5 News editor Cait Fitzsimons spoke to Press Gazette as she decided to step down after five years, leaving the programme in “strong shape”, according to a Channel 5 boss.
Since February 2018, Fitzsimons has led an outlier in many ways of the UK broadcasting landscape: 5 News does not have its own website, it is the smallest national newsroom with a staff of around 55, and its daily TV news programme is on at the early teatime slot of 5pm – attracting a unique demographic.
The programme has undergone significant change since late 2021 when it received permission from Ofcom to turn its two half-hourly editions at 5pm and 6.30pm each weekday into one hour-long slot at 5pm. Soon after the relaunch, its presenter of six years Sian Williams departed and 5 News poached Dan Walker from BBC Breakfast to be lead anchor, presenting alongside Claudia-Liza Vanderpuije from June.
Subsequently, the second half of 2022 saw 5 News’ audience share grow by 9% compared to the first six months of the year. In January 2023 the programme had a 2.7% audience share, up 6% year-on-year while February was up 12%. Overall 5 News claims to have reached 27 million people in 2022.
Fitzsimons told Press Gazette’s Future of Media Explained podcast it felt like the programme was on a “really positive upward trajectory” since Walker’s arrival. That is despite, she said, the busy news and sports year of 2022 being “quite a challenging year for us in viewing figures because, being on at 5pm, sometimes things can clash and the events can pull people away from the programmes”.
Fitzsimons, a former Sky News, ITV News and 5 News programme editor before she became deputy editor then editor, also this year helped producer ITN to secure a new five-year contract with Paramount-owned Channel 5. She will leave later this year and the search for her successor will begin soon.
Daniel Pearl, commissioning editor for unscripted at Paramount+ and Channel 5, said: “5 News has changed dramatically during her editorship, relaunching as an hour with Dan and Claudia-Liza at the helm, and Cait is leaving the programme in superb shape for the future. We will all miss Cait but wish her the very best for her next chapter.”
The new refreshed 5 News programme has seen it add new strands such as “Five Things You Need to Know” halfway through the hour and “Around the World” ensuring there will be some foreign news earlier in the running order. Fitzsimons described additions such as these as “comfortable and familiar and regular” features that viewers feel they can rely on and that make 5 News “not just a typical news bulletin”.
The process has been an evolution rather than a one-off change, Fitzsimons told Press Gazette, and next up could be a refresh of how they open the programme. “I think how you open a programme says a lot about your intent to viewers.”
“We’re getting to the point now where the main parts are in place and then it’s just a matter of really leaning into that and having the confidence that it’s worked so far, let’s keep pushing,” she added.
One innovation of the expansion was the addition of the ability for viewers to contact the presenters directly while they are live on-air through Whatsapp.
Fitzsimons said this had been a “real revelation” and that she had been “genuinely taken aback by the level of interaction” the programme gets.
She said this means they have “a bit of time to be able to listen to what the viewers think about the stories or hear their stories about the issues that really matter to them”, adding: “There’s no point asking stuff if it’s just going to be ‘I’m angry’ or ‘I’m sad’. What you want is for people to actually tell you about how they’re impacted by the stories… something like the cost of living and strikes.”
Fitzsimons continued: “Everybody in the newsroom talks about the viewers at home and what they want to know, and we’ve got that direct line from them every day about what they think is important… as a journalist, it’s easy to be cynical about this stuff.
“It’s like when people denigrate vox pops, which really drives me up the wall because if you ask the right question, you can often get better insight than from someone who’s got an impressive subtitle on their name.”
She said there are stories where experts are important, but for cultural and social issues in particular the audience experience matters. The 5 News audience connects with human interest and social affairs themes, she added, meaning that they put much of their time on original journalism into stories around the likes of long Covid and child-to-parent abuse.
“We are really mindful of our audience at home, who they are, we have a really good idea about the kind of audience we’re trying to serve,” she said. “And that’s not to the exclusion of other people, it’s just knowing that that’s at the core of what you do – and then you try and make it as broad as possible.”
‘You’ve got to earn people’s attention’
The 5 News audience is predominantly female, is above average in the North East, Midlands, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London compared to other news bulletins, and has a higher proportion from DE socioeconomic groups (including semi-skilled/unskilled manual jobs and those on state benefits).
They are largely middle-aged so a little younger than the other major news bulletins but also with some retired viewers as well as others who are more likely to be home at 5pm – for example, people looking after children and overnight or early shift-workers, Fitzsimons explained.
“One of the reasons why we made the programme the way we did [was] you have to earn the right to be in people’s houses at 5pm,” she said. “They’re not sitting down for the evening, sort of sitting on the sofa and staying there. You’ve got the kids running around, you’re putting the tea on, they want to do their homework. You’ve got to sort that before you head out to the shops or you’ve going to work.
“You’ve got to earn people’s attention and that’s not just a case of saying ‘this is important, you must listen to it’. It’s like ‘come here, we’ve got some stuff to tell you, you’ll want to know about this’.
“And that attitude I think is really important in the language we use in scripting, the presenters we have, you know, Dan and CL [Claudia-Liza] are really human, warm people who are journalists at heart, but who… take people seriously. And I think it’s all of that pulling together to really be thoughtful about the people at home.”
5 News online and PSB prominence
Without its own website, 5 News’ “tiny” digital team concentrates on different metrics to most other newsrooms and uses Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Instagram to get its journalism in front of more people first of all, and secondarily to raise the profile of 5 News.
Fitzsimons claimed 5 News’ skill at engaging with its audience translates onto social media. ITN said 5 News has an average Facebook engagement rate of 0.55% against an industry standard of 0.40%. Meanwhile, on Youtube, 5 News saw growth of 320% in video views to 32 million in 2022, with total minutes viewed up 309% to 55 million.
They are also thinking about how they might use Tiktok but “with a tiny team, it means that you need to be careful about you allocate resources”, Fitzsimons also said.
One of her biggest concerns, however, as the move to digital marches on, is the “tension” between regulated media and unregulated social media – a theme she pointed to when discussing the criticism towards the press of Nicola Bulley’s family. 5 News, for its part, had conducted a headline-making exclusive interview between Walker and Bulley’s partner – but ITN stablemate ITV News was one of those singled out by the family.
Fitzsimons said: “It’s only right that all broadcasters look and think what can we do? Is there something we could have been better at? Should we evolve? Because you can easily be left behind and not following best practice with this stuff and it’s about how people feel and you have to be open to listen to that and respond to it whenever it happens.”
She added: “Also, I think one of the issues we could struggle on sometimes is the conflation for people around regulated media and social media and I think that particularly for the family in the eye of that storm, how do you tell the difference? It’s really hard and I think that responsible broadcasting, we can’t just think about ourselves in isolation, it’s part of the bigger picture…”
Fitzsimons went on to say “the move onto digital is inevitable and that will only continue to grow” but that this does not necessarily mean 5 News needs its own website.
Of linear TV news programmes, she said “the product will always be wanted, it’s just the method of delivery I think is something that we’ll need to look at”. But she said that rather than a website, that might mean simply making sure 5 News is given the same prominence and visual signals to Channel 5 viewers whether they come to it through TV, an app or another means of access.
She echoed calls for guaranteed prominence for public service broadcasters in an on-demand world made previously by colleagues at ITN such as chief executive and former ITV News editor Corp.
“I think it will be less about the individual and more about making sure that there’s a really important framework – PSB continues to have its prominence and continues to be seen as something that’s important and worth investing in,” Fitzsimons said.
And she pointed to the way that ITV has included ITV News content prominently within its new ITVX streaming service.
“I think that shows that broadcasters really want to make that happen. It’s just finding the right way to serve the audience, which is really exciting as well as slightly nerve-wracking.”
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