FEATURE 

Centralised vs Local - regional press online

Centralised web development is the order of the day at most regional newspaper groups, but as Andrea Kirkby reports, some regional papers are given the freedom to produce very localised and imaginative content.

By Andrea Kirkby

When the internet first appeared on the scene, its relevance to traditional media was not obvious. Some companies saw it as an opportunity, some as a threat, and others didn't really know what the fuss was about.

Ten years on and it is obvious that the internet has a major place in the strategy for local newspapers. Perhaps it hasn’t been as far reaching a change as some commentators expected – local papers are still with us, and as Johnston Press’s latest results showed, still making good profits – but almost all local papers now have electronic formats and a strategy for improving their use of the internet.

Most regional newspaper groups have centralised their web development, fitting local content into centrally generated templates. Northcliffe and Newsquest websites tend to follow a central style. Keith Perch, content director of Northcliffe Electronic Publishing, explains how it works. "We have a central net team which is NEP. However the vast majority of content is locally produced. We have an automated system that picks up literally every word that’s in our newspapers, puts them in a database and is automated by a series of rules to put them on to a website." Everything published in the newspaper is in the database and can be searched for, though only a selection of the content is displayed on links from the front page.

Rob Gillespie, circulation director of the Derby Daily Telegraph, says "Our internet is run separately by NEP – we don’t contribute much, though we come up with ideas for promotions and so on." Ian Jenkinson, circulation director of the Hull Daily Mail, points to the Leicester Mercury as a leader in the use of web techniques within Northcliffe newspapers - "They’ve tended to do a lot of testing and trialling before it’s rolled out across the group. Everybody [in Northcliffe] is doing something different as well as doing the same things, and if something works it soon gets around."

Simon Gray of Newsquest Digital Media says that centralisation is an economic decision, not an ideological one. "We allow as much local freedom as possible while enjoying the economies of scale of central design. Otherwise local papers can spend all their time trying to prettify their site instead of getting revenues in." This policy keeps expensive headcount to a minimum and also allows savings on content management and other software.

On the other hand Johnston Press remains defiantly local – as you might expect from the group’s slogan, "life is local". Andy Prior, Group Internet Development Manager at Johnston Press, says "We try and operate our websites to that mantra. Johnston Press is unique in that we don’t give our papers a corporate website" and just ask them to fill in the editorial blanks; "a lot of the strategy we leave up to local papers." Archant also leaves its papers to run their own sites; its most prominent, edp24, won website of the year at the Regional Press Awards in 2001, and was described as "really local".

In the early days of the web most editors considered the internet as competition, taking paying readers away. Now, it is far more likely that they see it as an enhancement to the newspaper, essentially different in nature and thus able to complement the print medium. Simon Gray points out that "You can file a story two or three different ways" for web updates, daily or weekly papers, and "since you’re constantly promoting one medium in the other they don’t compete. The web is definitely a searchable medium whereas the newspaper is a browsable medium. One on its own will never solve anything."

Andy Prior also credits editors with creativity in their use of the different media. "Rather than just taking the paper and putting it online, they’ve been very good at finding different storylines and different types of news." But he admits some weekly editors, in particular, are still resistant to the idea of ‘wasting’ news by putting it on the web before the paper comes out, he says that used rightly "it’s given our weekly papers seven day publishing capability."

He’s particularly proud of the way the web can be used to cover extremely local news such as parish notices. Unlike a newspaper where pagination is always limited, there are few bandwidth constraints on the web and there’s more room for detail.

Keith Perch agrees that time and space constraints disappear with the web. "Where time and space are a constraint to the newspaper, the web can extend the service." He is particularly interested in the web’s ability to run continuous campaigns over time – not as easy to do in a paper.

However, precise figures on web use and circulation are difficult to get hold of. None the less, most responses are positive. Keith Perch is adamant that the web doesn’t destroy circulation, because web users are not looking for the same depth of coverage as newspaper readers. "All the research we see suggests that it should build circulation. And we certainly have no proof that people stop reading the paper because they’re going online. On average a reader online looks at only six stories."

Andy Prior believes that website and newspaper will either thrive together or fail together – they do not cannibalise each other. And his papers are thriving; "Two or three Heart of England papers had very high circulation this year and they’ve had great website stats too." He also mentions Portsmouth, which is doing as well out of its football team as its team is doing in the Premier League – and "that has given us colossal page impressions."

New services being offered

Papers are now working on auditable figures for their web readership – something that has been lacking so far. Simon Gray says that "We haven't actually done a full ABC audit [of our web readership] but we have put ourselves in a position where we could do so. We’re doing some very sizable numbers across the UK that make it a national proposition with geographical targeting you can't get from national media."

Most papers are also beginning to use electronic media to offer new services to their readers. In most cases these are still free, aimed more at promoting the print medium than gaining revenues. For instance, Ian Jenkinson at the Hull Daily Mail is adding a postcode locator for readers to find local newsagents who will deliver the paper. "Home delivery is key – it’s our bread and butter."

That’s a very direct way of gaining reader loyalty. Slightly more adventurous was the service Keith Perch helped to set up, where messages for soldiers out in Iraq could be emailed to the newspaper, which then liaised with Forces broadcasting to ensure they were delivered. The Banbury Guardian offers readers the chance to buy press photos online, and other papers offer specialised services – for instance the Eastern Daily Press runs a check of local speed cameras, possibly one of the website’s more popular features, as well as promoting local food with its online ‘farmers’ market’.

Interactivity is a key word for local paper web sites, with polls and competitions frequent features. Sally Fairbrother, who manages the North Devon Gazette website, says that not only are polls on the website a favourite feature, but they are now reported back into the paper, creating content for the press medium. Online letters pages are also popular, together with bulletin boards and forums.

However, though these services are currently free, Simon Gray believes that fully electronic, paid-for local papers will come. "The next stage may be looking at e-newspapers, which you currently can't include in your ABC figures in the UK though you can in the US." Apparently ABC now have this under review, though change does not seem imminent. National papers such as the Guardian have already started charging for some of their services, such as email round-ups and the foreign edition.

It’s interesting that readers seem happier to pay for ‘push’ content delivered to their PDA or mobile phone than for ‘pull’ content on the web. Simon Gray puts this down to the ease of payment through, for instance, reverse SMS billing. But, he notes, BT Click&Buy is attempting to introduce the same ease of payment to the web. Maybe this will break the deadlock. Business users are also more likely to pay for content – the Eastern Daily Press web site is entirely free to the reader with the exception of the business daily, which is accessible only to print subscribers to the business monthly publication.

Keith Perch however is slightly less optimistic on paid-for services. "We have experimented with SMS based services, but not with any great success." He believes the regular news will remain free to the reader, but searchable archives could generate revenue – "Paid for content on archives, we’ll look at that in the next 12 months."

Strangely, no papers appear to have started charging for polls. The success of Big Brother’s tele-voting as a revenue stream should perhaps set circulation editors thinking.

So where have local papers got to in their electronic media strategies? How well are they doing? Simon Gray says that "the regional press has reached maturity and is well set up to capitalise on the internet," and he may well be right. But looking around regional papers’ sites, implementation still seems patchy. There are areas of excellence such as edp24 and Scotsman.com, and there are sites which are still bits of newspapers put online. Ian Jenkinson admits to a common feeling when he says, "Like lots of people we’re probably not using it to its full potential." And as Andy Prior noted, there are forward-looking editors and there are less forward-looking editors.

It’s certain that the internet is here to stay. But as Simon Gray admits, "The majority of revenue still comes from the ink and paper title." And that does look likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future.