Paul-Bradshaw
Local news in the UK could undergo seismic change in 2008: the technology exists for leading regional newspaper groups to radically overhaul their sites. But as internet start-ups invade their markets with lower costs and a native understanding of new media, Paul Bradshaw asks, are local newspapers moving fast enough?

The most visible change for local papers has been the rise of video. The looming threat of ultra-local news broadcasts and the success of YouTube has made some print publishers into aspiring broadcasters.

The early results were often embarrassing, as many in the industry admit.

Results have improved as employers invest in studio facilities and kit, but the focus is too much on technical skills rather than effective storytelling and interviewing techniques. What's so sophisticated about iMovie and a video camera that it needs out of the office training?

In addition, the possibilities of the medium online have gone largely unexplored. Have you seen a newspaper experiment with video blogging? Live video blogging? Hosting a community of video or even text bloggers? Pulling in and hosting YouTube videos from their patch? Thought not. For most, this is Shovelware TV, not Rocketboom.

Podcasts - the buzz of 2005 - are dying a slow death. Northcliffe's initial enthusiasm for the form has tailed off. Its 'This Is' network is showing only a few still being produced as dozens lie without updates for months.

Across newspapers online audio is now more likely to take the shape of raw recordings from interviews, as newspapers simply 'double up' content from source material. There are few signs of real innovation or thinking beyond the obvious. Where is the local Islamophonic or Many Questions?

Structure of the newsroom, the BIG challenge, is being tackled head-on at some papers - like the Lancashire Evening Post and Trinity Mirror's Welsh titles - but most still separate off the web element, further fostering the stagnation and inability to develop new and exciting online elements as 'the team' simply plugs away filling the upload quotas.

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. That's Web 1.0 thinking.

Local journalism is supposed to be all about community, but local journalists' relationships with communities online are for the most part non-existent, or one-way. How many local journalists have blog patches that they regularly track and engage with?

Online you get back what you give out. By contributing to the blogosphere, to Flickr and YouTube and Facebook, journalists will generate contacts, leads, contributors and readers. That's Web 2.0 thinking and it's begging to be explored.

It doesn't mean just ghettoising readers into forums or publishing rebranded columns as blogs but to genuinely invite readers to contribute to the newsgathering and verification process.

Some notable experiments with Flickr, mapping and crowd-sourcing have demonstrated that when you show you value your readers, they return the compliment.

Archant may be geotagging and databasing. Trinity Mirror may be trialling mobile reporting with Vodafone and rolling out experiments with hyperlocal, postcode-based news, the Lancashire Evening Post may even be looking at in-depth online surveys on the region's big debates, but these are isolated experiments at the leading outposts of large publishing groups. What about the rest?

Are publishers tiptoeing slowly into the future, wary of driving money into experiments that could to be a costly flop?

It's understandable if your workforce was largely raised in a print-only culture and needs to squeeze in training on everything from uploading video to social networking to managing databases to online etiquette while still getting the newspaper out.

Even some innovative projects are moving slowly: Trinity Mirror's first hyperlocal site, for example, may be a year old by the time its next one is up and running.

To that I say, experiments don't always have to be big and costly (some of those I previously mentioned have proved this), but they do need to be innovative. File to Twitter, publish to it also, run a breaking news blog for linking and quick, punchy posts, set up Flickr groups and build slideshows.

What's the turnaround time for launching innovative new features on the websites of similarly sized newspapers in the US? About 48 hours according to a report on Publishing 2.0.

What needs to be made clear is that the internet makes news a service, not a product: every action of a journalist online - commenting, blogging, networking, twittering, posting to YouTube - is an act of distribution.

If they're not doing those things then the great stories they have written 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. It shows online players and nimble-footed start-ups, not news groups, experimenting with editorial coverage and doing it in an innovative, exciting way that engaged a young audience.

That young audience is going to YouTube for its news not because it is video shovelware, but because there they can find out about community, personality, utility, viral distribution - and most of all, about fun.

Now that's a real challenge for publishers.

Paul Bradshaw is a senior lecturer in online journalism at Birmingham City University’s (UK) school of media.

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