With competition among digital publishers as fierce as it’s ever been, it’s no surprise that each is trying everything it can to expand their audiences. Over the past few months TheMediaBriefing has been closely following reports that Trinity Mirror was setting their journalists individual online traffic targets – and the inevitable debate that followed.

Last month, Roy Greenslade wrote an article for the Guardian entitled ‘Why Trinity Mirror was right to abandon individual targets for staff’ in which he argued that the practice would inevitably lead to “a clickbait culture”.

In an article on his personal blog, Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director David Higgerson offered the following rebuttal, arguing that the reality is much more nuanced and would, in fact, benefit readers:


I’d have sent this on email but when I’ve emailed in the past I never get a reply. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, as there can be many reasons for this, but something you wrote earlier this week struck me as so wrong that I felt compelled to write.

Your belated post on Monday offering your take on the discussion around audience goals within the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, was as I would have expected, but way off beam in many respects. It certainly doesn’t back the reality of the trial we carried out at the Manchester Evening News. But we’ve found a way forward with the NUJ which everyone is committed to making work, so I’m not going to talk about that.

It was more this comment at the end of your post:

“The reality is that measuring journalists’ worth by how many hits their articles receive and/or how many articles they write is far too crude a way of assessing both their input and their output.

“Editors know that well enough. Managers, too often, do not. They must accept that journalism based on a clickbait culture is, ultimately, worthless.”

You aren’t the only media academic/commentator to keep peddling the line that journalists who take into account what is popular online must therefore be clickbait merchants. 

The failure to understand or acknowledge that audience data is critical to our future as journalists, especially regional journalists, by people within in the industry is very dangerous. The assumption that clickbait – as in content people find unsatisfactory but heck, we’ve got the page view so does it matter – is the result of listening to the reader through data suggests a fundamental lack of understanding by some about how media organisations need to adapt to survive in the future.

There are two main points really. The first is that how to use metrics. Of course, like anything, there is a ‘good way’ to use numbers and a ‘bad way.’ This is nothing new. There are newsrooms within the media which set themselves a number-of-page-views-at-all-cost or unique-users-at-all-cost target. They are crazy to do so.

Sensible audience metrics take the needs of a business – and whether an editor or a manager, you have to understand the needs of the business – and develop an editorial approach which ensures the needs of business, generally ad impressions for now, can be met sustainably.

So I agree that assessing journalism based just on ‘hits’ is just crude, in the same way as substituting audience metrics for the word ‘hits,’ a phrase which died maybe a decade ago for any journalist who sensibly uses audience metrics, is also crude.

Which is why you have to look at things like the percentage of page views to an article which made up the total of any one visit, or the time spent on an article, and the percentage of people visiting an article who are local, in the case of the regional press. You then boil that down into instant data journalists can glance at and use to inform their next decision.

That doesn’t feel crude to me – and that data is the data being used in the newsrooms I work with day in, day out. An overall newsroom target has to be hit to ensure the newsroom is delivering what the commercial departments need for the company to be successful. That’s no different to newspaper sales targets in the newsroom, other than that we know for sure what works and what doesn’t.

That digital target has to be hit every month, which is why a clickbait culture can’t emerge and using the metrics above to assess the value of content to readers, wouldn’t emerge. Indeed, it didn’t emerge at the Manchester Evening News during the trial there, but audience growth was stronger. Readers who feel cheated by a website don’t return. The same surely applies to print readers?

The second point to make is as follows:

“They [managers] must accept that journalism based on a clickbait culture is, ultimately, worthless.”

Given there is no clickbait culture – and I’m happy to talk through this in detail if it you’re interested in widening your understanding of how audience metrics can be applied sensibly – it would be easy just to dismiss this sentence.

But you know from what TM has said previously, and what I’ve written previously, that we were structuring audience goals and analytics to avoid any risk of clickbait. So I hope you aren’t saying that journalism based on audience data – which is what we striving to achieve – is worthless. To suggest journalism which applies audience data is worthless is to encourage journalism to bury its head in the sand and tell the readers to like it or go elsewhere.

And that’s what many journalism outlets did for a long time. Because for a long time, people had nowhere else to go. They didn’t before, but they do now. A regional news brand may be competing with a hyperlocal website, the local BBC and, if a story is big enough, every single national brand out there to get attention.

So if  local brands which have been around for 150 years are to be around into the future, they need to be relevant to people, preferably on a daily basis. So people think to come to us, not just find us in search or via social. Creating a clickbait culture wouldn’t do that.

Audience data prompts two questions of journalists. The first is: What should we be doing which people will want to read? This is why the Newcastle Chronicle begins writing informational content related to the Great North Run in June (when people are looking for it) and also covers the run live on its website, and knows exactly the additional content people want the day after the run too.

It’s why football journalists in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff (amongst others) prioritise filing variations of ‘five things we discovered’ articles after a football match because people prefer to read that than they do match reports. It’s the same theme of content, we’re just sharing the information in a different way, at a different speed.

None of this is ‘clickbait’ and to suggest to otherwise is misleading. To suggest clickbait is the only way to drive an audience to content is to suggest readers are thick, and not capable of spending time with anything other than a cat-on-a-skateboard vidoe. Looking at multiple metrics on a daily basis ensures a clickbait culture doesn’t emerge.

The second question audience metrics pose is: How we make content we think we should be covering more popular to readers? In some cases, this is a real challenge. It’s not enough to just call ourselves the ‘paper of record’ and Marc Reeves was spot on about that in Birmingham last year. As journalists, we need to have a good enough relationship with readers to be trusted so that when we say something is important, readers will be happy to take our word and read about the important thing.

For example, some of our newsrooms now live blog council meetings, and get a much bigger audience number, staying for longer, than if they wrote regular articles after the event. Analysis and explainers accompanying news articles are often very well read and are now done more often.

Constantly, newsrooms have to ask how do we make this important subject more widely read, shared, engaged with to ensure that the important thing is widely received. No journalist who wants their content to be read should fear this. No journalist who wants their content to make a difference should fear this. How often have local journalists been sneered at by those they try to hold to account ‘because no-one reads the paper anymore.’ Digital audiences hand that power to hold to account back – but we have to get the readers.

In applying individual audience goals, editors would have been able to take into account the different audience levels they expect from different types of content, and where they hope to get it too. Team targets allow the same to happen, so long as audience metrics are being considered in every content decision.

The best way to guarantee the future of important journalism – I guess the stuff some people sometimes call worthy and then bury mid-book in print – is to make it valuable to sizeable number of readers. Lots of senior journalists I work with, for example in Birmingham and Manchester, are embracing this and making it happen.

The newsrooms I work with have had newsroom targets for over three years now, and team targets for up to a year. Expecting journalists to consider the best way to make sure content reaches the widest possible audience is not a bad thing.

Regional newsrooms can’t burn through readers by offering content with headlines which excite, but content which doesn’t (that’s clickbait I guess). They should, however, be striving to attract readers in, and half that battle is won when the reader has had a previous good experience on that site. And that’s far more likely to happen if we, as journalists, respect the reader by respecting the data readers provide the moment they arrive on our sites.

It’s not clickbait. It’s respecting the reader. Something newsrooms around the world – from the Washington Post down – are building into daily life. Assuming it leads to clickbait is to do the journalists involved a huge disservice, and is, to be blunt, just wrong.

All the best,


David Higgerson’s personal blog can be found here.