While there has been much talk about the Daily Telegraph’s shiny new newsroom, less well publicised has been the progress made by many regional papers down the integrated path. Andrea Kirkby talks to some leading lights in the regional press about their plans and experiences.
It’s happened at the Daily Telegraph. It’s happened in regional papers too. Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe and MEN are all moving towards the integrated newsroom - in some cases they’re already there.
Most newspapers started off their investment in digital media through setting up a separate online operation. Often, print content was simply repurposed for the internet. That might mean simply taking a selection of newspaper articles, reducing the length and sticking them up on a web page. The online side was an addition, a separate, specialised sub-editing operation.
As online media has developed, though, new types of content have been required. There’s far more audio and video on the internet now, and there’s more user generated content, too. And it has become more and more difficult to divide work between online and offline worlds.
It would be easy to see this as a victory for online media – the only area of most local papers’ operations to have seen growth in both circulation and advertising in recent years. But integration is about more than bringing digital media into the main newsroom. The very nature of the newsroom has changed.
Two years ago there were no integrated newsrooms anywhere in the UK. Simon Reynolds, editorial director of the Lancashire Evening Post, says that he had to look overseas for models. Newspapers in Scandinavia and in the US were far ahead of what was happening in the UK.
"Not that many have yet converged properly" in the UK he says. And he’s at pains to point out that integrating the newsroom properly goes beyond dabbling with video or audio, which is where he feels most UK regionals had got to by the end of 2005.
In the last year, though, significant changes have been made. First of all, there’s Simon’s own project at LEP, a model which has been rolled out across Johnston Press’s dailies and is now being installed at the weekly papers in the group. The "newsroom of the future" project should see 50 newsrooms integrated by now.
Trinity Mirror also plans "to build a multi-platform media business" according to the annual report. Trinity Mirror calls its initiative a "multi-platform editorial system" rather than an integrated newsroom, but the meaning is the same. Meanwhile, Northcliffe announced in January that it would be training all its journalists to work in "convergent newsrooms".
Perhaps the highest profile project, apart from LEP, is the Manchester Evening News. This is perhaps the most far reaching of all, since the MEN media mix includes local radio and a TV station, as well as print and online. GMG has made a definite commitment to develop a multimedia organisation.
Whether you call the concept the integrated newsroom, a convergent newsroom or a multimedia editorial platform, the meaning is the same. It’s about creating a single hub for all editorial decisions, and a single workflow for all stories.
Simon Reynolds says, "We’ve set up a workflow which means we have a centralised news desk; everything goes in there. We make early decisions on content – that’s important." This cuts out the online editor as a separate step in the process – all decisions on content are taken on a medium-agnostic basis.
Robert Hardie, of Associated Northcliffe Digital, points out that previously, "many of the key decisions about how the story was being handled were being taken according to a print agenda. If you’ve got one person making a decision on what’s best for the paper, another on what’s best online, they’re coming at it from different directions", and it is likely that conflicts between the media will arise.
The integrated newsroom challenges the primacy of print content for the first time. For instance, most papers have now taken the broad decision not to hold breaking news stories for print – though an exclusive or an investigative story may still be planned for print first.
Tim Bowdler, CEO of Johnston Press, points out that weekly papers have always had a problem with stories that break half way through the week. Their websites have no such problem. That affects how the story can be handled.
He gives the Buncefield explosion as a prime example of the way this can work. The local newspaper website was the most accessed news site on the Sunday after the explosion – the Gazette doesn't come out till Thursday – and when the paper did come out, it sold 20% more copies than its usual circulation. "The idea we could have held that story up for Thursday is absurd," he says.
In fact, in the case of breaking news stories, Tim Bowdler claims JP is now ahead of the BBC in 95% of cases. Newspapers may well be integrating their different platforms in advance of local broadcast media – giving them an advantage they’ve not traditionally possessed.
Simon Reynolds believes that while newspapers are driven by edition deadlines, websites need a flow of content throughout the day to give users a reason to return to the site. The print newsroom never fuelled this requirement. An integrated newsroom can do so – and brings back a sense of urgency and excitement that he believes has been missing from local papers for some time. As Tim Bowdler says, "integration is making us a breaking news medium again."
At MEN, because it includes Channel M television and radio, the integrated newsroom plays a particularly interesting role. According to Ian Wood, assistant editor, it’s about making sure that the story ‘belongs’ to the group – whichever medium it breaks on.
But it’s not just about breaking news, it’s also about developing ongoing stories to make the best use of the media mix; "Trying to tell the best stories in the best way," Wood calls it. That may mean changing the print content as well as the online media.
Robert Hardie and Simon Reynolds both point to football match reporting as an example of change. There’ll be an online pre-match report, first half report, and post match summing up – the paper will then carry an article which may be different again, perhaps with more fans’ reaction gleaned from online blogs or emails.
And the integrated newsroom ought to go beyond the simple offline / online split. For instance, Robert Hardie says he doesn't just want print and web versions – he wants a version for mobile devices, which is going to be "much much shorter and more focused", like a goal alert.
Besides, he says, some of the most important features of web content are those not aimed at the viewer, but at the search engine. "That’s not an issue when you’re writing for print, but when you’re writing for the web, the very way the story is constructed can help you get the right search results," he says. Creating templates for news and data to be presented in a search engine friendly way can improve a news site’s rankings and drive more traffic to the site – "and you can't achieve that just by rewriting print copy."
Impact of User Generated Content
The integrated newsroom isn't just about integrated output. It’s also about integrated input. And that means using web feedback – for instance, reusing user generated content in the newspaper.
Tim Bowdler believes integration will allow newspapers to find out what is working with their audiences and leverage it. "Having good websites with lots of interaction is helping us publish better newspapers," he says. "We can look at which stories are most visited and make the papers more relevant in their local communities."
That’s always been possible, but the divisions between online and offline have often meant that the editor didn't get the right feedback. With online at the editorial table as an equal partner, it’s more likely that the real-time, measurable feedback provided by the web can be used to assist in the decision making process.
Journalists also need to treat online as a research medium, says Robert Hardie. He admits this can be difficult to encourage in a traditional print culture. "The biggest issue over technology," he warns, "is not the technology we give our journalists to publish, it’s the technology we give our journalists to research and use the internet. There are still places within Northcliffe where the attitude is that anyone using the internet is not doing their job."
For instance, many sites are still blocked to internal users – which he finds intensely frustrating. "There are elements of Kafka in this!" he says.
Integrated newsrooms don't come cheap. MEN was helped by the fact that it was moving office anyway in September 2006, so the investment decision was an easy one to take. Tim Bowdler says Johnston Press invested around £1m last year in equipping newsrooms; investment will be higher this year as the programme rolls out.
Design & Systems
Simon Reynolds says, "The physical design of the newsroom is very important." Almost all integrated newsrooms are now being planned around a central editorial hub; visibility is a huge issue. And equipment is expensive. Though it’s the plasma screens and broadcast kit that get the exposure, a lot of the investment has to go to underlying systems, ensuring they are robust and scalable. The volume of stories and pictures handled has greatly increased at LEP, Simon Reynolds says, with 200 stories a day going online. Systems have to be able to handle that without falling over.
Journalists also need to be trained to use the integrated newsroom, and this requires both time and money. Johnston Press was fortunate to be able to develop its LEP programme in association with the department of Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire; other papers may have to go it alone.
The core of the integrated newsroom, though, is the editorial process at the centre of the hub. Changing the property and installing the kit without changing the workflow will not achieve the full benefits of integration. And there is something of a problem here, according to Simon Reynolds; there’s no single software system that will support production in both print and online media. "It’s a challenge for the industry to create integrated systems," he says – "we’re ahead of what the systems can do by now."
Richer Online Experience
The effect on editorial is already being seen at a number of papers. At LEP, more video is coming on to the web, and Simon Reynolds believes it’s been useful in generating traffic to the site.
But it goes further than just putting new media on to the web. Robert Hardie says, "The end game is that users start to see a much richer online experience - seeing copy that has had all the key decisions about it made to enhance the online experience."
That applies to the way user generated content is focused, too. Concentrating reader comment on a particular topic will always create more interaction than simply allowing readers to blog or comment on ordinary news articles. Hardie mentions a story in one Northcliffe paper on a 14 year old girl who had been killed in a car accident; within two or three hours, the web content had attracted 250 comments. "It’s about touching people’s lives in a way they want to be touched, but understanding it won't always be the same way."
Meanwhile, the effect on readership appears to be positive. No one is creating an integrated newsroom to increase print circulation – the concept is about increasing total reach in local media. It’s certainly worked for LEP, which has quadrupled its web users since the start of integration. And Simon Reynolds believes he is getting new users that the print product can't deliver. "It’s a different audience online from the paper readers - from a slightly different Mosaic profile, more affluent, with a more male bias. 50% of people who come to read our publication online do not buy the paper, so we know that we’re getting a new audience."
But at the same time, the decline in LEP’s print circulation has slowed down over the past six months. Is this purely the result of an integrated newsroom? Probably not – and it is really too early to tell what the future will look like. But, says Simon Reynolds, "we’re growing our total readership for the first time in a long long while." That has to be good news.
Could this have been achieved without an integrated newsroom? That’s a fraught question. Even some of the leaders of the digital pack query the need for integration. For instance Simon Waldman of the Guardian believes that as long as the audience sees a single brand, both online and in print, it doesn't matter how it is produced.
The Case for Integration
Robert Hardie doesn't agree. Just in terms of methodology, he believes separating print and online is wrong. "At the heart of all of this is the fact that if we say that quality editorial is at the heart of our business and digital is at the heart of our business, it’s illogical to have separate platforms," he observes.
For Simon Reynolds, it’s not only a logical argument but a pragmatic one. "You could not achieve this just by replicating your print content online," he says. "The integrated newsroom is crucial to what we’re doing." The increased availability of online news media and convergence between broadcast, print and online, mean that local newspaper sites have to compete against an increased range of channels – and to do so, they need more content, and content created specifically for the online medium. Without integration, the online side of the business will be handicapped – or it will have to create duplicate resources, which would be economically unviable.
While many of the larger groups have now invested in integration, not every regional newspaper has done so. Robert Hardie believes that there’ll still be a mix of integrated and non-integrated newsrooms in a couple of years’ time – but within five years, non-integrated newsrooms will have disappeared.
"It’s difficult to understand how a news organisation that doesn't have a convergent newsroom will have a sustainable business model," he says. The advent of BBC ultra-local television, together with competition from classified and local interest websites, will see to that.
Ultimately, the supporters of the integrated newsroom see it as one step in changing the nature of the media organisation. Tim Bowdler says, "You could see the day when a major newspaper becomes effectively a broadcaster." While most media groups remain focused on one of the main media areas – broadcast, print or online – that’s unlikely to remain the case in future, as MEN’s example already shows.
So, while there’s a bright future for regional news media, that might not be the case for the newspaper as a print-only medium – and the integrated newsroom is the key piece in the jigsaw of initiative which will make its evolution into the new media landscape possible.
Simon Reynolds says of his integrated newsroom project, "It’s changed the culture of the whole news organisation. I hesitate to use the term ‘newspaper’ - we’re a news publisher now."