Changing tools and approaches in local newspapers (UK)

A couple weeks ago Journalism.co.uk commissioned me to write a piece on ‘Changing tools and approaches in local newspapers’. But whereas their mental image was of the evangelical stuff I write on my blog; my mental image was of the more objective reporting they have on their site. We got there in the end – and I think the end result is better for it. But I didn’t want the original draft, with much more quotes from figures around the industry, to go to waste – so here it is. This post is part of this month’s Carnival of Journalism:

Local news is changing. Video, podcasts and blogging have been added to the scribbles of shorthand and the nib; searching YouTube and browsing the blogosphere have been added to photocalls and council meetings as part of the daily routine; and the segregations of print and online – and of writer and reader – are being broken down. Paul Bradshaw spoke to reporters, editors and publishers around the country on how their professions are changing.

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. Experimentation with portable cameras, rushed editing and shifty presentation saw seasoned hacks fighting with background newsroom noise to read out the day’s headlines, and much mocking. But as employers have invested in training and facilities, and journalists quickly learned from their experiments, results have improved.

For James Goffin at Archant Suffolk, video means “different ways of thinking about stories and practical changes to how you do things like interviews.

“We’ve taken the view that video should be used to illustrate stories rather than produce TV-style packages, but I think everyone is still learning what works best online.”

For those who do – such as The Wolverhampton Express and Star’s Andy Toft – it can also mean being headhunted by broadcasters.

At the same time, podcasts have endured. Not one to start quietly, Newsquest’s Northern Echo launched its audio efforts with an interview with Tony Blair. This was followed up with podcasts on fatherhood, local history, health, religion, World War II, interviews, and the paper’s archives. Northcliffe’s newspapers’ initial experimentation with podcasts, however, seems to have tailed off, with only three still being produced, two of those by one newspaper: Stoke’s Sentinel. But at Johnston Press, says, Mike Hill, Deputy Editor at the Lancashire Evening Post, “We use audio a lot. We’ll record a call and put that up, and especially when it comes to celebrities – or when you’ve got a local councillor spouting off.”

Integration

For Hill the biggest change has been that of the structure of the newsroom itself. “Everything has changed,” he says. “Everybody in the room works on all platforms, from reporters, photographers through to sub editors, everybody. There is no hierarchy in terms of platform.

In some newspapers – such as those of the Midlands News Association – there is still some separation, but the online journalist has very much moved out of the newsroom ghetto, internet news editors working side by side with their print counterparts, while photographers are expected to take images for both print and web.

John Jeffay of the Manchester Evening News notes: “Different platforms talk to each other. It’s not yet perfect, but we’re all under the same roof, including Channel M, our TV station, representatives of a couple of radio stations in the group, and a link person who oversees two-way traffic between the MEN and a stable of 20-odd weekly papers. The next logical step would be shared diaries and shared technology, i.e. a proper asset management system.

“The editor is very keen on staff crossing boundaries, print people doing audio and video, TV supplying audio to radio etc. These developments tend to come on a rather ad hoc basis, but necessity being the mother of invention and journalists being inventive people, that kind of works.”

Coupled with this change in working relationships is a change in the rhythm of news:

“Midday conferences now focus as much on what will happen during the rest of the day – i.e. beyond the last print deadline at noon – as on the following day’s paper (we deadline 10.30pm for morning publication). So our concern is with what web, TV and radio will be doing in the interim.”

Archant’s James Goffin also notes the changing attitude to deadlines. “While our print deadlines are still – and will remain – important, all our reporters can file straight to the web at whatever time the story breaks and keep updating it as new information comes in. It’s now commonplace for reporters to tell newsdesk about a story and add they are filing it online in the same breath.”

Newsgathering

Just as the tools of production have changed, so have those of newsgathering. “There is a greater awareness of the web in checking stories online, comments, and message boards,” says Chris Leggett, Electronic Editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star. Comments from online readers have generated stories on more than one occasion for the paper, he says, including leads from people around the world. “If someone dies in tragic circumstances, often we will get further stories from people who knew the deceased, but who no longer live locally, posting something on the site. And in one case, a tip-off from someone in the Far East led to a front page story.”

The Lancashire Evening Post’s Mike Hill talks of a more “web-savvy” reporter, setting up feeds and email alerts, and using Outlook filters to sort them. It’s in the same vein that his namesake at Trinity Mirror, Head of Multimedia Mike Hill, talks of journalists checking YouTube and MySpace every morning, and knowing how to subscribe to RSS feeds. The group’s relaunched website template features prominently displayed appeals for readers to ‘Send your stories’, and they have plans to extend this facility to mobile phone users. “We’re looking at tools to enable anyone to send us their material as easily as possible, from any device,” he says.

Looking forward

Mobile is clearly a big part of the future for Trinity Mirror. Hill says the company are about to trial mobile reporting using text, video, audio and stills following a link up with Vodafone. Staff who are sent on the editorial leaders programme at UCLAN are being asked to produce content using a Nokia N95 phone, while those in Cardiff’s new digital newsroom are being promised access to mobiles when they’re out on a job. “The aim is that content can be uploaded to the web immediately and running stories are updated faster.”

For Archant the long-awaited geotagging-based relaunch of their news websites has meant reporters will be ‘mapping’ their stories: entering postcodes or using an online map to click on – or draw a shape over – a location. In addition to the commercial opportunities this creates, James Goffin argues it will “make for a better archive and make reporters’ lives easier in handling cuttings and follow ups.”

And Archant is not alone in looking at mapping: the Manchester Evening News made headlines recently when it produced an interactive online map of fatal shootings in Manchester, while Johnston’s Grantham Journal used Google Maps to track a “killer heron” and the Lancashire Evening Post have mapped roadworks and speed cameras. The Midland News Association’s Shropshire Star used it to map fuel prices. And Trinity Mirror’s Teesside Gazette’s experiments with hyperlocal, postcode-based news have proved so successful the tactic is likely to be extended to the group’s other newspapers.

Archant’s Goffin says they are looking at other ways of handling information differently, including the power of databases for material such as league tables that work better online than in print. Northcliffe’s Hull Daily Mail has experimented successfully with photo slideshows, while the Wolverhampton Express and Star have turned to Flickr for their experiments with photography. The Lancashire Evening Post’s Mike Hill says the paper is looking at moving on from the one-question reader poll to more in-depth surveys of 30-40 questions on the region’s big debates, generating more in-depth editorial supplements. Blogs, meanwhile, have become part of the editorial furniture for most newspapers.

For all this change, however, much remains the same. “The traditional stuff is still the vast majority of what we do,” says Chris Leggett. “Print is still at the heart of what we do, but the web is factored in.”

“The tools are largely the same,” agrees John Jeffay. “Basic pen and pad.”

Dreams of backpack journalists, it seems, are still some way away.

To read the substantially rewritten, published version of this article, go here.

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7 thoughts on “Changing tools and approaches in local newspapers (UK)

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