Malcolm Coles interview: ‘news organisations don’t experiment enough’

The eyes of the British media are watching Malcolm Coles, the Telegraph’s Director of Digital Media. He is at the heart of the huge disruption taking hold of the newspaper industry and the battle to make journalism sustainable. Coles launched Trinity Mirror’s nimble data project Ampp3d in December 2013 to widespread acclaim, and now he is tasked with transforming The Telegraph into “a digital-first media newsroom”. Serene yet steely, he spoke to Peter Yeung in a colourful modernist corner of the newspaper’s Victoria headquarters.

Could you explain your role?

One is improving the standard of our digital publishing. So, trying to make how we write about things more suitable for the digital age in terms of interactivity, visuals, and background explainers. For instance, there’s an editorial development team that reports to me, who work on exciting projects. There’s a new formats team, who are tasked with new ways of displaying things – a whole new ecosystem of explainer cards and timelines and responsive infographic grids are here.

For the other half of it, I manage the teams that focus on audience. 90 million monthly unique users is the new normal for us every month, and we’re heading for 40 million UK unique users. Like a tree falling in a forest, if there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a noise? Likewise, journalism is only really good journalism if it has an impact.

Did you always envision a career in journalism?

No I didn’t. In fact, I decided that I didn’t want to go into news journalism when I left university because I couldn’t quite bear the idea of knocking on people’s doors when their offspring had died. For all that it is – a very important part of local journalism – it still wasn’t really for me. After working at a number of other places, such as [consumer advice charity] Which? and [website consultancy] Digital Sparkle, and writing about newspapers on my blog, which involved the Daily Mirror trying to sue me for libel, then they rang me up and said: “You’re so clever, why don’t you come and work here instead?” So, I did.

Telegraph Media Group's newsroom in London (Photo by Lucas Schifres)
Telegraph Media Group’s newsroom in London (Photo by Lucas Schifres)

Where is The Telegraph going will the metered paywall be around forever?

The Daily Telegraph has never had a bigger reach than it has right now. More people read it than ever before in history. But we all know that digitally it’s hard to make money. There are lots of people competing for that money, including new platforms like Facebook and Google. Martin Sorrell, CEO of advertising giant WPP, has come out and said he thinks paywalls are the way for publishers to go. On the other hand, you have The Sun coming out from behind its paywall because it couldn’t make it work.

The Guardian gives its content away for free because it doesn’t think it can get people to pay for it. Read into that what you will. The Telegraph, in some ways, has a cap on engagement, but despite that we’re still growing. I think we’re up about 20% year on year in terms of unique users and I think we had record traffic numbers this year, but May 2015 was a bit of an anomaly with election taking us past 100 million. The Guardian has twice as many journalists and loses lots of money every year, The Telegraph is profitable. I think we probably punch above our weight in respect of all that.

October’s ABCs show that The Guardian are now at 8,370,243 uniques (+11.28%) and The Telegraph at 4,419,480 (+0.11%)

The Telegraph are currently hiring a new data editor – was this your decision and do you think data is a requirement of the modern journalist?

I think I probably filled out the document. The core of journalism is still itself the same as it ever was, but how you find some of those things is a bit different and how you display them is very different these days. There have been a number of new hires this year. As I say, we set up a development team on the editorial floor, who are busy building reusable format stuff and one-off interactives. But yes, data journalism is a different way of uncovering stories and thinking in different ways to visualise them. I’m sure data will increase at The Telegraph, but it is just one facet of what we do.

I still think you will get specialists in many areas, on the other hand, general journalism is a bit more of being able to everything these days. People are expected to self-publish, to think about SEO and social, and the home page. They’re expected to find all different bits like galleries and videos and assemble them. So there’s a lot more thinking about how to best display your story online than there was 50 years ago with the old workflows.

Why did Ampp3d, UsVsTh3m, and Row Zed not work out?

You’d have to ask The Mirror that. There are obviously expensive ways – as the Mirror said at the time – of doing things. On the other hand, it would be a shame in 2016 if we don’t have new ways of getting journalism across. News organisations need to invest and experiment with different ways of doing things, especially as devices change. One fly in that ointment is things like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, where exact control of how the web pages work in those environments is ceded to the platform, which might limit the sorts of things you can do. The latter limits you from having “arbitrary” Javascript, as they call it, which is an impediment to things like interactives.

A graphic made by the now-defunct Amp33d
A graphic made by the now-defunct Ampp3d


Is the lack of popular, tabloid data journalism an issue?

There are lots of stories buried in the data. It’s important that data journalism happens, because otherwise you don’t find out these things. But I think there’s more data journalism now than there ever has been. It depends what you mean by data journalism really. If you open up a tabloid, there is usually some sort of infographic in there with numbers. Trinity Mirror still has a data unit though, and they are still working on data journalism all the time.

SEO and Social are now up to 70%. Will it always be so important? did announce that for their network of publishers social overtook search. But The Telegraph still does have a very strong line of traffic to its home page because people want to know what our view on the world. They’ve been significant drivers of growth for most publishers over the years, and they’re not going to go away. Obviously, Google and Facebook have expressed dissatisfaction with how web pages render in their environments. But both those brands know that people go to their platforms in order to find things out — there’s a reason people follow news brands of Facebook. It’s not in either of their interests to stop news being findable to the scale it is today, but we can also bicker about the share of the advertising pie we get.

Where will The Telegraph be in 10 years?

At the start of this year, I assumed a responsive website was a terribly important thing. But now with mobile web pages we are heading onto Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP. Ten years is a very long way to look ahead. I imagine there is a bunch of people at school now, who by the time they get to the end of secondary school, virtual reality will be second nature for them. For me, it will always be a weird, alien thing. I’m sure there will be virtual reality ways of accessing digital journalism and I’m sure we’ll spend a lot of money working out how to do it right and then no doubt some virtual reality platform will come and attempt to aggregate us all. Let’s hope we’ve all learnt our lessons from the mobile web for that. There’s no way I’d have predicted the end of 2015 at the beginning of the year, so I’ve no bloody idea what’s going to happen in 2025. But I’m sure cat GIFs will still be important.


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