Trinity Mirror has announced that the websites of its regional titles will be re-launched later in the year to embrace the possibilities offered by new multi-media products. talked to Neil Benson, editorial director of Trinity Mirror's regional newspapers, about why the change was necessary.

"I arrived at the view that integration is the only sensible way forward because what we have got uniquely in our markets is lots of journalists on the ground, more than anyone else, and when you have got a newsroom full of people who are bright and flexible then why would you want to stay with anything that is just like a little start up-unit that anyone else could do?

"Our unique advantage is that sort of scale and depth of journalism in the newsroom, it just makes sense to plug into that."

Regional papers on the web are thrown open to competitors that they did not have to deal with a decade ago, however Mr Benson believes they are well positioned to take on the new challenge.

"It's not just the BBC or traditional broadcasters, we would see Google and its local aspirations being equally threatening to us, Craigslist, even ebay.

"They are all expanding their local offerings, it a big alarm call for us but we are in the best position and we need to be moving fast otherwise we won't keep that advantage for long."

He added: "The BBC will always work as they have pots of money to splash-out but even its supposed ultra-local TV service doesn't go to a level anymore granular than the local radio station, in many cases our titles get to a much more grassroots level.

"We are still doing detailed coverage in a far more comprehensive way that the BBC is at the moment.

"The other thing that we have got is a trustworthiness amongst readers, we are a trusted brand and our local knowledge counts for a lot."

The need to embrace digital interactivity, according to Mr Benson, was shown by the success of experiments by the regionals., a sub-brand from the Liverpool Post, was launched in May to cater for a web-savvy business audience in the city. Mr Benson said the success of its podcast interviews had led to several splashes in the printed-paper that it would not otherwise have got.

"In the Northwest in September we had just over 38,000 video downloads this has grown from nothing over a year, and its increasing month on month . . . by the end of the year I'm confident that we'll hit 100,000 video downloads in the Northwest alone," he added.

As part of the group's drive to interactivity earlier in the year it appointed Mike Hill, former assistant editor of the Derby Telegraph, to the new role of head of regional multi-media.

"The fundamental thing is going away from a print-centric approach with a few digital add-ons round the edges into having something which is print, mobile, web, with video journalism and podcasting thrown in as well, where print is still at the middle and probably will be for quite a while yet. Although, the emphasis is shifting, it's becoming a much more evenly mixed approach," said Mr Benson.

"The big conundrum is how you make money out of it, our approach on the commercial side has been focused on the classifieds, which is our big strength and works really well on the web. A lot of our focus over the past 18 months has been to build up good, credible classified sites."

Despite the focus of falling on video as the way to take the group interactive Mr Benson said that there was no preordained plan to concentrate efforts on video and that in some regions blogs are more integral to integration plans.

"It's iterative, we thought we've just got to get our feet wet and be willing to try and fail and move onto the next thing, that's why we did not blitzed video training everywhere. Until you see the market it's pointless so we have done it in an incremental way."

Shocked as what he perceived as the low level of knowledge amongst his editors 18-months ago Mr Benson moved digital higher up the agenda by turning the group's senior editors meetings into, almost exclusively, discussions about digital content.

Now the editors, he claims, are 100 per cent behind the interactivity idea, including breaking news online.

He continued: "In Liverpool, Newcastle and Teesside video journalism is done daily, it's built into the everyday running of the newsroom. We have got 20-25 trained video journalists across the regional newspapers division.

"The plan is to increase the number, to double or treble them over the next year, 40 to 60 trained video journalist by the end of next year."

To make the plans a reality Trinity Mirror is putting its reporters through training with the Press Association and specialist video journalism courses at University of Teesside.

"We are working with developing course that will be relevant to the industry. The video journalism course provided by them (University of Teesside) is actually based on a content plan drawn-up by us, so it is totally relevant."

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