Local journalism in the UK is currently undergoing a number of changes as it adapts to the fast paced nature of digital media and new technology.
Hyperlocal journalism is gaining momentum, as entrepreneurs and citizen journalists are stepping in to serve under-represented communities and cover the issues that matter to them.
According to a recent report commissioned by Cardiff University's Centre for Community Journalism and innovation charity Nesta and written by Damian Radcliffe, there are now more than 400 active hyperlocal websites and 1,045 local newspapers, but challenges such as financial and training resources remain for both types of publishers.
Trinity Mirror confirmed yesterday that it is currently in talks to acquire Local World, in which it has been a stakeholder since 2013, a move that would make it the largest regional publishing group in the UK.Mergers, content sharing initiatives and closer collaboration are going to be an increasing reality at a local as well as national level, especially in geographic areas where companies aren't necessarily in competition with one anotherDamian Radcliffe, University of Oregon
"Given the on-going challenging economics for many players in this sector it's inevitable that we're going to see consolidation across the sector," said Damian Radcliffe, digital analyst and currently a Carolyn S. Chambers professor in journalism at the University of Oregon.
"Mergers, content sharing initiatives and closer collaboration are going to be an increasing reality at a local as well as national level, especially in geographic areas where companies aren't necessarily in competition with one another."
Trinity Mirror currently publishes 240 regional newspapers, including the main titles in some of the UK's most populated cities, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
Local World owns around 100 print titles and more than 70 websites, covering areas like Bristol, Nottingham and Leicester, so the merger would enable Trinity Mirror to tap into new regions and audiences.
Sara Moseley, visiting fellow at Cardiff University and development director of its Centre for Community Journalism, said the merger would give Trinity Mirror "real dominance in the market and an opportunity for rationalising operations and mopping up audiences".
"It's not hard to see why they are taking this approach," she said, pointing to the 2013/14 Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) newspaper circulation figures.
Trinity Mirror saw a 5.8 per cent growth in online audiences, whereas Local World's traffic was up 38.2 per cent.
"With a really rapid shift of news audiences online and onto mobile, it’s a race to leverage newspaper brands so as to build loyalty to a new type of product," Moseley continued.
Digital strategy at Trinity Mirror Regionals
Trinity Mirror has been constantly striving to bring innovation into its newsrooms, building a digital-first strategy called Connected Newsroom.
The changes included shifting the editorial focus from print to multimedia, but also rethinking publishing techniques.
The newest part of the initiative was announced last week and will target audience metrics, aiming to include a specialist trends analyst in each newsroom.
"Knowing your audience, writing an engaging headline – those are classic skills, principles even, that you could say the Connected Newsroom initiative builds on," Moseley said.
However, she warned about the danger of "putting all the eggs in the 'click' basket", which can become a temptation in newsrooms where there is a shortage of time or staff to get the story out.
"Ultimately, there is only so much fast-food people want to consume before munching on something more nourishing. News organisations need to prepare a balanced diet if they are going to sustain audiences over the long term."
She also voiced concerns over the number of redundancies that might occur in the local journalism sector, which would in turn lead to "fewer original stories and leaves courts, councils and other civic institutions largely unreported and therefore less accountable".
Radcliffe said such a gap can be filled by hyperlocal publishers, which "will continue to plug geographic and content gaps that mainstream media outlets are either unwilling, or unable, to fill".
"For commercial operators, there are great opportunities to partner with these practitioners, taking this ultra-local content to a wider audience and increasing the diversity of content and voices in their titles.
"We've seen a few examples of this potential being realised; such as partnerships between EverythingEppingForest and Archant, as well as The City Talking and the Yorkshire Post (Johnston Press).
"These are successful models that Trinity Mirror and Local World can build on; irrespective of whether they merge or not," he pointed out.
The Local World approach
When Local World was formed back in 2012, the aim was to become a 'one-stop shop for local content' across its newly acquired titles, which included 16 daily publications and 36 paid-for weekly newspapers, as well as 63 local websites.
The number of websites it owns has since expanded to 82, producing between 1,600 and 2,000 articles daily across all titles.
In February 2014, the publisher reached a record web traffic of 16.14 million users, attributing the growth to a publishing strategy focusing on social media and SEO.
Local World newspaper websites used to follow a 'This is' pattern tailored to each city, but the approach was changed last year in an attempt to "give ownership" back to the newsrooms.There is only so much fast-food people want to consume before munching on something more nourishing. News organisations need to prepare a balanced diet if they are going to sustain audiences over the long termSara Moseley, Cardiff University
Earlier this summer, the publisher partnered with Google for its Digital News Initiative to promote innovation, and released ten evening mobile apps for ten of its titles, including The Bristol Post, The Gloucestershire Echo and Hull Daily Mail.
The free apps would allow Local World to tap into a significant sector of its audience, the evening commuter, and showcase relevant news about their communities across a range of topics.
And although innovation and an ability to reach communities better is part of the approach at both Trinity Mirror and Local World, Moseley said "the most worrying thing about the announcement of this initiative was that it coincided with further job losses at key Trinity Mirror regional titles".
"You need skilled and experienced journalists to write excellent headlines and you need great content under those headlines if you are going to keep readers coming back.
"That means people who have the time, knowledge, contacts and skills to truffle out and present stories which effect the lives of readers and to engage with readers online to develop those stories."
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