Is this the future of reporting the news online?

pic from Flickr user 'dadawan'

pic from Flickr user 'dadawan'

How will news be reported online in the future?

In entering this debate, it is first necessary to impart a few basic truths. It has become clear that the web cannot be ignored as a medium for telling the news. It is even fair to say the internet is now the most important broadcasting outlet, and its significance will continue to grow. The 4iP website shows the following Ofcom findings from March 2008:

On average people now spend over 12 hours a week online, three quarters of which is at home.

The amount of time that 16-24s spend online at home has increased by over 50% in the last two years alone.

Today, 20% of people identify the internet as the communications service they would find it most hard to live without.

Last month, the Guardian website was accessed by an audience 74 times larger than its print sibling. Granted, events during October this year were particularly newsworthy – especially the build up to the US election and the fallout from the Ross and Brand affair – but it is still astounding that the site recorded 25.9 million unique users during the month, comfortably the highest of any UK newspaper website.

At a regional level the increasing significance of the web is also apparent. It was announced this week that the two big Trinity Mirror dailies on Merseyside – The Liverpool Echo and The Daily Post – are to amalgamate their newsgathering operations. The editorial staff serving the two papers will be cut from 175 to 132, and Trinity Mirror will be seeking to displace the traditional roles of reporter and photographer from the soon to be shared newsroom. Employees will have to become all-round multimedia journalists who are comfortable with generating and producing content – be it text, image or video – for the web as well as print. Online journalism is clearly driving the changes, even if the effects of the credit crunch are also prominent. In the words of Daily Post editor Mark Thomas:

While the recent world economic crisis has hit advertising revenues across the media industry, accentuating the need for change, the revolutionary editorial plan, conceived by the senior editors over several months, is designed to secure a strong, long-term future for the key newspaper brands, with a particular focus on providing rich, in-depth and absorbing content for the company’s steadily growing North West digital audience, already exceeding 1.7m unique users a month.

It is clear that the trajectory of news presentation is going towards the web, but what is the best way to tap into this market? Making a living from writing on the net has been an underlying theme of many of our online journalism lectures at Cardiff University, and several speakers have told us how they are trying to do it. One of these was Rick Waghorn who addressed us on Thursday. A former Norwich Evening News football correspondant, Rick has set up myfootballwriter.com, an online experiment in solo-published sports journalism. The idea is that franchises will be available for individual writers to report on a particular club, and that revenue will be obtained in part through localised advertising placed on the web pages relevant to each team.

Rick’s site has received financial backing from 4iP, a Channel 4 funding scheme aimed at “reinventing the way public service media is developed, commissioned, funded and delivered in the UK”, and it will be interesting to see how it develops for two main reasons.

First, Rick seems to believe in the idea of journalists being able to carve out a niche online by building on the reputation, or brand, which they have nurtured in print for reporting on a specific subject. The big question is, can this work without the continued backing of a major news outlet? Two big brand bloggers are Robert Peston and Damian Thompson, whose specialised posts start genuine online conversations and routinely receive hundreds of comments. But Peston’s business blog has the resources and reputation of the BBC behind it, and Thompson can utilise the same from the Telegraph when blogging on issues surrounding the Catholic church. Rick on the other hand is now officially divorced from his role on the Norwich Evening News – but if things go according to plan, this will not apply in the minds of his numerous former print readers, as he continues to inform them of the latest news on Norwich City football club through his site. Can his print-generated brand maintain and bring him success online?

Also, as Shane Richmond says, Rick is not exactly starting from scratch with his venture: “It’s not all that different from being a professional blogger – it’s just that Rick has the accreditation, the experience and the contacts to give himself an advantage.” This also begs the related question, can an effective brand be formed at all without the initial assistance of a traditional media outlet?

The second point is that Rick is keen to bring the online notion of the link economy, explained here by Jeff Jarvis, back to the real world. In his lecture, Waghorn quoted Jarvis by saying “[d]o what you do best and link to the rest.” He outlined his idea of approaching television companies and bartering with them to exchange the written content from his website for their broadcast coverage. In Rick’s projection, journalists would stick to one area of publishing expertise rather than becoming the all-rounders sought by Trinity Mirror to staff their Merseyside newsroom. Is it unrealistic to expect journalists to survive in an ultra-competitive digital age without the multiple skills demanded of journalists in Liverpool?

Towards the end of his lecture, Waghorn delivered a memorable one-liner: “Where there are communities, there are opportunities.” As a Liverpool fan, I regularly benefit from the easily accessible and high quality news and analysis that is available for my particular ‘community’ online. But just as lower league teams are under-resourced compared to the big boys in the real world of football, so it seems they are under-resourced in terms of reporting on the internet. Rick has found a niche of marginalised communities, and is attempting to bring them together into a network on one website.

If myfootballwriter.com is a success, fair play to Rick Waghorn. If it is not, he still deserves credit for having a vision and giving it a crack. As Jeff Jarvis has said, the future structure of reporting news online is intangible to us as the moment but “[w]e’ll know what to call it when we see it”. Rick has at the very least given us something to see, and his novel take on internet reporting will help people, including himself, fine tune the direction of online journalism into the future. Whether journalists as brands and the real-life link economy will still be part of this remains to be seen.

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~ by seanbradbury on December 1, 2008.

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