in it’s own small way this whole ‘the landscape is changing and pr people need to develop new skills’ thing that I’ve been writing about for the past four years.
Of course, it’s really tempting to dismiss this as the death twitch of an industry that is on it’s knees and move on. What really stopped me in my tracks was a blog by Andy Ihnatko an occasional contributor to the newspaper in question the Chicago Sun-Times.
He makes an excellent observation that newspapers need to get new skills and as the web and mobile web get more important. What struck me was the observation that perhaps the web developer is now doing what the photographer used to do. Their ability to produce eye-catching content that brings pages alive are now playing the role the snapper and picture editor used to.
Newspapers are a machine, he writes, adding:
“The machine was fantastic at manufacturing what readers wanted from 1850 to 1999. But it now needs to be retooled to manufacture what readers want in 2013.
“What if it fired photographers, but hired more web developers, and gave that department extra resources? Photographs aren’t than just pretty pictures; they serve many practical functions for an edition of a newspaper. They allow for a more attractive page design, they make the newspaper easier to visually navigate, and they offer the reader an alternative method of engaging with the stories.
“ A well-designed, responsive web page does the same things…with the added modern benefit that it allows a story to look great on any device. “Your photos aren’t anything special” is an aesthetic complaint. “Your site goes all screwy when I access it from my iPhone” is a report about a bug that prevents the user from reading the content.
“The point is that if a newspaper really wants to double-down on the value of their content, having a great team of web developers on staff is critical. I’d be less concerned about the sub-par photography of a site than I would about a site that’s hard to read on the device of my choice.”
So in summary, web developers are critical.
When you consider how mobile-first my own life is that has a ring of truth. My holiday frustration at the webpage that doesn’t show on my mobile to tell me the swimming pool opening times, for example.
What are the lessons for local government comms people?
It’s the importance of knowing that to present your story on the web you’ll need to present it well and in a way that people can read it. It’s getting more important that you’ll need a good web developers in your team to help you tell your story.
It also means that submitted pictures to newspapers in times of cut picture desks have real value. For now.
So, it’s back to that changing landscape stuff again really, isn’t it?
Business people are busy people. They’re at their desk early planning their day. A targeted email with 15 relevant news headlines is sent before 9am. The email links back to the website.
MORAL: They’d looked into their audience. Who it was and how they could best be communicated with. Then they tailored it. They DIDN’T build it Field of Dreams style and hope they’d come.
How do they know what stories are popular?
Google analytics help tell the journalist what stories are popular and which are not. Extra time and effort is then spent on ones which are popular.
MORAL: Don’t work blind. Listen to see what is popular.
Where does content come from?
Refreshingly, it’s fresh copy. Stories emerge from networking, talking to contacts as well as through standard press releases and announcements. They started as a two man team and have increased to six in the West Midlands. With similar sites in Yorkshire and the North West as well as the West Midlands they have a turn-over of around £1 milion. That’s a serious figure.
MORAL: Well written content updated daily can work. Traditional journalism CAN work.
What about paywalls?
What are paywalls? They are barriers to content you need a subscription to get past. They won’t work, Marc says. But they’ll work beautifully to push traffic towards sites like The Business Desk. They won’t work for hyperlocals.
MORAL: Information is free on the web. Think of other ways to be self-sustaining.
So how does the thing pay for itself?
Site advertising pays but increasingly events do too. Niche events that 40 people will pay money for insights on work, for example. They also become ways to built the online community offline too.
MORAL: Don’t look at one way to generate funds.
What about the site traffic?
Unlike newspapers, Marc was hugely free with insights into his site traffic. There’s about 1,200 visitors every day with 2.5 to three page impressions per visit.
This is from a base of 4,282 and 2,400 email subscribers. Small numbers? Maybe. But this is a start-up. And remember, the Birmingham Post used to sell around 10,000 a week.
MORAL: Build a community around a niche.
Email? Isn’t that boring?
It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s big figures. I’ll say that again. It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s not boring. It’s brilliant. It’s not something unique to thebusinessdesk.com. The IDeA Communities of Practice site does something with a daily email update.
MORAL: E-mail is the overlooked communication tool of web 2.0. As late 90s as it is you can reach big numbers through it. It also acts as a tap on the shoulder to remind you that site you signed up to is there.
So, what’s to learn?
I’m convinced there are lessons here, not just for news websites but for web users in general and yes, that does mean the public sector.
1. Think basic. Email may not be sexy. But people use it. In large numbers. Get an email subscription going. Don’t be afraid to be web1.0.
2. Think sustainable (content). Think about how the site will last. Make sure there’s a team not one overworked individual.
3. Think sustainable (finance). Think through how it can last and if not be a not-for-profit at least be a not-for-loss.
4. Research. Put some thought into your audience. Think who you are writing for. Think how and when they’d like content delivered. Be niche.
5. Wear different hats. Be a journalist. Be a marketeer. Be an advertising sales person.
Depressing? Not really. Realistic? Absolutely. And there’s a surprising amount in common between hyperlocals and local government web experimentors like me.
This rather excellent event at Birmingham City University drew web entrepreneurs, hyperlocals and newspaper people.
Forward looking rather than finger pointing it looked for solutions and answers rather than blame.
The seven income streams idea for hyperlocals prompted debate about what those streams could be. Straight forward banner ads emerge from the print model. But then what?
Actually, a whole myriad of ideas that the show web as a vibrant place for entrepreneurs.
Picture framing, listings, ad features, hyperlocal t-shirts bigging up an estate or area and PR services all emerged as potential solutions. There was even a natty idea to maximise dead air time on pub TVs.
However, the danger is the cash cow you chance upon replaces the hyperlocal reason for doing it in the first place. Besides, what works in one town may not work in a different estate.
But surely this lack of sure funding means hyperlocals are doomed? If you were an accountant, yes. You could be right. And if you were looking at these sites to make piles of cash.
But then balance sheets don’t count the enthusiasm, community spirit and zeal many people are powered by.
So, wearing my local government what what does all this mean?
First, there’s still demand for local news, for one. And a passion for an area.
But if something really did become crystal clear it’s this: there are barriers to hyperlocals as we’ll as local government. They just have different labels.
For hyperlocals it’s lack of time and the prized extra time seven income streams can bring.
For local government, who can have a degree of funding, it’s lack of time and the barriers a chain of command – and IT departments – can bring. We may want to deploy leftfield ideas. It’s just not always possible.
Both sides can be forgiven for looking enviously at the other.
Yet, for all these obstacles there are some brilliant ideas taking shape in all corners of the web in the public and private sectors.
There’s no golden bullet for the future of news but I’m convinced the answers will be found through pioneering spirit plus a passion for an area.
That’s not unlike how good web ideas will succeed in local government.
As an evocative recollection of a lost world, the opening lines of Marcel Pagnol’s memoir is hard to beat.
“I was born in the Aubagne in the last days of the goat herders,” he wrote of rural France in the 1890s.
“I was old as my mother and two years older than my brother. That always remained the same.” It is a beautiful book. You can feel the sunshine and the sense of a landscape changing and disappearing from view.
As someone who started in newspapers I’m getting that sense of seeing the old world disappearing.
Newspaper circulation in Britain has fallen by 19.1 per cent since 2001, according to website paidcontent:UK.
Truth is, I feel as if I am seeing the world disappear quicker than most. Why? I started on a hot metal newspaper.
“Of course,” I sheepishly tell people. “I began my career carrying pages of type from a linotype machine to a flatbed press.”
Fopr the record, it is worth stressing that I’m 37. Not 97.
In computer terms that’s pre-Bletchley Park. In fact, that’s several generations pre-Enigma. It represents 1880s technology and I have war stories my grandfather would have had.
For 12 months in 1993, I worked on The Uttoxeter Advertiser, a small weekly in rural Staffordshire which claimed a circulation of 5,000 but was actually selling far fewer copies than that.
It was written and printed in a two storey brick workshop in a courtyard off the Market Square.
Yellowing paper covered the skylight. A century of grime and proofs had built up. Its nickname in the town was ‘The Stunner’.
Why? Because people from the Moorlands town have a very dry sense of humour. It stunned no-one.
As a paper it made no sense either. Deadline was Friday. It then sat about for two days. The front page was printed on Monday and it was folded by hand. Never mind the Internet. It was beaten hands down by word of mouth on the High Street.
Uttoxeter was a strange place. Film maker Shane Meadows grew up there. His small town tales of revenge and violence are all drawn from his early life there.
There was a vicar who owned two pubs and would serve behind the bar wearing his dog collar.
He ran a rehearsal room for bands. Bartley Gorman, the self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies, was a resident.
He took part in bare knuckle prize fights and would stage pony and trap races down the A50 bringing traffic to a halt. Police would just shrug at visitors stuck in the jams. “That’s Bartley for you,” they would say.
My job on the Advertiser was to carry pages of lead type known as ‘formes’. They weighed eight stone (50kg) each.
They needed cleaning, once used, before being melted back down. That was my job too – using a brush with only seven bristles. I also took pictures. And I wrote stories.
It was a noisy job. And dirty. The clank of the linotype machines against a backdrop of whirring Press. You would have to shout to get yourself heard. Each picture needed developing. In black and white. By hand. Then burning to create a printable plate.
Then it needed washing. Then mounting onto blocks of wood raised to the level of the surrounding type.
That took two hours 15 minutes tops. It can take Twitpic 10 seconds and a mobile phone less than a minute.
The reporters had one typewriter between them. Then one day, it broke so they had to write out stories in longhand and pass them to Len, the typesetter. Len was a veteran. You had to hope Len was in a good mood or he would refuse to convert your story into printable slugs of type, one for each line.
It was a fascinating place and I developed a love of newspapers, telling a story and journalism there.
Despite everything. Of course, this crazy backwards world couldn’t last. You knew it as you lived it.
The ‘Stunner’ was put up for sale and this hand to mouth, Dickensian existence came to a halt.
The Burton Mail bought the newspaper and made all but two of the staff redundant.
The machines were switched off and the ink stiffened overalls hung up for the last time.
I left knowing there was a better way of doing things.
So why am I telling you this on a social media blog?
Because the past has gone. It wasn’t romantic and I don’t miss it.
There will still be newspapers. Just in a very different landscape.
I’m telling you this because I want you to know that WordPress can create and distribute more in 20 minutes than it took a team of 12 to do in a week.
Digital cleans up and puts a Press into our desktops and mobile phones.
So go out and use it.
And please – don’t complain next time you see a Fail Whale….