‘We’re in the audience business’

Lydia Marshall, senior account executive at Clarke Associates shares her thoughts on the digitalisation of the newspaper industry.

A colleague and I recently attended the Birmingham Civic Society’s summer reception hosted by DWF LLP. Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post and Mail and editor-in-chief at Trinity Mirror Midlands, spoke on the subject of the changing face of news and storytelling.

Marc concluded with a really salient point and one that was my main take away from the talk: is the Birmingham Mail a newspaper anymore? It doesn’t matter, he said. He thought it was important that journalists remember that they’re in the audience business. ‘For years, we confused the service we were in with the medium we delivered it through.’

This rings true for PR also – we’re very much in the audience business and more than most have reason to keep up with what platforms there are that enable people to stay informed. The audience is online, which is where we need to be, too. Online coverage is at least as important for our clients as print (and more so for some).

Marc discussed the challenges faced by the newspaper industry at present, compared to a few decades ago. The way people consume news underwent huge change with the advent of the internet and social media. This is something that we all know – yet it still came as a surprise to some of the audience to see just how far it had impacted the sales figures of the Birmingham Mail, and the shift to an online focus and emphasis on digital.

Why was this still surprising? Most of us own smartphones; many check the news first on Twitter and generally engage with current affairs, entertainment news and even things like property listings in an entirely different way to ten years ago. Do we really think other people are still buying papers in their thousands and we’re just ahead of the curve?

Many people under 30 have never known anything different. HuffPost is an example of a popular news outlet that has only ever existed online – and not done any the worse for it, either. There are more platforms for journalism to be distributed via and there is more space for scrutiny. I think we’ll see further cooperation between news platforms and social media giants in the near future – particularly when it comes to concerns over fake news, misinformation and clickbait headlines.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom – the Birmingham Mail’s is the fastest growing regional newspaper website in the UK. The Birmingham Mail connects with 45% of Brummies a week, and social media and the news site go hand in hand with Facebook generating 60% of the Mail’s online traffic a day.

So people don’t get their fingers covered in newsprint and battle with an unwieldy broadsheet on the train on the way to work anymore. I think there’s still a place for print, of course, and buying weekend papers are a novelty to read physically rather than scrolling on my phone – but most people will never again consume news solely or even primarily through that medium, which isn’t a bad thing.

The Birmingham Mail is an example of how local papers everywhere are adapting to stay relevant and read.

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