News television on the net could pose a threat to local press

The
world of local news and information is about to be hit by a whirlwind
of change that threatens to render local newspapers and radio obsolete,
and could leave regional television operations casting around looking
for an audience.

At the same time, both satellite and cable
delivery systems will become redundant as millions of people turn to
broadband, and ITN – Internet Television News – will also be born.

It
might sound like an exaggeration, but the fact is that we have the
technology to start rolling out really local television services now.
And unless local newspapers come on board, they could be sunk by the
new competitors.

In a speech to the Society of Editors last
October, former ITN editor-inchief Stewart Purvis, who is currently
Professor of Television Journalism at City University and also Oxford
University’s News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media
this year, outlined the impact of ITV withdrawing from its public
service broadcasting remit to provide regional news, and speculated
whether the BBC would be able to fill the gap with its “ultra local
news service” (see page 22).

But the door will also be open for a
new era of local news and information television on the internet.
Imagine coming downstairs in the morning to find a set of prompts on
your screen saying: “It’s dustbin day. The road to the local school is
blocked by roadworks.

And here’s an offer for a show in town tonight – and how to book tickets.”

Then
there’s a rundown of local news, weather, sport and a guide to what’s
on in your area, with local adverts telling you where to find the very
best local deals. All carried on a local television service.

Internet
broadband makes it possible – right now. And digital television
production makes it economically viable, unlike previous failures with
local cable channels.

At Coull, where we work on developing
internet interactivity, we already have the technology to produce and
stream these programmes. The same systems could equally serve national
TV services, corporate TV, or television services for particular
interest groups.

In fact, anyone with a website and the right technology could start their own television service today.

The potential is enormous, particularly in the provision of local services.

And
since local newspapers already have strong local brand identities, I
think it would make sense for them to add their own branded television
service to their existing websites.

Regional and national
newspaper sales may be falling, but we know there is a huge demand for
local news: sales of local newspapers are booming, and a broadband
opt-out internet service carried courtesy of Hull’s independent
telephone network has proved popular.

Once a local service is
established there is no end to what it might carry: local concerts;
special programmes; community news and information. And with 21 million
households already hooked up to the internet, the potential audience is
huge.

The danger is that if local newspapers or radio don’t fill this local television gap, other competitors will.

Some
will say it’s been tried before with cable television, which failed in
most areas. But broadband television is different, in various ways: ‘
It doesn’t rely on cable; it is universally available on the internet ‘
It doesn’t need a cumbersome subscription service; it is free on demand
‘ It doesn’t rely on traditional television production; it can be
produced digitally at a fraction of the cost.

Adding video
services to existing websites could also provide a valuable revenue
stream–and how many newspaper executives have been scratching their
heads about how to do that.

It would also increase newspaper sales and radio listenership by heightening interest in local news and information.

It
is a commonly held belief in the broadcast media that bulletins on
radio or television serve to advertise the news, to the benefit of
other local press.

Partnership services would also seem to make
sense where a local trusted brand can offer sales, advertising and
promotional support to its own branded television service.

So
instead of putting up the barricades and attempting to fight off the
new kids on the block, we hope that local newspapers and radio will
want to embrace the broadband age.

Many have already invested
heavily in websites and multi-media teams. For a modest investment, we
can set up a television service, train staff, stream the content and
manage the project.

At a time when sales of the major regional
titles are falling, companies that stick to ink will sink. Here is an
opportunity, at last, for them to make the most of all that investment
in newsgathering, by adding a new complementary television service to
their business.

How can they afford not to?

Local
newspapers remain at the heart of their communities. They are trusted
and respected by local people. They have survived the threat of local
radio, freesheets and regional television. But look at the growth in
traffic to their websites. The explosion in internet use isn’t just a
passing dot.com fad. And as internet access grows faster and more
sophisticated, so the threat to the local press increases. Unless they
embrace it.

Steve Egginton is Editorial Director of Coull.

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