I’ve already published the first draft of this article, and Journalism.co.uk published the final edited version. Just for the sake of completeness, here’s the second draft before it was edited down for publication, which is around 200 words longer.
The last twelve months have seen enormous change in regional newspapers. Video, podcasts and blogging are de rigeur; YouTube and Facebook are not just sites to fiddle on during your tea break; and the segregations of print and online – and of writer and reader – are being broken down.
But with internet startups invading their markets, with lower costs and a native understanding of new media – are local newspapers moving fast enough?
Video and audio
The most visible transformation in local newspapers has been the inexorable rise of video. The looming threat of broadcasters moving into ultra-local news services online, twinned with the success of YouTube, has transformed print publishers into aspiring broadcasters.
The early results were, as many in the industry admit, often embarrassing. Rushed editing and shifty presentation saw seasoned hacks fighting background noise to read out the day’s headlines, or the most attractive young reporter banished to the roof to read out weather forecasts.
Results have improved noticeably since (it would have been hard for them to get any worse). And employers are investing in highly visible studio facilities and kit – but for many there is too much focus on technical skills rather than effective storytelling and interviewing techniques, while the possibilities of the medium when placed online have gone largely unexplored: this is shovelware TV, not Rocketboom.
Meanwhile podcasts – the buzzword of 2005 – are dying a slow death. Northcliffe’s initial enthusiasm for the form has tailed off particularly visibly, with the ‘This Is’ network showing only four still being produced and dozens not updated in months. Across newspapers online audio is now more likely to take the shape of raw recordings from interviews, and there are few signs of a local Islamophonic or Many Questions.
For many journalists the biggest change has been that of the structure of the newsroom itself. “Everything has changed,” says the Lancashire Evening Post’s Mike Hill. “Everybody in the room works on all platforms, from reporters, photographers through to sub editors, everybody. There is no hierarchy in terms of platform.” Trinity Mirror are pursuing a similar strategy, with its Welsh titles leading the way.
But at most newspapers there is still some separation which, combined with the gap between the digital natives (some journalists) and the digital immigrants (most editors) is leading to a real neglect of the possibilities of new media.
Andy Dickinson, who trains journalists in producing video for the web, agrees: “It is still not part of the process. It’s an extra that can be dropped in to the paper. And digital newsgathering skills fall into that same trap. An individual may have worked out how to make a map or find a bit of YouTube video that might make for a nice feature – car crime, dog poo or holes in the road – but these tools aren’t integrated into the mindset of the newsroom and the newsgathering process.
“I think part of the reason for that is that the success of the stories that use these tools and techniques is not felt or measured in the paper. It tends to result in more hits etc. – an impact on the website, which is still seen by many as the necessary evil in the newsroom.”
Computer assisted reporting has yet to truly hit journalistic culture. For most journalists the internet still represents an extension of the library and news wires – a place to browse for information on a story, or track down sources – and then leave.
But that was web 1.0, circa 1997. The real opportunity of web 2.0 – the web as a platform – is begging to be explored. While local journalism is supposed to be all about community, local journalists’ relationships with communities online are for the most part non-existent, or one-way. Online, it’s fair to say that you get what you give out. By contributing to the blogosphere, to Flickr and YouTube and Facebook, journalists will generate contacts, leads, contributors and readers.
Similarly, newspaper websites that don’t ghettoise readers into forums, that don’t publish blogs that are simply rebranded columns, but that genuinely invite readers to contribute to the newsgathering and verification process, will reap the benefits. Some notable experiments with Flickr, mapping and crowdsourcing have demonstrated that when you show you value your readers, they return the compliment.
The sense across the news industry is of big ideas at the top, overworked and underpaid journalists at the bottom, and comparatively web-illiterate editors in the middle catching the flak from both sides and trying to maintain still-profitable print operations amidst all the fuss about the web. If the news industry was a person, it would be a man with lots of ideas trying to walk with cramp in both legs and a stomach that’s struggling to figure out what it’s just eaten.
The big ideas have huge promise. For Archant it’s geotagging and databases. For Trinity Mirror, trialling mobile reporting with Vodafone and rolling out the Teesside Gazette’s experiments with hyperlocal, postcode-based news to other newspapers in the group. For Johnston Press the Lancashire Evening Post is looking at web-led in-depth surveys on the region’s big debates, generating (print) editorial supplements.
But, Archant aside, these are isolated experiments in the leading outposts of large publishing groups, where the savviest editors work, and the best-trained journalists. Understandably wary of ploughing money into any experiment that may prove to be a costly flop, and with a workforce largely raised in a pre-internet, print-only culture, the publishers are taking their time. Trinity Mirror’s hyperlocal experiment, for example, may be a year old by the time the next one gets under way. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of journalists who need re-educating and training in everything from video and podcasting to social networking, managing databases, and online etiquette.
And they all have newspapers to get out.
Because “Web-first” is still a strategy in publishing only – not in journalism and storytelling. For most journalists – and even more editors – the web is still a ‘channel’, not a place. It’s somewhere to put stuff - that’s why video took off so quickly: it was something everyone could understand. They’d seen it on the telly.
What needs to be made clear is that the internet makes news a service, not a product; that every action of a journalist online – commenting, blogging, networking, twittering, posting to YouTube – is an act of distribution, and because they’re not doing those things, great stories aren’t being read as much as they should, or told as well as they could.
Google’s Super Tuesday election mashups with Twitter and YouTube should serve as a massive wake-up call to the news industry. They demonstrated that major online players and nimble-footed startups were experimenting with editorial coverage, and that they could do it in an innovative, exciting way that engaged a young audience.
And that that young audience were going to YouTube for their news not because it is video shovelware, but about community, personality, utility, viral distribution – and most of all, about fun.
Now that’s a real challenge for publishers.