Journo intel: Greg Hurst, social affairs editor at The Times, on the coronavirus and the future of media
After 20 years at The Times, Greg Hurst left in December 2020 to work as a freelance journalist, public speaker, and media trainer. Our media relations team were invited to an exclusive webinar, where they future of journalism, and PR strategies for a post-pandemic era.
How has the pandemic affected the media?
Greg believes that the pandemic has generally fast-forwarded existing digitisation plans rather than demanding a new course altogether. He notes that publishers have become used to the data they can gather on every subscriber based on the articles they read, how long they spend on them and how they interact with them. This is increasingly affecting newsroom decisions. However, cautious papers are keen to ensure that this information doesn’t obscure their larger goals – as Greg notes, The Times describes itself as “data-informed, not data-led.”
Readers favour insightful reporting, Greg explains. Long, extended quotes and repurposed press releases don’t earn clicks. Instead, outlets find success pairing comment and analysis within a single article and presenting data, infographics, and interactives to engage readers. Wherever possible, he advises PR people to pitch a human voice affected by the issue they’re discussing, instead of – or in addition to – someone from the top of the organisation.
Greg believes that the press is moving away from the era of reprinting press releases. As more titles seek to compete by providing bespoke content and commentary, they can’t add any value to a press release. Instead, the industry is trending toward long-form writing and features.
What trends does he see in the business and social affairs news?
The Evening Standard’s Simon English and independent journalist James Ashton have noted a growing focus on an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) agenda among businesses. Greg is paying close attention to this development. He believes that this is a hard-headed response to demand from institutional investors and suggests that the not-for-profit sector will remain wary of businesses that treat them as a checkbox. However, he notes, there’s good PR available to businesses with a real commitment.
Greg suggests that PR people highlight the real-world impact of their clients’ ESG statements and investing policies and demonstrate the difference they are making on the ground. He says that investment and business journalists are interested in the topic – although not particularly familiar.
In his most recent position at The Guardian, Greg was the social affairs editor. In terms of this beat, Greg – and his twin brother, a producer on the BBC’s health team – believe that the headline story is inequality and how it intersects with other societal issues. He points to the dire outcomes for BAME people during the coronavirus crisis as an example and suggests that the ripple effects of today’s injustices will continue for years.
What are the newsrooms looking for going forward?
Greg thinks there will be three phases in the media’s response to Covid. We’re right in the middle of phase one, which he calls “Covid, Covid, Covid.” At this point, the news is almost exclusively about restrictions, vaccinations, and other Covid-related issues, and all but the most important non-Covid stories are being squeezed out.
Once a critical number of people feel like they’re back to life as normal, Greg says we’ll quickly enter phase two – “anything but Covid.” We’re all sick of the coronavirus, and we’ll all feel better once we can put the past year behind us. There will still be a small handful of stories on the virus, but he suggests that they’ll mostly be based on government moves and significant developments by researchers.
After an indeterminate amount of time, though, Greg believes we’ll enter phase three, “the long shadow of Covid.” The pandemic reshaped the world, and some of its long-term effects will become apparent over time. As a result, there will be a demand for new, counterintuitive conclusions and stories that haven’t been told before. The pandemic is undoubtedly one of the most significant events of our lives, and we will be grappling with its various impacts for a long time to come.
What is Greg’s sense about the tone of the stories PR people should be pitching, and how should we pitch them?
In terms of tone, Greg says that both positive and negative stories have their place, although he notes that there’s an unconscious tendency to trend toward unsettling news at the moment. He says that journalists will always need light and shade.
Journalists are just in the business of looking for stories, but they’re constantly deluged with terrible pitches. He says that PR people should aspire to be the type of person that a journalist wants to hear from. Rather than relentlessly contacting journalists, he says that the ideal PR person bides their time and reaches out when the moment is right. He adds that it’s important to stand up to clients and be honest about whether a story is worth pitching to journalists. Being considerate of journalists goes a long way.