Here’s the second report I wrote for Press Gazette from the Future of Newspapers conference last week. The version which appeared in Press Gazette is here; the original is below:
Former Guardian editor Peter Preston has said that owners who are “giving up the ghost” must take some responsibility for the decline of newspapers. Continue reading
I’m currently in the middle of a 3-week break from computers – in the meantime, here’s an article I wrote for Press Gazette the week before last, about the past year’s raft of newspaper website relaunches:
The last Luddite has left the building. With almost every national newspaper having revamped its website in the past twelve months, Richard Desmond has finally joined the club and relaunched Express.co.uk – and the Daily Star site is set to follow later in the year.
In an industry of technophobes, Desmond was the Piltdown Man of news. Before last week Express Newspapers’ only attempt to tackle the threat of the internet was to offer an ‘e-Edition’ of the Express and Star which amounted to little more than a PDF with animated pages.
But as his competitors launched MySpace-inspired sections and video-heavy offerings – and even resorted to lime green in their attempts to appear up-to-date – something had to give.
Still, it’s something of a watershed moment that sees Express journalists moving to a 24-hour reporting cycle, plans being made for online video and podcasts, and even web 2.0 elements such as blogging and social networking.
In reality, the new site looks like it was created by someone who has had a website described to him, but never actually seen one. The ‘blogs’ are actually opinion columns with nary a link to be seen, video is being outsourced, and online journalists will work separately from print hacks.
But it’s the move into social networking with ‘MYExpress’ that represents a quantum leap for this most reluctant of online newspapers. The service, which allows readers to create a personalised homepage, blog, and communicate with other users, has the potential to create a community of Disgusteds from Tunbridge Wells that may well represent the group’s cash cow.
So how did Richard Desmond – the man who sold the Express websites for £1 in November 2000 – come to join the rush online? And why the recent rush by national newspapers generally to give their sites a makeover?
Desmond can blame his rival Rupert Murdoch. It was he who, in 2005, warned the American Society of Newspaper Editors that unless his industry woke up to the changes brought about by new media they would be “relegated to the status of also-rans.”
Murdoch had sneezed, and the whole news industry began to catch a web fever.
The Times and Telegraph websites, which weren’t even in the top ten online news destinations, have since been overhauled and are making significant ground on leader The Guardian. Tabloids began to see that there was more to the web than monetising page 3 girls. And the middle market just worried about internet chatrooms.
Murdoch wasted no time in buying up promising web properties including, most spectacularly, MySpace, a property which was then cloned on The Sun’s ‘MYSun’ feature.
The Sun’s transformation has been most surprising of all – the reactionary paper has proved technologically progressive as the paper embraced video and virals, slideshows and podcasts, created blogs that actually understood the medium, and built a ‘Lite’ version of the paper for time-starved visitors. Perhaps most tellingly, the paper realised the web presented a window into the regional classifieds market. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the legendary video version of Dear Deirdre.
The Mirror, once again, has been left playing catch up. Its February redesign was ripped apart by many observers for a range of misjudged decisions ranging from buying in video content from the US (coverage of American Idol, anyone?) to the use of capital letters on the home page. The site has five sections – news, sport, showbiz, blogs, and… ‘more’ – a vagueness which perhaps gives some indication of a lack of direction behind the scenes.
Video has been a recurring theme throughout all newspaper website relaunches as ad sales departments realised they could tap into the television advertising market. The Mail has been no exception with its ‘showbiz video’ section, while a number of newspapers have bought in content from the likes of ITN and Reuters. And the ability to encroach on broadcasters’ territory without that pesky Ofcom to worry about has proved particularly useful for tabloid exclusives such as The Sun’s ‘friendly fire’ video and a range of NOTW stings.
The three major broadsheet websites have led the way in the use of blogs and podcasts, video and galleries. The Telegraph’s relaunch focused on the systems behind the site, building a multimedia ‘hub’ and training journalists to work across print and online, video and audio. But The Times’ makeover resulted in an all-singing site that belied its staid reputation and currently looks the most modern of national newspaper sites. The Independent plans a low-key revamp this year but for the most part has sat and watched from the sidelines like a kid waiting to be asked to join in the football game.
So where do the sites go from here? Last year The Guardian’s commentisfree raised the bar for newspaper blogs, while its Flash interactives remain a unique demonstration of the possibilities of new media. But a wholesale revamp is likely to be part of editor Alan Rusbridger’s planned £15m investment, while the move into television production with Guardian Films demonstrates that the group have ambitions beyond getting reporters to read out the day’s headlines: it has already brought dividends with a series of slots on prime time ITV News.
The Sun continues to innovate in the tabloid market, and the launch of a mobile edition suggests they understand the next big challenge for newspapers: if Desmond thought his work was done with new media, he’d better think again: the battleground is moving on.
Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog is saying that MySpace has a news offering planned in the next few months “according to inside sources and the company’s own sales materials”:
- “MySpace News takes News to a whole new level by dynamically aggregating real-time news and blogs from top sites around the Web
- “Creates focused, topical news pages that users can interact and engage with throughout their day
- “MySpace is making the news social, allowing users to:
Rate and comment on every news item that comes through the system
Submit stories they think are cool and even author pieces from their MySpace blog
- “MySpace users previously had to leave the site to find comprehensive news, gossip, sporting news, etc. With MySpace News, we bring the news to them!
It will be interesting to see what MySpace can bring to the idea – it’s already been tried by The Sun (MySun) and, more recently, USAToday (as Heaton explains in his post), but it’s one thing for a news organisation to try social networking; quite another for a social networking company to try news. I’m hoping for intelligent agents that suggest RSS feeds, or automatically subscribe you to your friends’ blog feeds (I’ve never used the MySpace blog but that might persuade me otherwise), or their RSS feeds, in an Amazon ‘people who liked this also like this’ kind of way.
Given the critical mass of MySpace, could this be the tipping point (I hate that phrase) to bring RSS to the mainstream?
UPDATE: Matthew Ingram has posted his take on the announcement, with some interesting questions:
- It “could give News Corp. lots of ideas about pushing its news content into such an aggregator, giving it priority of some kind, etc.”
- “Will News Corp. use its MySpace News as a kind of jungle drum, to pick up stories that might be under the radar?” (my view: sadly, I don’t think so, as this assumes that News Corp. sees journalism as a priority, rather than making money)
- “News Corp. is also trying to get other video content owners to bring their stuff to MySpace.”
I find it disappointing that as newspapers rush to embrace the online medium, the one recurring theme is ‘video journalism’. The Telegraph’s move to a new multimedia hub will involve intensive training in video production for print journalists, and the newspaper’s Executive Editor (Pictures) sees the future of the editorial photographer’s trade as being video (a perspective echoed by the Washington Post); The Guardian have recently announced that original video from the group’s production company, Guardian Films, will be edited for use on the web; The Times are sourcing video news from ITN; and Vogue, among many other magazines (including Stuff), are launching their own TV channel. Even The Sun now has a video version of Deirdre’s Photo Casebook.
Now Trinity Mirror is reported to be planning to increase the numbers of video journalists working across its regional titles as it relaunches its websites. Curiously, Trinity’s editorial director is quoted as saying “we’re basing the new website design on interactivity,” and yet video is, if anything, even less interactive than print. You cannot scan-read a video; you cannot skip to the last paragraph, or the curious subheading.
The rush to online is becoming a rush to a form of TV which just happens to be broadcast on the web. And in that rush, newspapers are in danger of not exploiting the real benefits of the web: giving users control; providing extra information and context that wouldn’t fit in a print (or video) version of the story; creating communities between readers, or a forum for them to express their knowledge and opinions; communicating complex concepts in a way that can’t be done with words alone; engaging the reader through innovative formats, or by connecting them directly with interviewees.It appears that newspaper executives used to a lecturer-audience relationship are choosing the options that challenge that least: video; podcasts – “we talk, you listen”. The most control users have is over where they listen, or watch.
Perhaps the genuine interactivity that the BBC and Guardian have done so well for years represents too much of a paradigm shift for their competitors – a change in thinking about how we tell stories. I only hope that the current changes in print don’t stop at filming the sports editor reading out his latest scoop.