A top-level Fairfax memo has somehow found its way into the hands of youth web tool The Spinoff. We picked it apart for clues as to the future of journalism.
About a week ago, we received an email originally sent out to editorial staff at Stuff.co.nz. It was filled with intrigue, Facebook, slightly concerning editorial policy, and, above all, Facebook.
We donned our media analysis gowns, and tried to figure out what it means for the future of New Zealand’s most popular news website.
From: Big boss at Fairfax, which owns Stuff.co.nz
To: Editorial staff
From next Monday, we will be looking to refocus the group’s national news meetings.
What we’re doing?
The 8am and 4pm national news conferences have been extremely successful in identifying the biggest stories of the day and treating them as such. But it’s time to evolve. From now on the meetings will focus on your best social/shareable content along with stories that can make the homepage.
Every news agency, with the lone exception of Coffee News, now professes to be “digital-first”. Everyone has come to accept computers are probably part of the future.
But even in this RAM-soaked environment, news decisions are often informed by old-fashioned public interest values like “Is it important?”, “Does it matter?”, and “Is it not complete shit?”
This memo seems to wind that back a step. The calculation for determining the most prominent stories of the day has been re-calibrated so shareability is paramount. That puts a lot of power in the hammy hands of the people who post regularly on social media.
You may ask, why are we doing this?
Why we’re doing this?
It’s all about how people are getting their news. Half of the audience for your stories and videos is now on mobile and this audience continues to grow.
The question for us as a group is how do we reach our existing audience as well as find brand new readers, particularly on mobile?
The answer is often using our social channels, particularly Facebook. We want to use this meeting to hear about your best social stories, the stories you’d want to share with your own mates so we can hone them and work with you to do just that.
Mark Zuckerberg is now the editor of Stuff.co.nz.
Lol, just kidding. But seriously, the Zuck owns us all. A huge volume of the traffic for a news organisation like Stuff or a Hot Take Factory like TheSpinoff.co.nz now comes from Facebook. If that hoodie-wearing nerdling’s algorithm decides news has gotta go, then media outlets are, to coin a phrase, “totally fucked”. All of us must appease the Great God Zuck or perish by his mighty sword.
What does that mean for you?
Let Fairfax explain.
What it’ll mean for you?
We’re focusing the meeting on our two biggest promotional channels: the homepage and Facebook.
So instead of us asking ‘what’s going on today?’ We’d like you to tell us what are your contenders for Facebook and the Homepage.
Finally news agencies are abandoning old-fashioned questions like “What’s going on today?”. That may explain why the Herald runs a non-stop feed of month-old viral videos!!!
All hilarious owns aside, in news meetings of yore, stories were weighted according to their mix of reader appeal and importance. The Stuff method appears to elevate the holy value of clickiness above all.
What are we after?
Issues that all Kiwis care about.
Stories that evoke emotion (sadness, joy, anger, nostalgia…), or reflect our readers’ identities.
Fascinating statistics or facts.
Stories that support social video.
At this point, we should say all this is totally understandable and not necessarily bad.
Ceding to Facebook’s tyranny could mean reconfiguring your news site to appeal to embarrassing uncles who share videos of themselves saving the world by doing 22 pushups.
However the stories that do well often:
- Eviscerate, destroy, or annihilate someone
- Take a stance on something that’s being fought over in the pits of the Internet
- Feature an animal doing something
What doesn’t do well?
Let Fairfax explain.
What we’re not after:
Boring stories with no hook or visual elements. 30 per cent of our stories are being read by no one. Why are we doing them?
Court stories, particularly procedural appearances. Ongoing case reviews etc can’t go on social because of prejudicial risk and they’re almost always of no interest to the HP.
Follow ups that assume knowledge. Very few people follow stories from start to finish. For stories to be shareable they need to assume people are reading them/or watching video for the very first time.
Follow ups and court stories are actually really important. It’s just hard to expect a cash-strapped company like Fairfax to cover them if they don’t make money. And unfortunately they don’t make money, partly for legal reasons, and partly because sweaty Net minions like us are less likely to work ourselves into a social media lather over them…
So why not try something different?
Is the audience best-served by the traditional ‘talking heads’ wire service type report? Is this story, with ‘balancing’ quotes and an inverted pyramid structure, actually interesting to read? Or is it predictable and/or just not terribly enlightening?
Often, our audience is better served by our journalists using their writing skill to clearly explain a story or to walk through it as a narrative or even do a listicle! Anyone can do these and we know they can work well so why not try it?
In general, we support trying new ways of telling stories. A huge amount of news writing is uninspired or mind-numbingly boring, and people are less willing to chug through mailed-in copy these days.
The one thing we take issue with is the assertion that anyone can write a listicle. Has the person writing this email ever written a listicle? Listicles are surprisingly hard. Give the listicle artists some respect.
Local govt or court stories, for example, of course aren’t going to be entirely scrapped. It’s just we might need to be a bit more creative in how we well them.(Spinoff Take: Learn to write sentences good u dummy). What’s the background to this council dispute that would help readers understand? A Q+A might help explain. What were the events that led up to a crime that the court is hearing about? Good, thorough, reporting remains really important but the traditional format needs to evolve.
Local government and court stories aren’t going to be entirely .scrapped. Just sorta scrapped. They’ll still exist, but in the same way Kakapo or the Maui’s dolphins exist.
That feels concerning. Court reporting has already plummeted since the death of NZPA. If we’re only going to cover the Facebook-friendly cases from now on, then we could easily miss out on important stuff, like say, a High Court appeal holding up the whole Unitary Plan.
We fully appreciate there are print pressures and pages to fill but Fairfax’s focus is digital first and particularly mobile. It’s all our jobs to provide our homepage audience and social audiences with stories they want to read/watch.
And remember, we are always happy to help out where we can.
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