Wednesday, 16 September 2015

What is an 'important' story in the age of the internet?

Recently, there was a fair bit of fuss made within the industry when one Trinity Mirror paper - the Birmingham Mail - 'admitted' it could no longer be a paper of record.

My instant reaction to this was: well, of course. The concept of a 'paper of record' has always seem to me to be a ludicrous journalistic conceit: there is something arrogant about the idea that you could boil down all the important things that had happened in the world, on any given day, to 20 or 30 pages.

No; that was never true, never could be true. I can't be the only former political hack who has had my oh-so-vital reports of scrutiny committee meetings and council debates knocked back to a 50-word brief, or left out of the paper altogether.

And how many incredible human-interest stories pass us by every single day, that we don't know about - let alone have chance to reject?

The classic paper of record - the Times - was once characterised by lengthy, turgid reports of parliamentary debates. Fine, I suppose. These days you can search Hansard in seconds if you are really interested in neutral presentations of that kind of thing. People don't, of course. But they could.

Were readers of the Times ever interested in that sort of content? We can't be sure. What we do know is that tabloid newspapers became the dominant force in British journalism based on the insight that choosing the stories that people actually wanted to read, boiling them down into the most gripping essentials, telling them in an entertaining way, showing a bit of character, breaking exclusives rather than simply regurgitating what had been said the previous day, were things readers might actually want.

The red-tops weren't 'papers of record', not like the Times of old. They never wanted to be. But they broke (and continue to break) big stories, and they found (and continue to find) plenty of space for 'serious' topics like politics, too (as Jeremy Corbyn, surely, will attest). They treated readers less like passive recipients of medicine - not enjoyable, but good for you - and more like consumers whose interests and values they shared. Autonomous individuals who were willing to listen, but could also make choices about what they wanted to read.

Now, in the age of the internet, people have all the choice they could ever imagine. Millions of pages of content, thousands of pages of news every day, on just those issues that they choose to seek. We aren't just fighting for readers to buy our papers. In an internet age, we have to fight to persuade them to read every little scrap of every single page.

So what are people who claim to want a 'paper of record', now, really saying? They are worried, I guess, that too many important stories will go by-the-by, in an age of limited resources and - yes - metrics that tell us who is reading what.

Here, then, is a more difficult question: what counts as an 'important' story, when we can measure exactly how interested people are in every single thing we write?

A casual glance at the 'most read' section of any given news website, on any given day, might make you think that the British people were obsessed with celebrities, soccer and videos of drunk people getting into fights. And - let's be honest - as consumers we do like those things. But scratch a bit deeper and the figures will show you that very large numbers of people can and will read about political issues, about health issues, about education issues. Those types of stories can be, an often are, in the 'most read' lists, too.

And why wouldn't they be? After all, 30.7 million British people voted in the general election this year - more people than have watched any television programme, ever. (Den divorcing Angie in EastEnders got 30.1 million, since you ask.) Everyone who has ever had a sick relative cares deeply about how good (or bad) their local hospital is. People move house to get their kids into a good school.

The trick with these 'important' issues is to tell stories in ways that people respond to; and maybe think harder about the stories we don't do (or shouldn't), as well as the way we tell the ones we do.

Because that's the point: no matter how important we think a story is, what can that possibly mean, if no one is reading it? Important to whom? Or if that isn't the right question - if we're claiming it is somehow intrinsically important - well, can anything be intrinsically important if no one notices?

If we believe, as journalists, that a story matters, then we have to find a way of telling it that makes people engage and share. Otherwise, ultimately, it doesn't matter at all. It can't. You can't start a debate, frame a debate, if no one hears your voice.

Metrics are a good thing. They make us ask difficult questions. They make us work harder. They make us treat our readers like human beings with their own concerns and interests. We might not always like the lessons we learn from the data; we might sometimes wish the world were different.

But we can also embrace the challenge and use the power of data to help us connect with our readers, tell them 'important' things in engaging new ways, and maybe change the world one small step at a time.

After all, isn't that what great journalism has always been about?

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