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Marc Reeves has seen how regional and local journalism in the UK has transformed over the past 20 years. He is now leading Trinity Mirror Midlands digital properties, which is reported to be out-competing BBC in their targeted local markets.
In this episode, we explore the state of local journalism.
Vahe Arabian: State of Digital Publishing is an online publication community providing resources, perspectives, collaboration, and news, for digital media and publishing professionals in new media and technology, in the subscription world. Our aim is to help industry professionals get back more time to work on what really matters, monetizing content and growing reader relationships. In episode nine, I speak with Marc Reeves, who’s the editor of Birmingham Live, and editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror Midlands, and we speak about local journalism where they’ve been able to transform from being just print-only to being purely online and they’ve actually penetrated Birmingham and actually pacing BBC. Let’s begin.
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Vahe Arabian: Hi, Marc, how are you?
Marc Reeves: I’m very good, thank you. Very good indeed.
Vahe Arabian: That’s good. How’re things on your end? I read that you guys recently started an offline campaign push for Birmingham Live.
Marc Reeves: We did, it kicked off yesterday. It’s a lot of traditional media advertising. We’ve got the sides of buses in Birmingham, we’ve got poster sites, we’ve got interactive digital boards in the city center, some radio advertising, and other kinds of activity. Which is good to see because in my experience in regional media over many, many years, one of the frustrations has been that launches or relaunches don’t always get the marketing support I think they deserve, but we might what have got this right this time, which is very encouraging to the team, ’cause they’ve put a lot of work into it.
Vahe Arabian: That’s awesome. You don’t usually see a lot of local publishers having the capability and push to do this. It’s really promising to see. I guess for those people who don’t know much about Trinity Mirror Midlands and just about you in general, if you could provide a bit of a background, just to start off with.
Marc Reeves: Yeah, sure. Well, first of all, the holding group our owners are Trinity Mirror plc, which is the largest publisher of regional media in the UK. It also owns a number of national titles, as the name suggests, including the Daily Mirror, which is one of the UK’s oldest tabloids. That is notable because it is more left-leaning than any of the other British tabloids that you see, like the Daily Mail or The Sun, but nevertheless, Trinity Mirror recently acquired another national newspaper group, the Daily Express and the Sunday Express and the Daily Star, which is right leaning. So, that deal was done only very, very recently, so it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes.
Marc Reeves: But my focus is on the regionals. I’ve always worked on regional media, regional newspapers, and in Trinity Mirror Midlands, which is a sub-business of Trinity Mirror, we publish three daily city newspapers, one here in Birmingham and one in Coventry, one in Stoke, which are outlying suburban cities about 30 or 40 miles from Birmingham, which is the regional capital, as well as a clutch of smaller, weekly titles. Some free, some paid for, and of course, the web presence of all of those entities is where our focus is on more and more. If I could say pretty much completely now because that’s where the future lies for us.
Vahe Arabian: I read this that you guys are, with Birmingham Live, you got more traffic than BBC, is that correct? That you have more unique visitors than the BBC at the moment?
Marc Reeves: Yeah, this applies to a number of Trinity Mirror titles. I think I’m fortunate to work with a group that has probably grasped the challenge earlier and better than many of our regional media rivals, in that we have a very robust growth structure online. So, we can learn from our sister sites and sister businesses around the UK and cities like Manchester and Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff, and elsewhere. And yes, when it comes to measuring the local penetration of many of our city titles, over the course of a week, we will reach 40 to 50% of the local urban population. And we compare that to what the BBC claims to reach, and they aim to reach about 30% of the population over the same time frame.
Marc Reeves: So, we’re very confident that in many of our cities we are outreaching the BBC. We keep on getting better at that every month or so, we add new titles to that roll of honor across the country. And that’s because we’ve over the past 3 or 4 years, in particular, been really striving to create a network of scale, by linking up all of the regional titles with our national title’s reach, and when all that’s put into a basket then we can claim, and do say to advertisers, you can reach easily more than 50% of any regional population through a combination of all our networks. Which is really powerful, and I think it’s essential as well because so many smaller publishers and publishing groups coming from the legacy side, as we’ve done, so many of them struggle because for us we recognized early it was only ever going to be a game of scale. And I think for those smaller entities, and I’ve worked for many in the past, it’s really tough. It’s really, really tough and I’ve just seen one of the groups that I used to work for up in the northwest of England, has recently been sold to Newsquest, which is the UK arm of Gannett, and I think for good reason and I hope that means that those titles will survive for longer.
Vahe Arabian: You’ve been with the Trinity for quite some time, and in a hybrid way, you left and then came back. You’ve got a background where you’ve seen the progression from Birmingham Live and the Trinity Midlands titles go from offline to online. Can you just elaborate a bit of the history around that and how the transformation took place?
Marc Reeves: Yeah, I’ve been with Trinity Mirror for about 20 years but I did have a break, where I often say I left in a bit of a huff because, and this was about 8 years ago, I was editor of the Birmingham Post which was daily business-focused city title here in Birmingham. I was, at that point, I don’t think Trinity Mirror, or indeed many other regional groups were really grasping and facing up to the challenge of digital. It was at that period then that there was reticence, there was a bit of a King Canute approach, which is a combination of “if we ignore it, it’ll go away” and “these changes aren’t structural, they’re just cyclical”. I mean, we’re seeing revenues dive after the 2008 crash and too many in the industry thought they were unexpectedly going to come back into print advertising. I think I and many others could see that wasn’t the case.
Marc Reeves: There was a bit of a strategic vacuum, I think, to be fair. So, I left at that point in 2010. I joined a digital startup here in Birmingham to launch a business news website that was part of a network of three cities in the UK. I launched and edited that and also got into political communications as well, and very much enjoyed running my own businesses, but in 2013 there was a change in leadership in Trinity Mirror when Simon Fox had come in from HMV and there was evidently a new energy and a new focus and I found myself having conversations with old colleagues and very quickly found myself back where I’d left, just 3 or 4 years previously. Since then it’s been a very intense ride to take these print legacy brands from the pretty underwhelming websites that we’d had for 10 years or so, to start to position us as a digital first entity. That’s been driven in large part by my colleague, David Higgerson, who’s the Digital Director at Trinity Mirror, and a well-known name across the world actually, particularly in media. And that was a drive for best practice, to structure our newsrooms and around roles that were better suited to drive online engagement and there’s been some considerable success in that. We’ve quadrupled our digital audience in three years, as have most sites, and as I referenced, there were a number of restructures there because, to use the cliché, “You lose pounds in print or dollars in print, and you get back pennies online”. And with that reality comes a requirement to structure the newsroom that you think you can afford, not the one necessarily you would ideally love. So, we’ve had several rounds of that kind of exercise of restructuring.
Marc Reeves: Most recently, we’ve taken what I think is the largest leap, which is to separate, not completely but pretty radically, separate our print newsroom operations from our digital newsroom operations. Which, in a way, feels like Back to the Future, because when we first started doing websites in the regional press, we’d have a digital unit of strange people in the corner who did digital and no one else knew what they did or got involved. Over the years we’ve really pivoted around digital news gathering and digital content first. But when it came to really looking ourselves in the eye, we realized that still many of our working patterns, our deadlines, the way we constructed stories, even our tone of voice, was actually really rooted in the old ways of print. The old news gathering ways, the language of tabloid newspapers, the shifts and rotors were still, once you scratch the surface, were still focused on our print deadlines, which didn’t really make sense.
Marc Reeves: That was one reason to separate print from digital, was to genuinely liberate our content gatherers from the concerns about printing, about filling newspapers. But the other one, also, was probably a more ruthless recognition, that is that the ties between our digital and print operations were too close in that when, and I think that this is inevitable so it’s definitely a win for me, when more of our print products or print newspapers die or fall over the cliff, as it were. At the moment, or before we started these changes, there are too many umbilical cords connecting our digital operations to our print operations so, therefore, if print went down that cliff, it would pull digital with it, unless we did something about it.
Marc Reeves: So, that was another reason for the restructure. We created an entity that, should print go, we believe would be on its way to being a self-sustaining digital newsroom. I call it a digital life raft. That required, again, us to ask and answer the question, “what’s the size of the newsroom we can afford if we were to have no print revenue or costs at all?”. That’s worked out looking at the size of our market; we’re in a pretty big collaboration of two and a half million people. Looking at our current penetration, looking at where we could expect to get to over the next couple years, and then working out, what is, in essence, a pretty simple formula to say, what’s the programmatic baseline for that? What revenues do we think that size of audience, that number of page views, and we’re looking at about 40 million page views a month this year, combining mobile, desktop, and app, growing to 50 and 60 over the 18 months to 2 years, so that will generate an amount of programmatic revenue, video pre-roll revenue, remnant revenue, affiliate revenue, syndication revenue, added to which, of course, is the revenue that we can dig ourselves through commercial activities from the local market and the national markets. The answer that came out of that is we can afford a newsroom of 31 people. Which for a big urban, formerly evening newspaper, 20 years ago would have had about 180 to 200 people in the newsroom, is quite a change, but it is definitely doable and we are making, what I think, are pretty good strides to make that formula work.
Marc Reeves: As you say, we’ve rebranded as well. Which if you like, I can talk about why we’ve rebranded and launched our new website’s identity.
Vahe Arabian: I think it’s worth noting because you created the medium posts which fit into the models and are pretty well received as well.
Marc Reeves: As I’ve eluded to, the Birmingham Mail, or the Birmingham Evening Mail, as it used to be called before it switched to a morning print title, served a working class, industrial city for a number of years, 150 years I think, and predominantly reflected the views and voices of, what I call, the white working class of Birmingham. And 20 years ago my predecessors realized that the city was changing dramatically. I mean we are now the most diverse regional city in the UK. We have a black and minority ethnic population that is around 50% of the total population, with diaspora communities from Southeast Asia, India, West Indies, Eastern Europe, all over the world, so it’s a very different city than the one the Birmingham Mail originally served. And because of that, the title on our website, I think it served its purpose.
Marc Reeves: I think a few years ago it was important to reassure readers the provenance of the news they were receiving online had the same family roots as a familiar and trusted newspaper brand. But such is the rate of change in our population, and also we’ve had a decline in our newspaper circulation that has out-stripped almost any other city in the UK, and that is, I think because the population has changed so much over time. We don’t have those ingrained familial habits of always having the newspaper that your parents used to have, that just doesn’t apply to us anymore. And therefore, the value of associating a newspaper title with what needs to be a website serving, what is not only the most diverse population in the UK but also the youngest median age of the population in the UK, it had served its purpose. There were some negative connotations as well because the title had been color blind for a long time, but not in a good way. It had been pretty, if not explicitly racist, it had not really wanted to reach out and include what are now major parts of our community.
Vahe Arabian: What do you mean by it was excluding people with the name Birmingham Mail?
Marc Reeves: There were negative associations with the title because the newspaper, for so many years, hadn’t actually reflected the experiences and the interests of our growing ex-Pakistani or Indian communities, and therefore not only was it not known there was a negative connotation with it.
Marc Reeves: The other connotation is a newspaper brand online, even if people aren’t familiar with the precise values of that brand, by saying you’re a newspaper, it sort of restricts in a way what you are, to an extent, allowed to do, in that, many other news brands will have this, people will see you sharing information or presenting material in a certain tone of voice or celebrating non-news events, and accuse you of having a slow news day because it’s not what they recognize as news. Whereas it’s our job to reflect all the different community activities and events and interests of our population. So, going to a non-newspaper brand allows us to do more showbiz, more conversational, more social based content, than the previous identity had sort of constrained us in.
Marc Reeves: And also, finally, it was a chance to reinvent ourselves and try to make a statement to the city that Birmingham Live is a brand that’s for you. It reflects the city that you’re part of and gives us a chance to make some serious noise about it. As I said earlier on with the marketing campaign that we’re in the middle of right now, and try to get people switched onto it who might not be switched onto it, which I think we’ve got a very good chance of doing. Already we do reach on average about 15% of the population every day, about 45 to 50% of the population every week, but I don’t want to rest on those laurels, because it means on any one day, at least 70% of Brummies, which is what we call people who live in Birmingham who aren’t engaging with what we do. So we are…
Vahe Arabian: I want to ask you about that. What does Brummy mean actually? Where’s the name…
Marc Reeves: Colloquial term from two centuries ago, shortened Birmingham to be pronounced Brummagem, which I know doesn’t make a lot of sense but not a lot of things make sense in this city, so people referred to the city as Brummagem, and then shortened that to say anyone who lives in Birmingham is called Brummies, from the Brum part of that. It’s quite useful for headlines actually, because Birmingham was too long a word to fit into a decent social headline so Brum digs us out of that particular hole on many occasion.
Vahe Arabian: So, with anyone who is new to local journalism, what are the principles and laws around local journalism? Now, you mentioned some of it around trying to capture what’s going on in the community and everything else, but what are the fundamental principles of local journalism?
Marc Reeves: I think it’s pretty neat to talk about the distinction between local and regional journalism and, what we call in the UK, national journalism. I think that there’s quite a big gulf. I’ve only ever worked in local and regional media, I’ve never really wanted to work for the national media. I do think though, that they have different approaches. Characterized mostly by the fact that a local journalist can’t go back to London at the end of the day after parachuting into a city, getting the story, then getting out again. There’s a consequence of the stories we do locally.
Marc Reeves: That means I think you genuinely need to care about the city or the town or the place that you’re serving because you’re part of it. Your family will be going about their business in the city, your kids will be going to school with the kids of people you’ve written about, and I think that changes the nature and focus of it. The story is the story and it’s always important to get the story, but I think in local journalism that sits within a context of, is this helping this place become a better place.
Marc Reeves: You’re more conscious, I think, of the civic responsibility and I think therefore for young journalists wanting to get into it, there’s no doubt there’s massive excitement, there’s a real buzz, we’re a big city, we’ve got lots of breaking news, lots of instant based activity in journalism. We do big chunky investigations, we hold the city powers to account in all of that, but there’s also a real joy to be had in the smaller elements of life and that’s important for regional journalists to know that it’s part of your job to celebrate smaller community successes, how schools perform in the educational league tables, sharing that information with people, you have to get as much a buzz out of that as you do the bigger set-piece news events. Because you have to offer a whole and complete service to as many people in the community as possible because that’s your job.
Marc Reeves: I think the other things that are developing are, clearly we have a massive focus on video and we’re doing more and more podcasting, we’re telling many more stories through data journalism. For young people coming in today, it’s not that we take it as read that you will have those technical abilities, but nevertheless, they’re an essential part of the role. We do have much more longer serving members of the team who are complete masters of all of those techniques, but to be honest, they probably struggle a bit more than the people who are coming in fresh from college or from other sources.
Marc Reeves: I think the other challenge, probably more for us, this touches on the diversity issue that I talked about earlier, given that Birmingham has such a diverse population, I can’t, hand on heart, claim that my newsroom is a representation of the wider community of Birmingham. Compared to other newsrooms, it’s pretty diverse, but that’s not my measure. It needs to be a measure of the community, so as we’ve launched Birmingham Live, I’m looking to probably fundamentally disrupt our normal recruitment processes because the journalism colleges in the UK tend to put out people who look a lot like who people who are currently in journalism, white, middle-class people. That’s not completely the rule, but it’s pretty much the product, those are the ponds that we go fishing in for talent.
Marc Reeves: So, I’m going to work more with colleges in Birmingham to open up our newsroom to more informal opportunities to more people from different backgrounds and try to create new routes for people that may not have journalism in mind right now, but they might be fantastic and telling video stories and they don’t even know that that’s actually journalism. They might have great graphics skills. I want to find ways of getting those younger people into the newsroom, and then helping them complete the journey to become a qualified journalist if that’s what they want to do.
Vahe Arabian: Do you have that initially in place now, or is that something you’re planning to do this year and onwards?
Marc Reeves: By the end of this year I want to get two new paid internships or apprenticeships set up, and there are various organizations across the city and nationally that can support us in doing that. I know I’ll get sponsorship from Trinity Mirror to do it because as a group we’re much more aware of these challenges and issues, but a lot of it is good old-fashioned getting out and talking to lots more people, reaching out to schools and colleges, and encouraging more people to come in. It’s not going to be a quick fix, because this is the product of many years of not doing it right. I think if we start doing it right, we’ll be able to move the dial, hopefully over the next couple years, and start to see a newsroom that better reflects the city.
Marc Reeves: I think that’s important to say in the context of “what are we looking for in young journalists who want to come into regional journalism?”. We want people who know how a city ticks. One of the best qualifications, I think for me, is to find people who have lived, worked, been educated in the city, and are really part of it. So, they can bring their experiences to bear in the newsroom. I can provide the technical training on top of that if they have the interest and the enthusiasm and the ability.
Vahe Arabian: That makes sense. I’m just going to say, what’s the current community engagement model now so that you can draw more of the celebrations, the wins, actually the opportunities to actually speak to people one on one about key issues in Birmingham?
Marc Reeves: In terms of our journalism as part of the Birmingham Live exercise and the separation of our print and digital elements, we’ve looked at our news and what’s on content gathering and realized that because Birmingham is such a busy, bustling city, we have plenty of crime, plenty of accidents, plenty of road closures, all that kind of stuff that can, if we wanted, we could do nothing but live breaking news all day with everyone we’ve got. But, of course, that’s quite transient content and transient interest from readers.
Marc Reeves: So, we’ve split our content gathering into two disciplines, one is live and breaking news and the other is what we call pat reporting. Which is old-fashioned, each reporter having two or three beats or areas of interest that they are responsible for developing and creating closer connections with the community. But we’ve tried to be a little bit more deliberate in choosing those areas. As part of the set up for the project, we invested in a lot of online research and questionnaires and focus group work, as well as a big data dive by our Trinity Mirror data unit, who went in and scraped almost all government data and statistics about Birmingham and the wider region that is possible to find. So, we immersed ourselves in a sort of a new way, into all the facts and figures about Birmingham. Some of which told us what we already knew, but others really underlined issues and trends that we needed to be more aware of so that we could start to identify those patch communities that we needed to better serve.
Marc Reeves: One example of that is our traffic and travel information tended to be focused on road and rail users, because that’s we could identify the hubs that people were coming into and the rail companies are really good at publicizing issues and route delays and that sort of thing. But, of course, we looked at the numbers and we should have known this anyway, but this is what I mean by having a number really point you in a new direction, of course, the numbers showed that the majority of our region actually use bus transportation to get to and from work and school every morning and every evening as well. Since then we’ve really changed the focus of our traffic and travel coverage to reflect the daily experience of people who are using buses, and that’s a community that exists particularly in two different parts of the day.
Marc Reeves: We’ve also identified other big needs that we need to address. Being such a young city, we have a lot of young parents raising a lot of young children and there’s a real community there that we’ve been serving actually for a couple of years through a reporter who covers parenting, and the new focus through our patch approach has really helped that take off to the point now we are running offline, real life events with a really engaged community of young parents who look to us to give them a place to go with their kids to interact with other moms and dads, get discounts from local services, share information about raising kids in Birmingham, and that’s been a real learning for us. So, we’re trying to replicate that across different communities in the city.
Marc Reeves: And also, to be quite ruthless, if we identify a community but for one reason or another, either the community isn’t homogenous enough or reachable enough for us to do anything effective, we need to find other communities that are, because we do have limited resources and we need to make sure those resources are focused on driving engagement with communities that are reachable and effectible, and therefore engagement is also a key part of that because our previous diet of live news didn’t do much for our “time spent on site” or “repeat visit” statistics, which are more important now than ever. However, our patch approach is showing that, done well, people will engage and become much more loyal readers over time. Which I think is the next big focus for us, after having achieved most of the scale we probably will achieve over the net… there’s a little bit of growth in the next few years, but we’ve probably done more growth in the past three years than we probably will in the next three. Therefore, it’s about the quality of the engagement with the readers that we’ve got because that’s what advertisers value and to demonstrate that to an advertiser that the medium that you’re offering up to them is one that has a loyal and engaged readership, is going to be good for our numbers.
Vahe Arabian: With the patch approach that you’re taking, and you mentioning you have limited resources at the time, so across the broader team, how are you able to give journalists autonomy to the site, okay for this specific interest or issue we need to do a live event around a story, how does that process work on a day-to-day basis?
Marc Reeves: It is difficult, because, as I say, something live will always happen that everyone wants to jump on and a news editor will get very excited about, so we split the rotor. It’s a very distinct rotor, you know when you’re on a patch shift and hopefully, you’ll get a run of three or four days before you’re then on a live shift. We have a distinct team that manages all the live and breaking and they can only call for help when you have a really big shout, which is fine. Actually most of the time they can contain and deal with all of the live breaking news that’s happening, so if you’re on a patch shift as a reporter, there is a daily morning round up so you can discuss with the news editor in a meeting what you think you’ll be working on that day.
Marc Reeves: There’s the expectation that there will be 3 or 4 pieces of content which can be a linear text story, it could be a Facebook live video, it could be a live blog on your patch, or it could be a fairly standard story. You’re expected to file those, as said, 3 or 4 times a day, those ideas are discussed in a patch meeting with other patch reporters. Ideas are developed and then you go out and get on with it, and people have had a lot of support in terms of training for online storytelling, sourcing stories, and content ideas, by accessing trends data, looking at social media data, and what people in your patch are searching for.
Marc Reeves: So, there’s no shortage of story ideas for patches, I think the challenge is to focus on the material that will be most engaging and for that, each of the patch reporters has their own Chartbeat side on, so they can look at their content, how it develops in the day, and how it develops over time, and through that understand what’s engaging the right communities in the right way, what people are dwelling on and reading. People do have the time, because we are trying to quarantine them from the distractions of the live news agenda, and there have been a few successes in that regard, that people have been able to develop. And, of course, success breeds success.
Marc Reeves: One example is, Birmingham isn’t alone, so many cities around the world have issues with people living rough, sleeping rough, or homelessness in general, but there’s been a particular increase in Birmingham over the past year. And I think there’s an interest in, particularly the commuting community and people who live and work in the city center, there’s a concern there about homelessness, and we try to tell stories in a much more experiential way, which was to talk to homeless people and just let them narrate their own stories. That became some of the most engaging content that we’ve done for a long time and therefore, we’ve gone back, time and time again, to start to look at the issues underneath homelessness to do more solutions-based journalism, but also to continue to talk to homeless people, in order to give them a voice and we’re finding that is proving remarkably engaging content that our readers are hungry for.
Marc Reeves: We’ll lead on from that into other campaigns around, we have a growing demand for food banks in the city, which is a different end of the spectrum to homelessness, but nevertheless on the same spectrum, and we’re already getting indications that will be a very engaged bit of activity for us over the next few months.
Vahe Arabian: So, how do you get that indication that it’s going to be engaged activity?
Marc Reeves: Do you mean by the data that we get back?
Vahe Arabian: Yeah, what are you looking for? Are there specific, besides looking at page views or popular metrics, is there any other qualitative indicators that you’re looking at?
Marc Reeves: Yeah, actually, I feel like the world’s worst name dropper here, but I’ve been lucky to have a couple conversations with Jeff Jarvis of NYU, no, sorry, CUNY, in New York, who’s very interesting. He’s talking about that community impact metric, does your journalism actually make a difference, and finding ways of putting that civic impact measurements alongside the others, page views, time spent per visit, and return visits, and loyal readers. At the moment, unsurprisingly, the only real measure of that is to increase dialogues with those communities. So, I’m much more active as an editor, with various community activist groups, in order to get, what may be, what is in danger of being anecdotal evidence, but I think it’s evidence nonetheless, of the impact we are having in that regard.
Marc Reeves: I was at an event last week, organized by one such group that mobilizes community activists across the city in a very engaging, very constructive way. It’s not a protest group by any means but is an advocacy group. I was with a colleague of mine, my political, local government reporter, who was introduced to somebody who he’d written a story about who had a shocking social housing problem three months ago. He’d written a story about her, let her tell her story, and then we pressed the city authorities to do something about it and she was rehoused within 24 hours as a result of our story, and she gave my colleague a big hug. It was really evident that we’d had an impact, and indeed, in the context of that meeting with the community group, that was celebrated very explicitly with a number of people. I think that sounds pretty self-evident, it’s the stuff we should be doing, and maybe we have done a lot of that over the years, but with reduced resources. We have to be much more conscious of that, and I think we are starting to see that bear fruit.
Vahe Arabian: How are you managing creating as much impact as possible given, like you said, your limited resources, time, how do you try to manage that?
Marc Reeves: We’ve worked very hard.
Vahe Arabian: I guess you just gotta find the best impact you can make, I guess.
Marc Reeves: I think it comes back to what I was saying about the qualities of local journalists. You’ve gotta care. I’ve been attending a lot more to the general dialogue I have in the newsroom. It was interesting what coincided with the switch to the new way of working and the new website, we actually moved offices from one that was slightly out of town to one that’s in the city center, is somewhat smaller than the one we were previously in, but it’s completely open plan. I took the decision that no manager would have any cubicle offices of their own. Everything was hot desked, everyone, no matter what rank or department would be mixed in the newsroom to work alongside each other.
Marc Reeves: So, I don’t have an office, therefore I’m sitting on the news desk or one of the hot desks nearby, all day, every day. Therefore, I’m having a much more natural and flowing conversation with everyone in the newsroom, about what I think is the tone that we need to hit on the things that we care about, the campaigns that we run, what we’re interested in, what values we have, I think that’s so important, and you don’t do that by scribbling on a flip chart and then sending an email to people. I think you’ve got to do it by being in the middle of the newsroom with your team, articulating as best you can and involving them in the conversation. So, I think we’ve tried to address the general culture of a newsroom, which, again, in lexi terms, used to be very hierarchical, many layered, status-oriented, that wasn’t necessarily the case even before we made this change. But we’ve tried to go even further with that, so the people can feel a part of that conversation about what values we have as Birmingham Live.
Marc Reeves: I think that’s helping journalists make their own decisions, because, of course, I can’t make every decision of every story. Or indeed, how every story is presented. We are publishing, if not quite on a 24-hour cycle, as near as makes sense, so you need to trust that the people creating the content and making those decisions are tuned into the values that you think are important. I’ve had a role to play in pulling those values together, and I think that ensures that the connections that they make and develop out in the communities are fit with what we want to do as a brand.
Marc Reeves: I’ve also said to my team, starting to come through, this relates to the point about moving away from a newspaper brand and therefore having permission to do different things in different ways, and I would very much like to see more strident personal voices coming through. As they develop their patches they’ll become experts in areas, they are allowed to express views in my point of view, so as they don’t veer massively from the values of Birmingham Live. I think readers value that individual insight that our journalists can bring to bear. I think that, again, helps humanize the voice of the website.
Vahe Arabian: What’s your leadership approach and how do you make sure if there’re other people who have opinions, or think that they have a better opinion than you do, in terms of editorial direction, that they keep in line, hold true of the Birmingham Live cultural values?
Marc Reeves: I think it’s that continuous dialogue. Try not to have too many meetings behind closed doors where 3 or 4 managers will decide on a line on something. The new physical environment forces us to have more of those conversations in the open and encourage reporters or anyone at any level to feel part of that conversation. I, as an editor, also defer to the person in the chair of a particular role, and by that I mean, clearly we have a designated live news editor and a designated patch editor, and while I’ll clearly be involved in conversations, I will defer to them because they’re the person in the hot seat, driving the ship, as it were, every day. And they’re in that role because they’re the best person for the job, so I won’t interfere in the day to day, because the rotor says they’re the person who’s making that decision and entrusting them to do that is really important.
Marc Reeves: While we don’t do a lot of post-mortems, because it is a fast-paced environment and we don’t have a lot of opportunities to look backwards all the time, when we do, we’re just really open about what’s worked and really open about what hasn’t worked, and so what can we learn from it? I think such are the changes that we’ve seen over so many years already, and we continue to see changes almost daily, almost weekly, in terms of what’s Facebook doing this week to help or hinder us? Has Google done anything to change the algorithm? Are our readers behaving in different ways? Are they interacting with different platforms in different ways? The best way of finding out the impact of that is to make a few mistakes along the way, and then try to avoid those mistakes in the future. I think it needs to be a learning environment more than anything else.
Vahe Arabian: With the network that you guys have now with other titles and everything else, how do you go about leveraging that and what sort of role, because of the monetization model are you still focusing more on advertising revenue, or, I know you said you use those other channels, like affiliates and everything else, but what’s your overall direction moving forward?
Marc Reeves: Okay, I’ll take on advertising in a second. The leverage of the network is really important. I mean, A, you’ve got best practice, sharing what’s working in one region, sharing that lesson, rolling it out really quickly in others, straight away, gives us a real edge. For instance, I’m off to a conference next week, a Trinity Mirror conference, which is all about football coverage.
Marc Reeves: Football, soccer, is a major driver of our traffic, as you can imagine, given the profile of the premier league and other leagues in the UK, and interacting with that football audience is a particular science and an art, which gives big prizes if you get it right. Therefore we share learning and new initiatives very quickly, and next week’s meeting is about consolidating all of that into looking at how we can take that to the next level. Particularly the big cities with clubs like Liverpool and Manchester and the teams that we have here in Birmingham, we are doing the best service possible for our readers. Because there’s obviously a shared attribute to a football fan in Liverpool, compared to one in Birmingham or in London, so that’s how we leverage learning.
Marc Reeves: Also, we have a daily call, Trinity Mirror sites will have one person who dials into a daily call at 9 o’clock every morning where intelligence is shared about content that’s trending overnight and online, breaking national stories, expected agenda pieces through the day, so that everyone has a heads up what their readers might be interested in. I take the view that if half of my readers are interested in a story that’s not specifically about Birmingham, I still have a duty to try to help them understand that story because they’re my readers, and if they want to find it on our site, they should be able to. We share that, a very brief 5 minute call every morning, just sort of puts on the radar what’s going on.
Marc Reeves: We also, from Birmingham actually, we happen to run a trending video service for the whole of the group, and that’s a small group of 4 people who, looking at those wider, general stories that may be trending at any one moment, that local centers might want to be covering for their readers. The video unit very quickly creates accompanying videos that can be used by any stories that are done locally on those issues. They can be explainer videos about how courts work, or we had a recent cold snap of weather in the UK, a couple of weeks ago that really brought things to a halt, so a very quick informational video about coping with the cold was used on videos that were viewed a million and a half times across the group. Which obviously helps our overall reach. So, that’s how the group works together.
Marc Reeves: In terms of advertising, yes, we are predominantly an advertising driven revenue model. I mean there is a focus on some alternative sources, such as affiliates. We take some revenue out of the podcast network, and that will grow over time. All of that fundamentally is still advertising based. We’ve experimented a little with football-specific payable bound services, where to get a premium level of information on premiership club, people could subscribe to get that information. That was only partially successful. I think in all markets that we’re in, we face such competition from, not just other media organizations, but bodies such as the police and local authorities. There’s a lot of information to be gathered via social media that clearly we need and hope to add value to.
Marc Reeves: However, the difference between having it in front of a payable or behind a payable doesn’t seem to be working for us at the moment, so therefore our model remains one of creating the scale across the whole of the Trinity Mirror network in order to drive significant national, significant regional, campaigns, supported by more and more self-serve, small advertising accounts. We have a product called In Your Area, which is a bit of local news aggregator that sits alongside our sites, through which people can, members of the public can buy advertising for as little as 20, 30 pounds. Which is effective in very small communities, that’s yet to be completely proven, but it’s one way that we’re looking at trying to layer the advertising market right from local, all the way up to national, and even international, advertising.
Marc Reeves: I think we’re going to continue to look at what would be the options for any kinds of premium model. I think that will probably, more likely to come from developing, for instance, our parenting group. Where we are getting such a close relationship with a relatively small, but super engaged community that already sponsors and partners want to be associated with because of the quality of that relationship. If in that or in other patch audience groups we can develop similarly strong relationships, I think that gives us opportunities to look at other revenue models through membership or through paid access models.
Marc Reeves: It’s certainly not a one size fits all model like, and in the regional media and over the past 6 or 7 years in the UK, a couple of groups have tried putting otherwise traditional local newspaper websites behind payables and they haven’t worked at all. I don’t think there was an appreciation of the completely different consumption habits of the online user compared to the other newspaper reader. I think the failed experiments in the past, it wasn’t Trinity Mirror, but the failed experiments thought that it would be possible to replicate the casual purchase or subscription-based print reader model, subscriber model, by porting it directly online and pretty much putting up the same offers in the same way.
Marc Reeves: It just didn’t work, because as we know discovery of online brands is via such a myriad of different routes, we get about 30% of our traffic from social, about 30% from search, another 10% or so from links and e-newsletters, and the rest of it from direct users. So, it’s a very small percentage of people who decide to come to a Brim directly, and I think given that, that’s a very small base to try to convert into a paid subscriber model, because that’s what you’d need to convert and I think the numbers don’t stack up on the regional media model, as it is right now.
Vahe Arabian: What do you think the… what are the 2018 and beyond initiatives that you guys have planned?
Marc Reeves: It’s really about the quality of the relationships that we’ve got. We need to review all our patches very regularly, very ruthlessly. We need to look at that content that’s engaging and that, that isn’t, and really respond very quickly. There’s a paradox there, because I think it takes time to develop relationships with communities so we’re hyper-aware that there’s a risk that we’ll be throwing babies out with bathwater, but we have to be constantly evolving and testing the model, challenging ourselves as to whether we’ve got it right or not, and continuing to grow absolute scale as well as engagement.
Marc Reeves: Over the next year, my focus is going to be on really driving Birmingham Live as a brand that has quite a strident voice in the city, that’s active. I want a rolling program of community campaigns that makes us stand out so that people know what our values are, and that plan is coming together. We’re launching a couple of things in the next month, one of which will be the food bank campaign. We want to collect 100 tons of food for people who are in emergency need of that. Which is a massively ambitious target, but achieving that will make us stand out. Because it’s all about, I think, recognition, familiarity, and trust and engagement with our audiences and we’ll get nowhere if we don’t maintain that and grow over the next 12 to 18 months.
Marc Reeves: On the commercial side, the challenges remain. The big two, Google and Facebook, are gobbling up so many digital pounds. We’re bringing to market a couple of commercial products that are really interesting. They allow advertisers of all scales to really access, not just the Trinity Mirror network, but all those off-platform networks as well, the social networks, and Google. So, we’re trying to sort of match that offer, but in a much more locally relevant way with a locally driven programmatic solution that is more efficient and intelligent than just a dumb programmatic solution. That’s showing some really interesting signs of peaking the interest of increasingly bigger players within the regions.
Marc Reeves: We are in bigger direct displayer camps, because alongside this editorial change, my colleagues on the commercial and business side are in the process of restructuring their teams and roles in a way to make them much more digitally enabled than they have been in the past. So, those two strands coming together and hopefully adding up to something that makes a real difference is something that we’re hoping to achieve over the next 12 to 18 months. On the live model itself, is already rolling out with other regions across the UK, some of the cities that I’m responsible for, Stoke and Coventry, both in this region. They will switch over to their respective live branding in April, and they have similarly restructured their teams. They’re in the middle of training and big data dives into their own communities, right now, and that will be interesting. You’ll see the live model rolled out in cities across the UK before the end of the year.
Vahe Arabian: I really hope they’re successful, those campaigns, as I’m sure they’ll benefit from taking that live approach as well. Just to wrap up, Marc. What’s some career advice that you’d give to professionals who might be thinking, “okay, I’m going to work for a bigger publisher, a national newspaper”, to be recognized in my career, or on the flip side, if someone really passionate about local journalism, what can they do to be successful in local journalism?
Marc Reeves: I always say to people who approach me about either work experience or inquiring about jobs or training, I always say to them, send me a résumé, a CV as we call them here, sending us that is okay, but actually if you are serious about wanting to be a journalist, then you should already have content that you can share with prospective employers, or colleges if you’re applying for courses. And no one will expect it to be the slickest that it can be, but whether it’s a piece of written content on your own blog, or if it’s a video content on YouTube, or any of the formats of storytelling. If you’re serious about journalism, you got no excuse for not doing journalism yourself right now, right right now. You can go and create content. No one is going to expect you to be word perfect or have production values that rival the TV stations, but if you say you’re passionate about journalism and want to get into it, then you should have some. Some people say, “Well, I’ve not been able to get work experience”. And again my response is, create your own work experience. Interview your parents. Talk to your friends. Create some content and create your own little showreels, portfolios, that will just show prospective employers what you’re able to do. And moreover, see if you can create an audience. Our journalists now need to be as focused as much on selling the story as they are on telling the story. There’s no point writing a story that nobody’s going to read or watch or listen to. So, having created great content, you got to be able to demonstrate that you’ve got the ability to get it out to an audience, of any kind of scale. Ideally, interact with that audience.
Marc Reeves: I said to David Higgerson, who’s my senior colleague in Trinity Mirror, some time ago, that I think my vision for the newsroom of the future is a newsroom of bloggers, and vloggers I guess, in that each journalist needs to be really passionate and own their audience. They need to be champions for their particular community, and they need to behave as if they’re a one-person blog, whose livelihood depends on serving the audience really well. I think if we can get to the point where our newsrooms resemble a confederation of bloggers, all really focused on their audiences, I think we will go a long way to ensuring that regional journalism survives and thrives into the future, and therefore those are the kinds of people I think will do amazingly well in this industry in the coming years.
Marc Reeves: I think it’s a very exciting time to come in because we are focused on the future and on change and creating that future rather than hoping that the future would keep itself at bay and wouldn’t interrupt our otherwise comfortable lives. We’re now trying to really increase the pace, if anything, and anyone who enjoys that needs to come on board.
Vahe Arabian: That is definitely a lot of things happening and I agree with what you say. With that, Marc, thank you for your time.
Marc Reeves: Pleasure.
Vahe Arabian: Thank you for joining us on episode 9 of State of Digital Publishing podcast. What are some of the takeaways you got from Marc’s experience in transforming a publication online? How do you think local journalism is going to look moving forward? Be sure to join us on the next episode of this podcast, and if you are interested in our content, feel free to subscribe to our weekly recaps, or join our membership, by visiting stateofdigitalpublishing.com. Until next time.