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With an audience that skews 62% female and its four senior personnel all being women (including both its presenters), 5 News has a uniquely feminine perspective on news and current affairs.

Of its 12 on-screen journalists, seven are women and there is an even gender split across the 50-strong newsroom. In a media industry with significant inequalities (and as part of the ITN business that has reported a 19.6% gender pay gap) that’s quite something.

A report today highlights that major news broadcasters in the UK have “stalled” in meeting targets for featuring female experts on their bulletins. 5 News, by contrast, was praised by City University’s study as one newsroom that was not “male-dominated”.

The danger for 5 News is that it will never realise the potential audience growth for its approach without a coherent strategy online. Go to its homepage now and there’s a dearth of actual news content. “Don’t look at the website!” says new editor Cait Fitzsimons, describing the homepage as merely a “placeholder”.

But on social media, 5 News is going all in. While she admits that “we were late to the game” in hosting online news, Fitzsimons says that “from a low base” it is suddenly enjoying “huge growth”.

While other news providers are withdrawing from Facebook, 5 News has increased views by 272% in the first four months of this year and increased its following by 35% to 220,000. Its overall digital audience has grown 25% in the space of four months and watch times on its YouTube channel are up by 214% (averaging 2.29 minutes per video). Digital editor Jack Leather was recently nominated as ‘Editor of the Year’ in The Drum’s Online Media Awards.

Less Westminster village, more human interest

Fitzsimons talks of a mission of laser-targeting an audience that is female-centric, non-metropolitan and mostly living north of Watford, by finding stories that “come to their doorstep” and have “emotional pull”. While the strategy was conceived with the two nightly 5 News television bulletins in mind, it’s content that’s well suited to social media. This online material attracts engagement levels which are “ridiculously good” and the envy of rivals, she claims. “I can’t be anything but positive – that connection with the audience is the biggest marker of success for me.”

5 News remains dwarfed by its competitors on air and online. It has a 4% television audience share and 500,000 viewers daily. Its ITN-based neighbour Channel 4 News has over 4 million followers on Facebook, despite an antipathetic relationship to the platform’s methods, and has used online reach to become a global brand and live outside of the broadcast schedule. Sky News has an impressive 8 million followers on Facebook.

5 News has a smaller newsroom and less access to original content but it’s reasonable to think that a news diet that caters for an audience that wants less of the Westminster village and more human interest can succeed outside of the breakfast time territory of ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Next month, 5 News will make a major statement of intent by giving over almost an entire week of its half-hour 6.30pm bulletins to a series of special reports from Langley Green Hospital in Sussex, in which it will examine the treatment of mental health as a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the National Health Service. Sian Williams will present from the location. “We are taking a gamble that no major news events happen that week,” Fitzsimons admits. The series is an opportunity to make 5 News “distinctive”.

The mental health material was gathered over a three-month period of rare access to such a frontline facility. “It’s amazing that they allowed us in to film this and that they will talk about their work with some of Britain’s most vulnerable people,” says Fitzsimons. “Mental health is a really big area for us and we have focused on it for a long time, from before it has had the attention it’s had more recently.” The films will be repackaged for the 5 News Facebook page and YouTube channel.

This “gamble” follows the recent success of a series of 5 News ‘specials’ on the delicate subject of stillbirth. That in turn came out of a focus by the newsroom on the issue of menopause, “a hidden taboo subject that people don’t really talk”, according to Fitzsimons. It’s the kind of topic that resonates with 5 News’s audience but is largely ignored by the rest of the media. “There are facts of life around us all the time and stories that need to be told that are not getting told.”

The plan is to “do more” of these week-long series, producing original high quality long-form content which can also run in full on YouTube or be customised for other social platforms including Twitter and Instagram.

Reflecting life outside London

Fitzsimons has previously noted that the 5 News audience includes “a lot of people who back Brexit”. It’s something other broadcasters should be less “sniffy” about, she says, given that “a decent chunk of their audience will have voted for Brexit because, let’s face it, it was a very close vote”. She comes from the Brexit stronghold of Sunderland and feels “entirely fine” in recognising that “our audience is outside of London and possibly live in areas which are more Brexit focused”.

While she has been based in London for 20 years – she was on the 5 News launch team in 1997 as a junior “running scripts” before working at Sky News and returning to 5 News four years ago – Fitzsimons values the “reality check” of visiting her hometown. “With austerity I was able to go home and talk about the impact of cuts and how they were happening because they weren’t really touching my bubble back here.”

The 5 News political editor Andy Bell is frequently asked to cover the biggest Westminster story of the day from cities outside London, in order to get a different perspective. He went to Bristol to cover a Commons vote on Syria, highlighting efforts to integrate refugees in the West Country.

Reflecting the country in this way is one element of embracing diversity in news-gathering, Fitzsimmons says. Allowing women (and younger staff members) to voice story ideas is another. “I have sat in newsrooms while a group of (men) talk excitedly about a story which leaves me absolutely dead cold but because I’m the only woman in the room the things I might highlight may not have been so interesting to them,” she says.

At 5 News, there are no such inhibitions, she claims. “I don’t really think about coming into a newsroom with a 50-50 gender balance – it’s just the way it is. I look forward to a day where that’s the same for the whole of the industry and it stops being an issue.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell