Monday, 8 November 2010

Making newspapers - as addictive as ever

An illustration of the box juggling pattern.Image via WikipediaThis hasn't been the most updated blog recently but that's because, for a while, I found myself doing two jobs. I'm back doing just the one now but it's a bit different to what I've been doing for the past two years. To start with it left me somewhat mentally taxed, and not a little perplexed.
This demanding new job is... making newspapers.
My usual job as executive editor, digital, sees me editing print titles on an ad hoc basis (and the Echo on a Sunday rota) but generally my multimedia day is more weighted towards the web, mobile, online journalism and online strategies or projects. But for the past month I've been on a job swap with the executive editor, Echo, and for a chunk of that time, due to absences, I was also engaged in day-to-day digital editrixery as well.
All this was set, Margaret Mitchell-style, against a backdrop of the Liverpool FC club sale/saga - a frenzy that sent reader usage spiralling upwards and led to near record print and online figures.

Some days started at 7am and ended at 10pm, several front pages were made during the course of edition changes but never actually lived to see it to the presses because the story had zoomed forward during that short window, and on the day of the actual sale there was a special Late Final edition of the Echo.
Here's one that never made it out into the world...
A front page that didn't make it

... as, in the 20 minutes between designing that and the edition being sent to press, the LFC sale had moved on again and taken the lead slot on the front. It was relentless, frustrating and exciting. I was happy we still had an on-day edition of the Echo, and sad that the 3pm late City Final edition was no more. And I was delighted that online we could react/predict fast enough to keep ahead of things.

Print or online, changes were made only when people were absolutely confident of their sources. When the tip came through that the sale had been completed we were nearing absolute deadline to make page changes for a one-off Late Final edition (about 2pm) and still no white smoke had emerged from the room where Christian Purslow, Martin Broughton, NESV representatives and various legal types were closeted, difficult choices had to be made.We had a solid tip, but no confirmation... was it enough for a late final?
Everyone in the newsroom was becoming increasingly desolate as the late special idea looked set to fall down. The confirmation came, we managed to get it online (and cached, for once) before Sky and the BBC were even reporting it and there were celebrations at landing a web exclusive.

Then it turned out we had a print one as well... Echo editor Ali Machray had quietly got the front page change made - including a story announcing the sale, and had sent to the printers on the off-chance. So bundles of the latest news were in vans heading back to outlets on Merseyside...bundles that would have been pulped if no announcement had come through.
It was a true real leap of faith and it paid off.

For me, it was an especially fascinating story because I got to be immersed in both print and web areas of the story. A fans-crowdsourced online survey had nearly 2,000 responses in 24 hours and made a front page, tweets by John W. Henry regarding the sale were packaged for web and print, and compliments/complaints about the coverage (especially the scale of it) came in from fans and non-fans alike.

A breakdown of what had value for readers... Demonstrated by online comments/tweets, letters, phone calls and emails. The brackets show on which platform(s) something appeared

  • Breaking news (online - switching to a liveblog for the last day was particularly popular)
  • Accuracy and clarity, not re-running other titles' speculation (web/print)
  • Repackaging reader comments as articles and inviting more comment (web/print)
  • Timelines (web/print)
  • Archive front pages charting the Hicks-Gillett-NESV progression (online)
  • Image galleries (web)
  • Short video - esp. of scenes outside the High Court (web)
  • Word clouds contrasting NESV and Hicks&Gillett ownership statements (print/online)
Not Valued
  • LFC sale updates on the general news @LiveEchoNews Twitter (online)
  • Breaking news not validated by other news sources* (online/print)
  • Impartiality - there was a clear desire for the Echo to display attitude and partiality by fans, not merely report (online/print)
  • Unsubstantiated claims (online) - even when stating 'reported by' or linking to an article referenced, readers often rejected it. This was interesting - an article linking out to a speculative story on another media source would attract negative comments; however, a commenter adding a link in their post would often attract 'thumbs up'
Anyway, I go back to being a webbie next Monday. I've missed it and yet I've learned and re-learned more in the past month than I would have thought possible. I'm not sure I fulfilled part of my brief - which was to 'embed digital higher up the story-gathering process' because it turns out that executive editors for print spend as much time sat in meetings, away from the real world of the newsroom, as executive editors for digital do.
But making print pages - working with designers to produce front pages, designing blurbs myself, discussing what sold, and where, with the newspaper sales dept, has helped open my eyes wider to newspapers. Why I stayed when colleagues went to lucrative pr jobs, why I remained in the regionals instead of chancing my arm with the nationals, why I get hate headaches every time someone posts a gleeful 'death of newspapers' article.
I had to go to hospital today and a nurse asked me my religion. When I told her I didn't have one, she was a bit baffled as to what to put, and asked a colleague for advice.
It's just struck me, I could have replied "Journalism" - and it would have been 100% true.

*An exclusive article on Tom Hicks and Mill Financial bidding to delay the deal was not followed up by the BBC or Sky. As the day progressed without some 3rd party also reporting it, readers online began to complain it was untrue. This, of course, was possibly because it didn't tell them what they wanted to hear - that NESV was a shoo-in)

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