Kent Messenger Group editorial director tells report into digital local journalism ‘there’s no loyalty in a Facebook reader’

KM Media Group’s editorial director Ian Carter has told a report on the Digital Transition of Local News that Facebook users are the “least valuable readers” for news publishers.

“They stay on your site for ten seconds,” he said. “They don’t care which site they are actually visiting. Your bounce rate [single-page visitors] goes through the roof, and there’s no loyalty in a Facebook reader.”

He also said Facebook was “a whim”, with the US giant able to change the News Feed algorithm whenever it wants – “as it does all the time”.

A recent “tweak” in Facebook’s algorithm had caused a 14 per cent drop in traffic referrals from the social network to KM Group websites within a month he said, adding: “You have no control over it.”

Carter said 40 per cent of KM Media Group’s traffic originates from Facebook. The group’s main news website, Kentonline.co.uk, has 161,000 daily unique visitors (ABC figures to end of December 2017).

It publishes nine local newspapers, including the Kent Messenger series, Kentish Gazette series, and Extra series. The publisher was bought out by Iliffe Media in April last year.

Carter was speaking to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, part of the University of Oxford, for its report into how regional newspapers in Europe are adapting to an increasingly digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.

The report carried out 48 interviews between November 2017 and February 2018 with editorial and commercial staff at local and regional newspapers in the UK, France, Germany and Finland.

In the UK, researchers spoke with staff at the Huddersfeld Examiner, which is owned by Trinity Mirror, and the Kent Messenger, which is owned by KM Group, as well as Johnston Press.

The report, published last week, identified three broad approaches to digital journalism among local news publishers:

  • National scale, where a publisher acquires a large number of titles and so is able to draw in a large audience that can then be monetised through advertising
  • Regional breadth, which focuses on developing a more focused portfolio of publications within a specific region in a bid to achieve a “strong and distinct market position in that specific area” which is then monetised through advertising, subscription models, events, and e-commerce
  • Local depth, where publications “remain editorially and financially powered by their communities and regions” relying on local advertising and content subscriptions as well as other revenue sources.

The report authors said most of the local news organisations included in their research still generated the vast majority of their revenues, up to 90 per cent, “from legacy print operations that are in clear structural decline”.

They added: “Although many of them are building impressive new digital offerings, across their websites, social media accounts, and other channels, they have significantly lower reach among younger people in their communities than they have had historically among their older print readers.

“Like many other news organisations, they find themselves in a position where some of the companies with whom they compete for advertising revenues – large platform companies like Facebook and Google – are also central to how they reach their online audiences through search engines and social media.”

The report said news staff recognised the risks of relying on third-party platforms such as Facebook.

Mark Thompson, head of audience engagement for Yorkshire at Johnston Press, which owns 300 weekly newspapers and 18 daily newspapers (including the Yorkshire Post) as well as 323 local websites, said of Facebook: “There is no guarantee, there is no contract there. They can tweak the algorithms without telling us.

“I think the opportunity also is finding new channels, finding a new way to reach people, so we are going much harder on newsletters, more web apps, groups. We need to have a bit more diversity in regards to how we get our content out.”

He said Facebook was the top traffic referral source for Johnston Press, but the publisher was “exploring other platforms”. He said the likes of Instagram and Snapchat were not going to drive a lot of traffic back to its websites, but were useful “almost as PR tools”.

“We can use it for user-generated content so people feel involved in the community by posting their photos, and us ‘behind the scenes’ in the newsroom,” he said.

“I’ve seen them done really well, but they are still new, very fluid, and no one really knows what they are going to look like in a couple of years’ time.

“I think Facebook and Twitter are so news heavy now that people kind of know what to expect, but I do think that will change. I think Facebook will change quite radically over the next 12 months.”

Thompson oversees a digital team of ten staff members who work with 160 journalists and 26 newspapers across the Yorkshire region.

His team creates “easily digestible” content, such as short stories, lists, photo galleries, videos, and live blogs, while he tracks statistical performance and reports the results to the newsrooms to help them get more “mileage” out of their content by adding photos, videos, and links and posting on social media.

“When I started in journalism 11 years ago in a very kind of straightforward news team of writers, news desk, subs, editor – you could watch a story go through the system and you knew exactly what each step was,” he said.

“Whereas now the live reporter covers an incident, the digital team will see that and think: ‘Oh, we can do a bit more with that, I’ll head down and get some video, I’ll pull some tweets, create a list.’ The news team will then take that on, they will put the calls in, etc…

“Before, we would just go step by step. Now it’s a bit more fluid, I guess. No single story will be dealt with the same way.”

The report said Johnston Press newsrooms were “encouraged to meet targets for page views (the company’s top revenue generator), video views, and social engagement” with the publisher having “made service journalism its main focus for revenue potential”.

Said Thompson: “That’s when readers come to us, not really because they want to read great journalism – they do – but they also want to know, can I get out of my house today because of the snow?

“Is my train going to be on time? Where can I go for a drink tonight? How well is my kid’s school doing? When do the bin collections start again after Christmas? … I think everyone has seen that actually, they are not silly stories, they are stories that affect everyone’s lives.”

Wayne Ankers, editor of the Huddersfield Examiner, said that as well as covering breaking news his journalists also produce video, photos, and social media posts, which help the newspaper start discussions.

“If we start being the driver of the conversations that are important to local people, that’ll mean that people trust us more, come to us more, and want to have a dialogue with us more,” he said.

“People don’t know what the Examiner stands for digitally, whereas they do know what we stand for print-wise. So, it’s getting people to trust us as a digital brand. I think that, once we’ve cracked that, our audience will continue to grow.”

According to the report, editors have also said recruiting young journalists to local newspapers was proving difficult.

Geraldine Allinson, chairman of KM Media Group, said: “Young people don’t see newspapers as a place where there’s going to be huge opportunities, so I think there’s that un-sexy, not cool side of things.

“Plus, a lot of people are very talented. Expecting people to do what they do for the money we can afford to pay them when other companies pay them a lot more is another difficult issue.”

Read the full Digital Transition of Local News report.

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