Shift North 2015 reports and presentations

Asking the right questions

The People's History Museum of Manchester was host to Shift North on Tuesday 13 October, an event on a mission to explain what makes newsbrands tick, for readers and advertisers.

Shift North is held in a museum tracking the history of the people's struggle for representation and rights, often shown via newspaper headlines. So is that century-spanning history a strength or a weakness for newsbrands? Can they hold their own against 'the noisy neighbours next door' in digital and social media?

The deliberate shift from 'newspapers' to 'newsbrands' that accompanied the creation of Newsworks reflects, as Rufus Olins put it, that "newspapers stopped being just papers". The first session at Shift North left me wondering whether the wider media industry is asking the right question when it comes to print specifically - not 'why is the glass half empty' but 'why is it still half full'?

The emphasis has been on understanding a seemingly inevitable transition from print to digital. However with 85%+ of the UK having access to broadband perhaps the question - as the persuasive and passionate Mail On Sunday editor Geordie Greig put it  - should be why millions of people are still opting to pay for content already piped into their home for free.

In the rush to digital are we forgetting the strengths of a delivery platform that is "printable, holdable, foldable and disposable"? What is it about the physical form of a newspaper that still holds such attraction to so many?

Past Newsworks research indicates that the print version of a newspaper is engaging and relaxing. Just how relaxing is reading content online when an email from your boss could pop up on the same screen at any moment? Other research, summarised by Newsworks' insight director Denise Turner, shows the importance of a "tactile experience".  I have written many times about my own concerns regarding too much exposure to glowing rectangles.

The shape and distribution of media use across platforms has been distorted both by access and content availability. However, as is also becoming apparent in TV, once content is equally available across all platforms, the true nature of people's preferences settles down and becomes more apparent.

So print clearly still has a role to play, as opposed to simply being the analogue caterpillar to the digital butterfly. Laurence Green, founding partner of 101, talked promisingly of a "new equilibrium" in media planning after an initial hasty rush to online, with newsbrands positioned as the "glue" in the media plan for the recent Scottish Widows campaign. Meanwhile Douglas McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis, highlighted the "yawning gap between the promise and the practice of digital advertising".

The second question that emerged from the event relates to why journalists need the umbrella of a newsbrand. We live in an age in which anyone (including me) can have their own website and self-publish, and a lot of money can be made from aggregating other peoples' content. Journalists can themselves be "brands within brands" with high social media profiles, but those present agreed that established newsbrands offered them:

  • The support and funding for investigations that may take months or years to reach their goal or may never do so
  • The access to open doors
  • A platform for people's stories to be heard
  • The voice to ensure that the final work is widely seen and has an impact

This was a consistent thread, whether it was David Conn's work on Hillsborough, Andrew Norfolk on Rotherham or the Alison Kervin's campaign on concussion in Rugby.

Meanwhile the morning started with The Independent's chief political commentator Steve Richards arguing that newsbrands alone have the space and time to step back and analyse what is going on and that they still set the agenda for broadcast and social media to follow. "In a chaotic political world we depend on the mediators" he claimed, echoing recent comments by Sir Martin Sorrell.

Gareth A Davies, boxing correspondent at The Telegraph, asked "as we move into the digital age, where is the place for long form journalism?" At Shift North a mix of talents from the overlapping worlds of advertising, research and journalism provided some of the answers.

You can watch the session from Newsworks' Shift North event here.

The first session at Shift North left me wondering whether the wider media industry is asking the right question when it comes to print specifically - not 'why is the glass half empty' but 'why is it still half full'?

Richard Marks
by Richard Marks 16/10/15

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