Let’s not beat about the bush: Reach may produce some good, important journalism. But its push for pageviews at all costs and a garbage web experience are causing it immeasurable long-term harm.
Today has seen quite the flurry of news about Reach. The publisher – formerly known as Trinity Mirror – is one of the UK’s biggest newspaper groups, with over 240 regional brands as well as national titles like the Daily Mirror and Daily Star.
The row over Reach has been brewing for some time. As start-ups like the Manchester Mill rise to challenge established Reach titles like the Manchester Evening News, barbs have been traded over the pageview-driven strategy of the latter.
It seemingly came to a head a month ago when the BBC was forced to apologise after broadcasting a piece where BBC North of England reporter Rowan Bridge quoted a Mill reader saying that the title “appeals in a way the website of the Manchester Evening News never has.”
“I just find that newspaper websites are just rammed with clickbait and sensationalism, and are just about celebs. I don’t really care about celebs, to be honest,” the reader, named as Caroline Jackson, said at the time.
It’s a sentiment many of us would agree with. Reach is not alone in running virtually unusable websites; a number of legacy local news operators in the UK have a similar reputation. Which is why two stories in Press Gazette this week have raised eyebrows.
Clickbait by any other name
Manchester Mill founder Joshi Herrmann has been a regular outspoken critic of the state of regional news in the UK. He’s accused the Manchester Evening News and other Reach sites of publishing “pure clickbait trash” which are “purely about tricking readers” into clicking, and compromising the quality of local news; a point he reiterated to MPs on the DCMS Committee recently.
Reach’s big sites – MEN, Echo etc – have stories about a ‘statement’ from Peter Faulding (the Echo tweeted it 6x). But there’s no statement – it’s a single line on social media.
Pure clickbait trash, exploiting public interest in a woman’s disappearance to drive traffic. pic.twitter.com/kDIvjg3WFB
— Joshi Herrmann (@joshi) February 20, 2023
This has spawned a whole debate about what clickbait actually is. Definitions vary from articles that have false or misleading headlines right through to content that makes you want to click on something (which, let’s be honest, covers quite a lot).
In an insightful interview with Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobitt this week, Manchester Evening News editor Sarah Lester defines clickbait as stories with misleading headlines that don’t deliver what is promised, leaving readers disappointed.
“We don’t do that and no Reach publications do that,” she emphasised. “But what we find is that people tend to use clickbait to refer to content they don’t like, or they don’t think the MEN should be covering.”
A local focus for local publications?
This last point is a salient one. Should local titles be restricted to just local coverage? Recent analysis – also from Press Gazette who have done a lot in this area – has found that a significant amount of traffic to 50 leading local news sites is from outside their local region. Twenty brands received less than a third of their UK audience from their area. The Manchester News has just 17% of users visiting from the Manchester region.
“Just now I went through the MEN main twitter account,” said Pete Liggins on Twitter. “I had to scroll through 13 showbiz, ‘lifestyle’, weather & national news stories (inc Devon man who got a Tesco clubcard tattoo) before I got to the 1st local news story.”
But as Lester points out to Press Gazette, “The New York Times started life as a local brand…I have high ambitions for the MEN.”
Peter Houston is not convinced. “For any Reach title to say they want to emulate the NYT is patently ridiculous,” he said. “They would have to spend way more on original content and cut out the stories reported from social media. They would also need to fix the appalling audience experience on their websites.”
It’s not a question of subject matter either; local news sites are perfectly within their rights to cover entertainment and celebrities if that appeals to their local audience. The issue here however, is one of quality.
“What annoys people with MEN/Reach is the shoddy quality (written in 30mins from an [Instagram] post) not just the subject matter,” commented Herrmann. “Really original/funny pieces on Molly-Mae would obviously be great.”
“It’s also why [Lester’s] comparison with the NYT is so hard to fathom – they specifically built a brand around doing lots of *original reporting* about national topics, not pumping out aggregated stuff. The Reach strategy is almost the exact opposite.”
This is absolutely not to say Reach’s content is all awful. Their journalists do work hard, undoubtedly, and have published important local investigations which have made a difference in their communities. Last year, MEN’s Stephen Topping led an award-winning investigation into the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak due to mould in his social housing, and the publication has been working with charities on a campaign to change the law around social housing to improve conditions nationally.
Other work like Brummie Mummies, the podcast from Birmingham Live has been instrumental in building a local community, as evidenced in their Publisher Podcast Awards win.
The problem here is twofold. Firstly, once the trust of local readers has been lost in a firehose of irrelevant crap, it is very difficult to win back. This in turn undermines the important work, and creates a vicious cycle.
And secondly, who the hell can read any of the content online anyway?
An ‘online attention recession’
No, really. You have a go. Trashy chumbox ads every two paragraphs, and a cheeky ‘Continue reading’ button which reloads the entire article. There you go, that’s two ‘pageviews’ for the price of one.
Which is why it was laughable to see Chief Digital Publisher David Higgerson and Group EiC Lloyd Embley cite an ‘online attention recession’ leading to a need to ‘return our digital audience to growth’ in a Press Gazette article posted on the very same day as Lester’s interview.
There are certainly industry headwinds, no one will deny that. But if Reach are struggling to…well…reach people, they might want to take a look closer to home to find out why.
“The sites are an over monetised mess, and impossible to navigate,” one industry source commented. “There’s no online attention recession, it’s just that if you don’t invest in decent UX and content to go with it, you get the attention and loyalty that you deserve.”
This must be excruciating for staffers. To see their work posted online in a barely readable state, and to get endless comments about it must be demoralising. That’s not something that is the fault of the journalists at all. Senior managers at Reach need to get their act together and see what real, long-term harm such a crappy experience is doing across the board.
One final point I want to address is Lester’s comment that criticism of MEN and other Reach sites is sexist. “Most criticism I get tends to be from blokes, to be honest,” she told Tobitt.
Well, sorry to add a woman to the pile here. Criticism like this, particularly on the same day that Reach announced 400 more journalism jobs are at risk, is uncomfortable to make. Half of women surveyed by Reach and Women in Journalism self-censor online to limit abuse, which may be why Lester has heard minimal criticism from her own gender. But for senior staff to pretend like everything is great on Reach sites when most are an unnavigable mess is ridiculous, especially when everyone can go visit those sites and see for themselves.
(On a side note, there are some pretty easy places to start stamping out sexism: On MEN’s own pages.)
What I do see is feedback from frustrated users and concerned industry professionals who are desperate for local news to thrive in this country. The reason the Manchester Mill and others like it are so celebrated and welcomed is that they fill a void that has opened up over decades in a way that is easy to read.
Sadly, we can all see where this is going. ‘Managed decline’, where fewer staff are asked to drive more traffic by any means (let’s not forget they went on strike a few months back over pay and conditions), cuts are made mainly to editorial, and executives squeeze what profitability they can out. We aren’t at the point our legacy local media outlets are in the state of Gannett and others in the US, but you can see where this road leads.
Our hope, with it being easier than ever for outlets to get off the ground and start making money, is that we’ll see more enterprising local journalists take a ‘minimum viable product’ approach and launch outlets that truly serve their communities.
Or that the MEN truly starts to emulate the NYT by investing in its staff and original, deeply-reported content. That’s a lofty ambition we’d love to see it achieve.