Could 2008 be the year geotagging breaks through? Archant are the ones to watch in the UK with (delayed) plans to geotag all their stories. I asked Suffolk’s Web Editor James Goffin to write a piece for the OJB on his experience with the process – and the opportunities it’s opening up.
Journalists have always asked the question “Where?”. People are interested in news from where they live, and it’s a sad fact that tragedies abroad have more resonance when there’s a British passport holder involved.
As communities have become more mobile, those associations have become more complex – people reminisce about their home town, where they used to work; they are interested in where they live now, where their brothers and sisters have moved to. The world around them has become more complex too, as has the sheer amount of information being pumped out around them.
Search engines are great ways of finding this information, but they can only do so much. Every news editor should have a Google News email alert for the key towns on their patch, but text searching can’t tell the difference between the Yarmouths in Norfolk and the Isle of Wight. For that you need something more.
The answer is geotagging, and it is one of the key improvements in the new editorial and web content management system being developed by Archant.
As with most Web 2.0 ideas, it’s less complex than its name suggests. Geotagging simply means attaching a location that a computer can understand – say a postcode, or a longitude and latitude pair – to an article.
This opens up the possibility of readers creating their own, personalised websites, solely comprised of news about the communities they care about. Simply supply the postcodes you’re interested in, and the technology selects those stories that match.
For instance, we have two daily titles that cover Norfolk and Suffolk respectively, but never the twain shall meet. If you live on the border, you probably want a selection from both, and geotagging makes that easy to achieve across our traditional boundaries.
From a commercial standpoint, an advertiser’s market isn’t defined by our print circulation maps either.
We can display information in new ways. Rather than What’s On listings that take up acres of space, tell us how far you’re prepared to travel and we’ll give you a map of what’s on near you. We’re already experimenting with Christmas lights maps, local shopping directories, and interactive background maps.
Others like the Manchester Evening News, with their murder map, and the Grantham Journal’s heron map, are in the same arena.
There are benefits for the traditional print product too. Geographical editions can be more easily planned; local promotional billing becomes a cinch.
Sales, marketing, and newsdesks can see which areas of the patch are being covered best or neglected most (if you can get the newsdesk to look at a spreadsheet, that is).
Perhaps most powerfully of all, for the ever-consolidating newspaper groups it becomes easier to pick up on relevant stories from outside our patch written by our colleagues on the other side of the country.
There are problems of course. The current Archant editorial system allows stories to be marked by village name – in fact it requires it. But it also has an option of ‘NAS’ – non area specific – which gives reporters the option of typing three letters and forgetting about it rather than working out which parish that house in the middle of the countryside falls in.
Then there are the stories that have multiple locations: people from Norwich on trial in London; Felixstowe to Ipswich car rallies; new council tax rates.
Our solution is to give reporters a map and allow them to click on individual points or draw a rectangle that encompasses an area such as a council’s boundaries, or alternatively supply postcodes.
We are also trying to make it clear how accurate geocoding – and other data like keywords – will make for a better archive and make reporters’ lives easier in handling cuttings and follow ups.
The NUJ have raised concerns that adding postcodes could be intrusive, asking: “How long before Archant reporters will be heard calling out: ‘Anyone here been raped and got an NR postcode?’”.
In reality, I don’t believe that postcodes are any more intrusive than the road names we have routinely included in copy for years and we are conscious of the need for the same level of sensitivity here. We don’t want to be the first people up in court for plotting a sexual assault victim’s address on a map.
Like much of the web revolution, whether it’s crowdsourcing (asking your readers), online comments (readers’ letters) or geotagging, this is all stuff we already do. Location has always been important. It’s just about collecting and segmenting that information in a way that means we can make the most of it.