There was a time the Evening Standard championed its prime position as London’s only afternoon read. The billboards read: ‘Why wait for tomorrow’s papers?”
But when it comes to entertainment and sports news, audiences are becoming even more impatient – they want to know what’s going on right now.
In sports such as cricket and tennis and reality TV shows such as Big Brother – in which a lot of the action happens when the nation is at work – newspapers and broadcasters are increasingly feeding people’s appetite for knowing Andrew Flintoff’s score or how the housemates fared in their weekly task.
Big Brother has been a favourite of tabloid newspapers ever since it started in 2000, but the race for online reality TV supremacy has reached another level – The Sun website now covers the show 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Both the News International title and the Daily Mirror’s will, as usual, have extensive opinion and verdicts in their papers each day led by TV editors and reporters, but they fully accept that dedicated fans will not get their news the old-fashioned way anymore.
Jonathan Weinberg, online TV editor at The Sun until he stepped down last week, had been there since the show started. He says: ‘We’ve kind of got it [Big Brother coverage] down pat now because we’ve been doing it ever since Big Brother first started.”
With one full-time reporter, Katie Cheeseman, and a ‘large number’of TV writers taking turns watching the live coverage day and night, the paper’s website is bound to catch every detail, however small. Weinberg says: ‘It might only be someone getting up and having a shower but, to be honest, people come on, looking for those details. When they’re at work during the day they want to get up to date with what’s going on and those details sometimes make it more interesting. I have a feeling this is going to be a good summer.”
But won’t there be times when The Sun is paying reporters to watch people sleep? ‘Yeah, unfortunately. But that’s when you get the best bits: you get the drinking, the rows, the arguments,’Weinberg says.
As well as the 24-hour news updates on The Sun website’s purpose-built section, designed for casual browsers, die-hard fans can subscribe to a specific RSS feed and download a ‘desktop’news reader.
The Sun’s great rival the Daily Mirror is putting less resources into the battle for Big Brother web supremacy, with only one specialist BB correspondent. Steve Purcell, editor of www.mirror.co.uk, says that only a good relationship between online and the paper can give readers what they want.
‘People can get things right away but they want a combination of both”, he says. ‘They want instant access to information but they also want a considered view, a verdict and something’s that’s tangible. There’s no better example of that than when there’s a major news story – readership goes up and web traffic also goes up.”
The Mirror’s coverage will be a mixture of ‘what’s been happening through the night while you’ve been asleep’and ‘breaking news through the day”. The Mirror will concentrate on one showbiz specialist concentrating watching events in the house, and the site will use some of the content from the main paper.
Despite the historic rivalry between the two papers and the amount they have invested in their online coverage, Purcell says the competition between them is less of a factor online. ‘Newspaper competition doesn’t exist quite the same online.
People are going to find whatever they are looking for through search engines. Everybody is a rival online, whether it’s a site you set up yesterday or a brand with 103 years behind it like the Mirror.”
And he insists that live updates, either for TV shows or sports, are in the best tradition of journalism. ‘How is it not journalism? It’s what a newspaper has been doing for 100 years but only able to do it once a day. Online you can do it every five minutes. It’s journalism; it’s just more immediate journalism.”
The Mirror has this year been investing in the other major development in live coverage, blogging, and live sport.
For Premiership and Champions’ League football games the site runs full text commentary – short factual updates on the action every two or so minutes, written by someone either at the match or watching on TV.
The market leader in live coverage is the BBC, providing it for football, cricket and even snooker. Its Test Match Special (TMS) over-by-over (OBO) update service has proved hugely popular. Constructed as a news story that updates after every over is bowled, it has won over a large and dedicated audience through irreverent and witty comments.
The BBC Sport website has been doing live cricket updates for nearly 10 years and now its daily audience of the BBC Sport website has an average of 2.2 million daily page views which can rocket up to 2.8 million when England are playing cricket.
Whereas the Mirror employs an agency for its live feeds, the BBC has two former print journalists Ben Dirs and Tom Fordyce, whose quirky take on proceedings has earned them almost cult status – the Ben Dirs Appreciation Society on social networking site Facebook has nearly 400 members.
Head of BBC sport interactive Ben Gallop says: ‘It’s all about live updates and making sure our readers are informed with what’s happening, but it is also entertaining.
‘I suppose it contrasts with other bits of BBC sport coverage, but I would argue there is actually a long tradition of [humour] in Test Match Special on the radio. All the talk over the years about cakes and biscuits – we’re just updating it for the internet generation.”
Gallop says there is ‘no question’that people are increasingly no longer willing to wait for the morning’s papers to find out about sport. ‘The absolute killer element of the internet is its ‘live-ness’, ‘ he says.
‘We’ve really noticed that here. When we started we would just write reports about things at the end of the event. We’d say, ‘the football match has finished, here’s the match report’, very much like the old newspaper model.
‘People don’t want to wait for that – sport is about live drama. It’s the best unscripted drama you can have.’
But the brand of laddish humour may have been taken a step too far during an England match against Sri Lanka earlier this year. A bored reader decided to enliven a lull in the game by creating the website www.leggyblondecricketfans.com – featuring scantily clad women dressed in cricket gear – and sent in the link into the TMS inbox. Dirs posted it online but was told soon after to remove it by the site’s editors.
‘What you are talking about in essence is live broadcasting,’says Gallop. ‘We have the same principles as you would with a phone-in on [BBC radio] Five Live, so sometimes in the same way they might have to apologise for something someone said on air, we have to effectively apologise for things that have gone out.”
And for Gallop, his live bloggers or updaters are just as much journalists as anyone else. ‘Tom and Ben come from a print background, they are very good news gatherers and interviewers, but we have consciously developed them in the past year or so as our ‘character-driven’ personalities.
‘We’ve all been taken aback by the impact it has had; they’ve become real personalities. It’s a learning process that any media organisation can go through – realising the power that the internet gives you and your journalists.”