H+K London Commissioning Editor Steve Bradley assesses the editorial landscape and the opportunity ahead

H+K would not exist without the foresight of Cleveland-based reporter John Hill who established the business back in 1927. Working for the local newspaper, he identified the opportunity to tell stories on behalf of companies large and small and we’ve been doing exactly that ever since. So, when we say our roots are deeply entrenched in journalism, they really are.

Our history in the UK doesn’t go back quite as far as 1927 but this year we celebrate 50 years of storytelling at H+K London. So, it seems fitting that we share our landmark birthday with the world’s most famous tabloid, The Sun. True, the paper was launched in 1964 but the move to tabloid five years later ushered in a whole new era in British publishing.

Half a century on, telling stories remains the essence of both their business and ours. And whatever you think of The Sun’s politics and past misdemeanours, dismiss its mastery of storytelling at your peril.

I did. And so did the other 39 bright-eyed students who – metaphorically at least – arrived at journalism college with a copy of The Guardian under their arm back in the early 90s. Within two weeks every single one of us was a tabloid disciple. And I’ve seen nothing to change my mind in the last twenty five years.

Why? They know how to tell stories. So, whilst technology has transformed the media landscape beyond recognition, in many ways nothing has changed. A good story is a good story. End of story.

I’ll give you an example. Following the journalism course, I was lucky enough to learn the ropes from a hard-nosed former news editor of the Daily Star. I worked for a press agency and covered the North West – payment on results. A tough game.

So, when I stumbled across a coastguard overnight call-out, I thought I was on to my first big story. A former sailor in his eighties had tried to row from the nearby port of Fleetwood to the Isle of Man (approx. 100 miles) and had to be rescued by the coastguard. For the fourth time that year.

I excitedly told the boss and proceeded to type up the story. Half an hour later I proudly showed it to him. I’d thrown the kitchen sink at it – “Ancient Mariner”, “salty seadog”, “old salt” etc. He briefly typed away and said: “Pretty good. I added a line.”

The line he added, in the second paragraph, consisted of five words: “The man – dubbed Captain Calamity – ”. Slightly embarrassed, I said: “Oh, I didn’t know that was his nickname, who dubbed him that?” He replied: “I did. Just then.” The following morning six national newspapers used that headline. Those five little words paid for my boss’s family holiday that summer. And over twenty years later the Italian cruise ship captain who abandoned his stricken vessel was widely described as “Captain Coward”.

The point being this – whatever the context, whatever the channel – the story is always there, you just need to know where to find it. Working for clients, we need to think: Who or what is our “Captain Calamity”?  The thing that really grabs people and doesn’t let them go. The thing that lifts the story from good to great.

In “Into the Woods”, John Yorke’s celebrated book on storytelling, he tells us that story structure is driven by a need to make sense of the world, whether you’re talking Lord of the Flies or Line of Duty. And as communications consultants, our job is just that – to help clients and the public to make sense of the world in 2019.

In order to do that we need to fully understand the current landscape. Here are three important questions to consider:

How do we earn Undivided Attention?

Undivided Attention. It may sound quaint but in 2019 it’s a commodity in rare supply for writers and readers alike.

In her new book “Reader, Come Home”, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf quotes a study that found that the average person “consumes about 34 gigabytes across varied devices each day”. That’s the equivalent of 100,000 words’ worth of information.

As a society we have never been more distracted. Whichever way you look at it – whether you’re a writer trying to create beautiful copy for a client or a reader trying to enjoy it – we’ve never had so many devices and platforms competing for our headspace.

So, attention – or focus – has never been more important. As the author Jonathan Franzen said: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”. In fact, Medium reported recently that several well-known authors – including Zadie Smith and Naomi Klein – now use hacks and apps to block distracting websites.

It’s against this backdrop that certain types of communication are thriving. Earlier this year, Mike Isaac had this to say in The New York Times: “My favourite new social network doesn’t incessantly spam me with notifications. When I post, I’m not bombarded with @mentions from bots and trolls. And after I use it, I don’t worry about ads following me around the web. That’s because my new social network is an email newsletter.”  

I think we can all relate to that. Incidentally, The New York Times currently has 13 million email subscriptions, more than twice the number it had three years ago.

Clearly, newsletters and email marketing are important now and will probably be essential very soon. In the daily battle against spam and clutter, subscription-based news services also have an increasing role to play. 

Here in the UK, Tortoise Media is “building a different type of newsroom. For a slower, wiser news.” Co-founded by James Harding, former Director of BBC News and Editor of The Times, Tortoise identifies the challenge of “the daily noise” that surrounds us. General subscription is £24 per month. It will be interesting to see how this particular Tortoise progresses in the coming months.

Also adopting the subscription model is The Athletic UK, due to launch in August. Its ambition is to provide its community with insightful journalism about a wide range of sports and its website promises “No ads, no clickbait — only stories with substance”. With some eye-catching sports writers already signed up, it’s another one to watch. Other fairly recent converts to the paywall approach include Wired and Bloomberg. More will surely follow.

In summary, if you want to reach the promised land of undivided attention, you need to stay focused, seriously consider discrete formats and actively embrace the concept of doing fewer things, better.

How do we get more screen time?

Stats around video content usually scream “Look at me! Look at me!” And it’s difficult to argue with this when you consider that Cisco has projected that more than 80% of all Internet traffic will be video by 2021.

Add to that the fact that Forbes reports that 90% of customers say video helps them make buying decisions and 64% say that seeing a video makes them more likely to buy and it’s clear that without video content you’re simply not in the picture. Live video is particularly effective – research by Livestream and New York Magazine revealed that 80% of people would rather watch live video from a brand than read a blog and that 82% prefer live video from a brand to social posts.

All of this means that telling your story visually has never been more effective. And it doesn’t stop at video. Columbia Journalism Review recently highlighted the growing alliance of comics and journalism – and not just in the political space. As with Tortoise Media described above, CJR reporter Laura Thorne concludes that this is all about slow news: “Despite the immediacy of its impact, comics journalism is a slow form. Immensely labor-intensive, it demands of its practitioners extended attention and a careful eye. In this way, it offers an antidote to the churn of the news cycle, inviting us to take a closer look at the pressing matters of our time”.

Video production is already an important part of our work at H+K London and we’ve recently created films for clients such as HSBC, Gillette and adidas. Within the next five years video will undoubtedly overtake the press release as the “go-to” vehicle for regular interactions with the public.  

How do we maximise the AI Effect?

Despite rumours to the contrary, AI is not going to destroy journalism as we know it. If anything, it’s helping to return it to its former glory.

At a recent “AI and Journalism” event both the Press Association and Associated Press were extolling the virtues of AI as the “journalist’s friend” on the basis that AI can automate low-level research tasks, freeing up valuable journalistic resource to focus on investigative work and more complex stories.

PA has embraced AI to help journalists scale up the production of local news stories – initially a beta trial, it was launched as a subscription-funded service called RADAR (Reporters and Data and Robots) in April. RADAR’s team of journalists identify, write and template newsworthy stories from open data sets held by government departments and agencies, health services, police forces and other public bodies. A bespoke production system with Natural Language Generation (NLG) technology at its core is then used to localise the stories for hundreds of print, online publications and broadcast outlets. The service has already filed over 100,000 stories.

Meanwhile AP is using AI to transfer data to text (automation of labour-intensive  reports), audio to text (saving hours of transcription) and text to video (keyword video creation).

With thousands and thousands of hours freed up, journalists are now able to turn their attentions elsewhere so expect to see a rise in investigative reporting. Traditionally, one of the key roles of the media has been to expose wrongdoing and corruption at both national and local level. But the decline of court reporters and council reporters has left something of a void here. Hopefully this will now change, and the rise of both citizen and community journalists – Facebook announced the funding 80 new community posts in late 2018 – can make a real difference here too.

So, as we reflect on the first fifty years of H+K London and look forward to what the next chapter has in store, it’s hugely encouraging to report that the future of editorial is as bright as it’s ever been.

If we focus on our core storytelling craft and embrace new formats, new publishing models and new technology to cut through the clutter, then, ultimately, we can tell more stories to more people. And, for all of us who love telling stories, that is one headline we’ll never tire of reading.

H+K’s Editorial Hub is a crack team of in-house brand journalists and specialist freelancers who produce more than 400 pieces of content for clients each year – everything from thought leadership reports and copy guidelines, to newsletters and blogs, editorial features and social copy. For more details contact: steve.bradley@hkstrategies.com