The Birmingham Mail’s Gareth Barry letter: why so late on the web?

Did anyone else notice that today’s fantastic exclusive from the Birmingham Mail – an open letter from Gareth Barry to Villa fans – did not appear on its website until after lunch?

It seems many other websites ended up covering the story publishing the letter online before the Mail did.

Some even ran the full letter on their websites before The Mail. The Express & Star had the letter up online at midday and Football 365 appears to have published it at 12.31pm. However, Head of Multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals, David Higgerson (see comments below) said many of these were actually excerpts.

The Mail had originally had an article and  a teaser on their site saying that they would publish the full letter online at 4pm, although it appeared to go up onto the site a bit  earlier than that.

It’s a very different strategy to the way The Guardian broke its recent video exclusive on Ian Tomlinson, where it used its website to publicise the story first.  I’m also not sure how it could have benefited the Mail to publish on their website so late.

I guess it shows the way newspapers deal with exclusives and how best to split them between print and online is still an area very much open to debate.

39 thoughts on “The Birmingham Mail’s Gareth Barry letter: why so late on the web?

  1. You seem to be assuming that the delay was deliberate rather than a mistake. Not so sure myself.

  2. Hi Richard,

    Well there was a puff on the site saying something along the lines of “read the full story here at 4pm”. So I guess there must have been some decision taken.

  3. Hi Joanna

    Just to correct a couple of things, if I may. The Mail (and the Post and the Mercury for that matter) had a story up from 8am running through some highlights from the letter. This story was updated throughout the morning, with more being added during the morning.

    The whole letter went online at 12.30pm – and other versions around prior to that were not, despite what their headlines claimed, the full version. Not surprisingly, it’s gone great guns across all three sites.

    As for striking the balance between print and online demands, I think you’re right – it’s still an area very much up for discussion.

  4. Hi David,

    Thanks for the clarification and apologies for not picking up on the stories. I will change the post to refect what you said when I get to a computer.
    I’m still curious to know why the choice was made to put the letter out online gradually during the day when it had been published in full in the paper. Was it to try to increase paper sales? It was a great scoop and I’d be interested to understand the decisions behind putting it out the way The Mail did and why it originally said it would publish the letter online at 4pm.

  5. Hi Jo. Hope you’re well. The decision was dinosaur Dyson’s. My thoughts at 7am conference when I realised the strength of what we had was to refuse any access to the letter for as long as possible. Tease it on line and boost sales. I’ll give you figures on whether that succeeded in terms of sales when they are through. The unexpected boost was Setanta, PA, Five Live, Sky Sports and TalkSport all calling us to beg for the letter and, upon understanding why we were saying ‘no’ for print sales, offering interviews with the editor and/or the Villa writer with ‘excerpts’ read out from the letter, and listeners/viewers told they could only read the full version in that night’s paper. Five interviews took place throughout the morning and early afternoon, two of them by video teams sent to Fort Dunlop, three by phone. The result of this unexpected assistance by other media outlets was the Birmingham Mail being talked up on ALL sports channels nationally (and this was then followed up by local TV and radio). You couldn’t have bought such coverage. And the Villa Forums were full of the fact the letter was in the Mail. My original ‘order’ was nothing online until 4pm, but multi-media chief David Higgerson was primed to scan and tell me as soon as a major competitor stole the words. Once this happened we released the leashes and still gathered an impressive boost online as well. So was it all planned? No, but there was a plan, and this was added to by good luck/good journalism/good opportunism. And then we changed it by 3.5-hours anyway and uploaded at 1.30pm. Would I do it again? You bet!
    Steve Dyson
    Editor
    Birmingham Mail

  6. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for commenting – you are the only newspaper editor I know who engages on blog posts and does so quite so promptly. I really appreciate it.

    It sounds an interesting model and with such a fantastic story I have no doubt the sales of the Mail newspaper will be much higher than usual.

    I guess it’s hard to prove the sales have been positively affected by delaying the publication of the letter online.

    I think it’s great you generated additional publicity.

    I’m curious to know whether you think that was purely down to not releasing the letter online in full? Would you not have got those interviews anyway?

    If news publications wanted to transcribe the letter from the Mail then they could have. What do you think stopped them?

    P.S Whilst we may, on occasion, talk frustratingly different languages I would never call you a dinosaur!

  7. Hi Jo.
    I like dinosaurs!

    Re. your Qs:

    You said: ‘I’m curious to know whether you think that [additional publicity] was purely down to not releasing the letter online in full?’

    Yes, I do. The phone calls started with a national red-top the night before, simply asking for the letter Barry had sent ‘to fans’. (We played ignorant at that stage, of course.)

    This was the starting point of all follow up calls from 7am. The ‘sports pack’ wasn’t, let’s be honest, concerned in the slightest about the Birmingham Mail. They just wanted this insightful letter.

    My reply to all who called that morning was ‘this is an exclusive letter to the Mail so you cannot have it’.

    Responses ranged from ‘we’ll get it online anyway’ (BBC Sport online) to ‘well, can you give us excerpts in return for a mention?’ (Five Live).

    To the former, I said ‘you won’t get it online, because it’s not going online’, and to the latter, I said ‘yes – as long as the mention includes the words “local readers can only read it in the Mail”.’

    Once interviews with the latter began (first up was Five Live at 10.10am) the former called back and offered the same.

    This started a rollercoaster of folk calling, seemingly ‘knowing’ the deal (maybe via the sports pack, maybe via my blog).

    Folk like PA, Talk Sport and Setanta just ‘yes, no probs, top and tail mention that you can only read it in the Mail guaranteed’. In fact, they almost MADE a story out of it only appearing in the Mail.

    You said: ‘Would you not have got those interviews anyway?’

    See above. No. Big Villa stories happen often, and never before have we had that much interest in the Mail. Yes, they might occasionally interview the Villa reporter about a new signing or dispute.

    But I’ve never appeared on five live broadcasts talking about Villa in the same four hour period before. If the letter had been online as soon as we had it, no-one would have set up an interview with us reading excerpts.

    You said: ‘If news publications wanted to transcribe the letter from the Mail then they could have. What do you think stopped them?’

    Interestingly, once the ‘pack’ got into the story that this was a special letter to fans via their local paper, they seemed to like it.

    Yes they could have transcribed, and one or two forums and the local rag rival did by the afternoon. The national broadcasters chose not to. I placed a copyright warning on the in-paper article, but in truth I would be surprised if that was the reason.

  8. Great to see an open discussion about the pros and cons of the approach taken – sadly, it’s all too easy to assume there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things.

    I’d be really interested in hearing how the approach taken may have helped print sales/online traffic – and the perceived value of the story being taken up by other outlets and the live interviews – does this publicity boost sales of something only available in one geographic location?

    I’m presuming the ROI of print readership is in line with most other publications by being greater than online readership?

  9. In fairness, I recall something similar being done when Kenny Cunningham spat his dummy at Blues, but on that occasion it was broken up into individual stories rather than a teaser. Never think teasers are a good idea online, you’re almost penalising readers who provide an audience by not giving them the news at the same time as your other readers. As with the Cunningham thing, there are ways round it, though/

    Can fully understand the thinking behind holding back for publicity reasons and as Steve says you can’t buy that sort of coverage. And it’s positive to see that it wasn’t done purely because it might harm sales – an argument that’s never stood up for me.

    I would argue however that the original 4pm time was a bit late. I think if you want the best value from something as strong as this online and you’re going to schedule publish then I’d say you can sit any later than paper on sale time (as explained above) or 11.45am, but that’s just my view.

    Cracking tale, mind. Hopefully the fans will give Bill Howell (assuming he played his part in this) some of the credit he deserves and hasn’t been getting from them in the past.

    Up the Villa!

  10. You would have thought that when Barry wrote the letter to fans (note it was to the fans and not the Birmingham Mail) it was with the intention of being able to release the information in his own way.

    I doubt his prime concern was to boost the Mail’s sales. Though he has demonstrated quite an interest in the cash so you never know.

    There is certainly a lesson to others in the future. If you want to try and tell your story in your own way then the Mail is probably not the best route to doing it.

  11. Daz:

    You say ‘If you want to try and tell your story in your own way then the Mail is probably not the best route to doing it.’

    How do you work that out, given the story got the prominence it did and arguably an INCREASED coverage because of the way it was done?

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  13. The Gareth Barry story this week has been quite a learning process. The first thing to say is that holding back a story, even after it has appeared in print, is a very rare move in the Birmingham Mail newsroom. Stories either appear online ahead of print, or as the paper goes to press, with a call taken on a story by story basis.

    Did we lose out by delaying publication online? We’ll never know. My gut instinct is that yes, we probably did miss a bit of traffic online but the reaction when we put it online was so great that I’ve taken it as proof that if people know the original source of information online, they’ll flock to it.

    Ross’s point about 4pm being too late is interesting. 4pm is certainly after the Mail’s peak of traffic, but curiously is just at the start of a late-afternoon surge the site has on football sections. Splitting it up into chunks could have been an alternative, but we didn’t just run a teaser – there was a drip-drip process during the day.

    Interestingly, the article which contained the letter had a real surge around 4pm, suggesting people responded to us saying what time it would appear online. Had they read it elsewhere before? Perhaps. It’s still very well read at the moment, along with Bill Howell’s analysis.

    In terms of where it had been before, we did email the Express and Star to ask why they’d lifted the a large part of the letter from the Mail, but they didn’t respond. Instead they added a sentence to their article saying they had been given it by Aston Villa.

    But what interests me more is the reaction from the blogging and forums community at large. One of the things we’re rightly criticised for is not linking out – and it’s something we’re currently working very hard on – or linking back to sources – again something we’re working on.

    Yet we’ve found dozens of blogs and forums which just lifted the letter (and in some cases kept our formatting in) and didn’t credit back. Interestingly, some of those forums and blogs are ones we’ve tried to work with before but who have said to us “What’s in it for us?”

    I’ve long worked under the assumption it was us, as a newspaper website, which wasn’t playing fair with linking, but this week has proved me wrong. This, however, may be a specific problem to the football blogging network.

    Other newspaper websites were very good, in general. Most of the nationals linked back to us, or at the very least mentioned where the letter had come from. The BBC Sport online attitude is very revealing, and goes against a lot of what they say publicly, but perhaps not that surprising to anyone who works in regional media – although they are still linking to the Birmingham Post’s coverage of the letter.

  14. David and Steve,

    Essentially what you are telling us is that you had this piece of content you knew people would be keen to have access to and you deliberately limited their access to it and played some game of teasing all morning with the sole intention to drain as much value out of the content as possible. Not to inform or entertain, or anything useful to your audience. This entire time you only had the interests of the newspaper in mind.

    Are we expected to admire you for that?

    I think you do not deserve people to buy your newspaper and let me assure you that they will not, as soon as they are presented with an alternative.

    You complain about people lifting the letter from the Mail and not crediting you. I’d say this is only to be expected given the way you treat your audience.

  15. Pingback: The Birmingham Mail’s Gareth Barry letter: why so late on the web? | Joanna Geary | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog

  16. Dilyan – we don’t seek to be admired. Joanna asked several questions and we’ve sought to explain the background. Would you prefer we hadn’t?

  17. @David,

    Blogger and forum-types will have their own reasons for doing what they do but don’t confuse “best practice” (for want of a better term) with common practice. A lot of people online behave badly in this respect but that’s no reason to assume that’s the best way to behave. Or something.

    Another perspective: I don’t have full knowledge (or interest, to be honest) in this case but it seems like you had something that most people would consider to be public domain – a letter from someone to their fans. Putting aside legal notions of ownership for a moment you didn’t in the eyes of the fan “own” the letter. It was owned by the footballer and supposed to be delivered to the fans. You had no involvement in the creation of it. Maybe it’s a twist on “don’t shoot the messenger” – crediting the messenger is like crediting the postman for a letter from your gran.

    And a final thought: A lot of these online communities will use degrees of respect and social capital to function. If someone within the community does something they’re much more likely to be credit than someone from outside (especially as “outside” is huge) unless there’s substantial respect for them within the community. You might not have that level of respect (and that’s not necessarily a problem, btw).

    A Mogwai song just came on my iTunes random playlist. It’s a from a John Peel session. Normally they’d just have the music but in this case they included the “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Mogwai” intro by Peel, presumably because the respect they have for him makes it necessary to do so.

    Yadda yadda, I’m probably wrong, etc…

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  20. Just to fully clarify what the Birmingham Mail does on online with its stories.
    Stories/pics/video appear online ahead of print if they are breaking news already in the public domain.
    Otherwise, they wait until the Mail is on sale (sport, 11am), or an hour afterwards (news/feats, from 12noon).
    There are different policies for the Post (more immediate online) and for the Sunday Mercury (drip-feed).
    What we (along with many in the newspaper world) have to work out in the next few months is whether or not this is too much, too free (totally free) and too damaging to print products which currently still attract the majority of revenues.

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  23. Steve,

    Well done on the success on the Barry story.

    However, I’m still confused how you can so confidently state that the uplift in paper sales was down to delaying the online publication of the letter until the afternoon?

    I’m not saying that it wasn’t the case, I’m more wondering what your evidence is based upon?

    Would the Barry story have generated those paper sales anyway, even if the letter had been put up the morning the paper hit the streets?

  24. Figures can be made to prove anything, is what you mean. You’re right, of course. My evidence is based upon my daily, in-depth analysis of newspaper sales. We don’t get that sort of lift for Villa or Blues cup wins, let alone a transfer saga. It was the drought on any other way of reading the letter that did it.

  25. oh, and the publicity money can’t buy on Setanta, Talk Sport, Five Live, Sky Sports News, etc, plus local broadcast bulletins, all day mentioning ‘Barry’s letter in today’s Birmingham Mail’. ‘That’s not empirical evidence,’ I hear someone say. That’s right. But it’s pretty convincing to anyone that a 4,085 paper sales lift doesn’t come from nowhere. It came, on this occasion, from a very deliberate experiment that, it seems, boosted the brand as a whole – in print and online. Let’s see how it compares the next time we do it. Watch this space…. or my blog at http://www.birminghammail.net !

  26. Hi Jo,

    Having seen the Gareth Barry story break as I was flying off to sunkissed Fuerteventura last week, I’ve only just caught up with this fascinating debate – and I have to say I’m with Steve.
    His job is (and will be for some years to come, I think) to sell print newspapers. So when the Mail got a fantastic exclusive story such as this, they were entirely right to milk it for all it was worth and get as many people as possible to shell out their 42p for the whole thing.
    After all, despite what most of the new-media community wants to tell us, print newspapers are by far the biggest source of revenue for media companies and that’s not going to change any time soon.
    Putting the whole thing on the web (for free, remember) more or less straight away would not have been a sensible business decision, IMO.
    Isn’t there a comparison with how the Telegraph have been mercilessly drip-feeding us MPs’ expenses’ stories for the past six weeks rather than getting it all out in one go?
    Would that have had the same impact if it had just been released (again, for free) on the web rather than siphoned out and dressed up with a good number of high-quality staff able to assess it and present it and charge 90p a time for it? And look what it’s done for their print sales figures.

  27. Hi the red postman.

    I’m inclined to agree with you.

    The obvious success of the Barry story has made me realise that, when you have content that you don’t want others reproducing, newspapers are better off using the distribution method they know how to control: the paper.

    Online news is so easily copied and news organisations (including public service providers) are so disinclined to credit that putting out an exclusive online for free is likely to undermine its value.

    I think, perhaps, the 4pm idea might have been a bit ambitious – but using the website the evening before and in the morning to publicise the existence of the letter makes sense.

    I don’t agree with Dilyan. If Barry had wanted to reach fans without a newspaper, he could have by publishing his letter online in his own way.

    He went to the Mail because he knew it gave him easy access to a specific audience. I suspect the Mail also did the hard work of building up some relationship with the footballer that made him come to them instead of a national or another regional rival.

    As a business, The Mail spends time and money building that audience and I don’t think there’s any shame in trying to maximise the return it gets on a great story.

    But this sees us back at the same thorny problem we’ve always had. We may be able to use the web to squeeze as much value out of the newspaper as possible but, as newspaper circulation is declines, can we find a way to stop the value of a story dissipating when it is put online? Or do we have to admit defeat?

    NB. I also think Paul Bradshaw’s post “In defence of paywalls” is well worth a read on this topic.

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  29. I agree: milking it was the right business thing to do. That is, assuming your business is to make money from information that you exclusively have. And, yes, there is no shame in making sure through such tactics, as an editor or director, that the company lives to see another day and as many of its staff as possible keep their jobs.

    The shameful bit comes when the same company professes to be serving its readers. Now, that is plainly not true. It is pretty obvious that the readers would have been best served by putting the letter online free. If I were an Aston Villa fan, I would not be happy that the newspaper is doing this to me. And if I happened to stumble upon this here discussion, I would grow very angry. And I would grudgingly buy the Mail until it enjoys that kind of monopoly, but would ditch it the moment a more respectful alternative comes up. And that is what I think will happen to most newspapers that only pretend to be *serving* a public, while in fact what they are doing is to be *milking* it. People are not cows, you know.

  30. wow – interesting debate and props to Steve Dyson for getting involved.

    initially I came down on the the side of witholding the story and generating much needed paper sales (I think that despite lack of proof this was definitely achieved) – but then I thought all you are doing there is protecting your legacy product at the expense of your future product (the website).

    Prolonging the death of your paper while stunting the growth of your own website, if you will.

    Now I’m sure that the paper still brings in more cash than the web, but you have to give your web sales team something to sell too – preferably before the whole lot goes tits up

    But you have a job to do and if the Post is owned by one of the large local newspaper groups you have my every sympathy as they really couldn’t give a shit about the readers they only care about squeezing as much as possible out of the fewer and fewer staff they employ.

  31. apologies just read about the extra web hits and should address – 30,000 extra hits is great, but still less than if it had been on there earlier. (without getting into a debate about the extra publicity etc)

    also you have to look behind those numbers – how many of those hits were people looking for the Barry story only to find the full letter not there and leaving disappointed – and pissed off with the Post.

    as mentioned above – no reader will thank you for not publishing something in their chosen vehicle for reading news.

  32. Dilyan’s point is well made, but misinterprets the specific meaning of “serving readers”.

    The “readers” I’m talking about in this instance are those paying 42p for the print edition. That’s 42p EVERY day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year for, depending on the day, up to 70,000 readers.

    If we do not serve these readers, then they will slip away faster than they already are across the industry. And if they disappear, the audience that advertisers pay for disappears, which means advertising revenues decline faster, as well as circulation revenue, which means we can’t afford the same resource for journalism to serve those readers, and so on in ever-declining circles.

    I’m not suggesting the above has not happened/is not happening anyway, to certain extents. And I’m certainly not suggesting doing nothing for online readers, who will and do form part of the Birmingham Mail’s future (and I’m sure JG will confirm how our serving has improved online… with mile still to go!).

    But it’s all about managing these relationships, serving the pockets of readers in different media properly and, over time, changing these servings as the balance of audience and revenue changes.

    Does that make any sense?

  33. Steve that makes total sense, although it is also a little worrying!

    The Mail (and The Post and Sunday Merc) have some amazingly dedicated webfolk who have helped the website come on in leaps and bounds.

    But the way you talk about online readers makes them sound like a secondary concern at most – possibly not even as customers at all!

    That worries me as newspaper circulations are not just declining because of resource cuts in the business, they are declining because buying habits are changing.

    So surely the (very scary) job now is to start pushing for ways to make the website pay its way?

    As I’ve said before, I think what you did may have been the best way to maximise the return of a story at this moment.

    But I can’t help worrying that, from what you have just said, you have decided you can not make money out of the web and, instead, have opted to manage the decline of a newsprint business.

  34. I don’t feel that what I’ve said…

    I was making a point about print readers, yes. But I took care and am taking care to acknowledge and serve web audiences too.

    Please read my last par of the previous post.

    That said, perceptions are important, so the fact you think I’m print centric is food for thought.

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