Reach audience boss: Traffic targets are basis of 'honest conversations'

Reach audience chief defends page-view targets to MPs

David Higgerson discussing Reach page view targets

Reach’s audience boss has said page view targets act as “the basis of honest conversations” with staff.

Reach chief audience officer David Higgerson (pictured) defended the company from accusations that its business model had led to a fall in the quality of local journalism at a meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee held in Cardiff on Tuesday.

Reach runs national news brands the Mirror, Express and Star, as well as around 100 regional titles across the country.

Reach chief executive Jim Mullen had an overall remuneration worth upwards of £4m in 2021 thanks to share options, 104 times the average salary of a Reach staffer.

National Union of Journalists members at Reach accused their employer of hypocrisy last week after the Daily Mirror ran a front page decrying fatcat pay.

Reach offered staff a 3% pay rise but the NUJ rejected the deal and voted this week to ballot for strike action, saying that members had been forced to swallow real-terms pay cuts that were “slicing deeper into their living standards”.

Asked by Labour MP Kevin Brennan how Reach could justify Mullen’s pay packet “in an industry that’s supposed to be struggling for sustainability,” Higgerson said the remuneration was “agreed with the board” and “is not excessive for organisations within the private sector of similar size to ours”.

Higgerson confirmed that regional reporters at Reach earn £21,500 a year, with senior roles earning  £25,000.

He also faced criticism for the company’s use of page view targets, which it was suggested could impact editorial quality.

He disagreed, saying that the company’s Accelerated Personal Development scheme, which sets page view targets of between 80,000 and 850,000 per month for reporters depending on the title they work at, was “not a target in the sense of the way that you’d recognize targets in lots of other industries”.

He added: “It’s designed to be the basis of honest conversations between editors and journalists about what’s required to contribute to the overall newsroom.”

Higgerson went on: “So when you often hear people talk about click targets, as we’ve talked about today, you can talk about this one big, huge [target] hanging over somebody’s head. It’s about looking at an organisation like ours with 1,500 journalists in it all doing lots of different things, very similar things as well, and what do we need to be able to sustain this role? And page views is a part of it.”

He also said that the “idea that we’re somehow inching away from our responsibility to public interest news is wrong”.

He added that the “worst thing” the local journalism industry could do would be to “look back to a sepia-tinted time”, later adding there was no proof in the UK that “local journalism of scale” could be sustained by subscriptions.

“Invariably when we go back to those sepia-tinted times it wasn’t as sepia-tinted as the person presenting it says it was.”

“I think the challenges facing our industry are much more about making sure that the revenue that’s generated from our content goes back to content creators big and small rather than sitting, as it does at the moment largely with people who are distributing the content and not really adding much to the process.”

Professor Natalie Fenton of Goldsmiths of the University of London told MPs at the same meeting that massive multi-title publishers were diluting the quality of local journalism.

“I really think the model is for profit, it’s not for increasing the democratic health of the local community,” she said. “If you have a precarious contract you’re more likely to be a compliant journalist… You won’t object to having to file 17 stories a day. You just have to churn it out.”

She added: “When you’ve got 15 large offices serving 110 titles, what you get there is a lot of recirculated press releases, you get a lot of kind of cut and paste journalism, you get journalists, which are not embedded in the local communities.”

Paul Hutchinson, co-founder of hyperlocal newspaper the Bedford Independent, agreed: “A lot of titles, by the larger publishers, are usually based out of the patch that they serve their editor outside of the patch they serve, they don’t necessarily have the local knowledge. They don’t drink in the same pub as their readers, their children don’t go to the same school as their readers.”

Higgerson also criticised the Duopoly of Google and Facebook, which earn £1bn a year in revenues from UK news content according to a study published by the News Media Association in May. Reach and other publishers do receive payments from Google to edit content for its Google News Showcase aggregation service.

Higgerson said: “They do send a lot of traffic to us from Google but there’s no getting away from the fact that the money spent on advertising that historically would appear alongside that content in print, or online, and now sits with Facebook and with Google.

“So it would have a transformative effect on local news for the large regional publisher in the UK [if that were changed by law]. I imagine it’d be the same for all publishers.”

Asked about its impact on the news industry in a later committee session, Google’s government affairs and public policy manager Tom Morrison-Bell said: “Publishers generate value from platforms, and that is a topic that is often missing from the debate.”

Morrison-Bell claimed news search queries account for less than 2% of all searches on Google in the UK, adding: “A lot of structural decline [in news] didn’t come from the platforms, it’s that the classifieds went off to create Zoopla, RightMove, Autotrader.”

He added: “It’s not true that money just went from there [news publishers] to the platforms. That’s not an accurate representation of how the market changes at all. In 2020, the revenue we made from ads next to news related queries was less than $20m in the UK.”

John Severinson, European head of news partner development at Facebook owner Meta, said: “I believe it was the Cairncross Review said that the government should encourage the development of new business models and I think one of the lessons from Australia is it doesn’t solve the underlying issue in that the business models of journalism online are broken and need to transition to a new reality.”

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Picture: House of Commons Committees

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Comments

2 thoughts on “Reach audience chief defends page-view targets to MPs”

  1. It is utterly ludicrous to deny that click targets are the enemy of public interest journalism.

    There is a difference between what is in the public interest and what the public is interested in. Often, more people will be interested in some photos of a Love Island contestant than in a very important council decision about the spending of millions of pounds.

    News organisations have to strike a balance between public interest and the public’s interest. But when you introduce click targets, the former inevitably goes out of the window.

    Publishers can deny it ’til they’re blue in the face, but anybody working in the industry knows the reality: reporters are discouraged from pursuing public interest stories which not many people will click on, and encouraged to instead churn out brainless rubbish based on guessing games about what people are likely to be googling that day.

    That is what sparked the very public and widely covered blow-up between Gareth Davies – an extremely successful, multi-award-winning journalist – and Reach (then Trinity Mirror). He said he was being instructed not to pursue important, public interest journalism because not many people were likely to click on it. This was journalism which was winning the newspaper awards every single year – and he was instructed not to do it anymore because people were more likely to click on inane listicles. Look it up. The stories are still out there.

    1. Well they would be out there – if, as Gareth also pointed out, Reach hadn’t binned the public access to all of Local World and the previous owner’s stories in its online archive. Hundreds of thousands of articles going back several years – all wiped from public view.

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