The journalism churning circle

The growth of digital and online journalism is a quandary that nobody has really solved.

The UK’s biggest newspaper, The Sun, went behind a paywall in 2013 and recently came back out of it, no doubt down to the fact that they were being largely ignored given the amount of free alternatives.

It is perhaps different for quality newspapers, such as The Times, who can at least point to publishing more investigative and in-depth articles, rather than “minor celebrity nip slip” stories which of course are picked up by every man and his dog once the Mail Online runs with it.

As a student in 2006, online journalism was still in its infancy. Nobody really knew how it was going to affect the industry. And more to the point, nobody knew how the industry was going to deal with it. It was a daunting experience for someone who had set out to become a sports journalist based on the traditional model. No longer was it going to be a case of work in a newspaper and then you’ll be writing a back-page report on Rochdale v Northampton (not sure why, but covering a game on a wet and freezing Tuesday night at Scotland was always the yardstick for reaching my ambition).

In reality, it’s not been dealt with. Perhaps because there is no answer.

Everybody is a journalist

Newspaper readership is dwindling, staff numbers even more so, and now everybody is/can be a “journalist”. The waters between a bona-fide journalist and a citizen journalist are muddied further every year, every iPhone release, every local newspaper closure.

In the social media age, publication loyalty has gone out the window. No longer do you go to the local shop and pick up the Daily Mirror every morning. You browse Facebook and Twitter, clicking on whatever headline takes your fancy, regardless of where it originates.

What a challenge that presents for any publication, who in reality can only survive and be viable through advertising. Fluctuating numbers and a lack of brand loyalty cranks up the pressure on the journalists and the business model.

Ironically, creating my own publication (LastTackle.com, now LoveRugbyLeague.com) back in 2005 was meant to be something to put on my CV to make me more attractive to potential employers. Instead, it became a reason for me not to be – the site was now competition to a rugby league newspaper, or indeed the sports pages of a local newspaper in a rugby town.

Over those years, attitudes to content has changed. In the early years, brand loyalty was still prevalent and so building an audience was a massive challenge. How it was even managed in the pre-social media days, one can only imagine.

Articles were produced with regularity, but there was not blanket coverage. A solid, if small, readership was built.

Upon re-branding in 2010, the site became more socially aware. Driving traffic through Facebook became a priority. The audience the site has on Facebook remain one of the most engaged and passionate across any sport site. Of course, it presents problems. If people are debating a story on Facebook, they aren’t on your site and aren’t clicking your adverts.

Social media meant it was easy for others to compete with us. They could invest money in social advertising and drive their numbers. In 2012, one of our main competitors had virtually trumped us in terms of visitor numbers within a year of setting up. The telling point was that 75% of their traffic came through Facebook, compared to our 13% through Facebook. Fast forward two years, and we are considerably ahead of that competitor.

Increasing the churn

It wasn’t a conscious strategy, but around that time the volume of content we produced increased considerably. The churn. It was no longer about fixed content targets, it was more about cover as much as you can, as often as you can. Such was the competition that social media presented, that if you missed one or two stories, you risked losing your audience to somewhere else.

This enabled you to build your base audience – the minimum amount of traffic you would expect on any given day. The total traffic may fluctuate depending on whether you had a particular juicy story, or in fact whether a link to a story was posted on a popular forum or re-tweeted by big Twitter profiles.

Growing that base audience became the key to success, ignoring the peaks that referring traffic might bring.

From a business point of view, even losing 5 or 10% of your traffic was a huge blow. In 2011, another competitor rocked up. They managed to replicate much of what made us successful (they even used our traffic figures as estimates to sell advertising in their maiden year) and became a serious competitor. The problem was, the audience wasn’t growing. All that was happening was that two sites were sharing the same traffic as before, making the business model virtually impossible for either of us.

The issue was that neither of us were doing anything different. They had come along and tried to copy our success. All that meant was they were attracting the same people we were.

We won the battle of the churn – perhaps mainly due to the fact that after seven years, giving up wasn’t an option for me.

The churning stakes went up a notch in 2013 when one of the trade newspapers decided to start a full-on assault to conquer online.

This was a bit different. They were producing quality content that was being shared across both their online and offline publications. They had resources. But again, in some ways, they were just replicating the stuff we had been doing for the previous five years or so. The churning went up a notch again. The desperate fight for numbers and attention meant more churn, more content, more tweets and more potential clicks (even if it meant 10 stories sharing 2000 clicks, rather than one good story).

Consumer understanding

That model has virtually been replicated across the internet. The LadBible model. Find a relatively interesting piece of content somewhere, package it up on social and drive traffic through to your website. Give me any subject, and it could have a website and social media presence with a few thousand likes by the end of the day.

Another point of note is that the new generations have little understanding of the business model behind these pages. Because they are so wrapped up in social and just believe anyone and everyone can create content (which of course is true), it’s almost as if they think it’s just someone like them running the pages.

No, it’s not. The LadBible specifically employ people to create content and post to the page. There’s no way that in the modern day churning circle that anyone could keep up without full-time, paid employees.

Yet you will see people posting the full story in the comments to “save a click”, or accusing sites of “clickbait” without realising that the sites need you to click to their website to exist, to pay the writers, to keep someone in a job.

Of course, operating a niche site is slightly different than one trying to appeal to the masses. And rugby league is certainly niche.

The question that’s now cropping up in my planning is – has the journalism churn gone full circle?

We’re taking a step back from the churn. It might have worked in previous years, but it has spiralled out of control. It’s not logical anymore. It doesn’t buy respect, not least from your peers, and it doesn’t really give you much room for growth in the business model.

Fighting back

The old journalism values appear to be fighting back. Quality, respect, reliability, authority.

Anyone can write a decent opinion piece from their bedroom. It takes something else to put together a decent piece of quality journalism.

Football blog award winner, The Set Pieces, is a fine example. Check out their about page. It says what they’re about in such a succinct manner that it is frivolous to even attempt to describe them myself. They focus purely on quality Hardly niche, due to it being football, it’s impossible for that site to be replicated in rugby league in a successful manner. However, lessons can be taken from it.

Another football example pointing to change is Goal.com. They have had their own controversies in the past, but their focus now appears to be on showing how they have a greater authority than Joe Bloggs’ football site from his back bedroom. They are giving increased profile to their journalists, showing them behind the scenes at matches and press conferences, almost as if to say “look, we’re here, getting this content from the source – we aren’t ripping it from somewhere else and we aren’t churning it out like competitor X”.

It’s through this authority that Goal, as a publication, can grow their brand, fight off the competition from the churn and the bedroom bloggers, and it’s perhaps their best way of making their business model work.

So, after 10 years, perhaps the only model for online journalism is to stick to the old values that made traditional journalism what it was. And of course, shout about it.

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