Britain's regional newspapers have accelerated their digital development rapidly over the past 18 months. Long the preserve of what one newspaper executive described as "men with beards" in a dark corner of a newsroom — or a technical staff in some distant regional office — online journalism has moved to the centre of regional newsrooms.
Many regional newspapers have devolved control over websites to local editors and integrated multimedia newsrooms. With less fanfare, these regionals have also adopted the same web-first approach to publishing as some national newspapers.
"This time last year, we didn't break any stories on the internet at all," says Robert Hardie, who oversees regional news sites for Associated Northcliffe Digital. "Now, across Northcliffe, we break 1,200 to 1,400 stories a month on the internet— they get published directly to the web by the journalist who wrote them, without any involvement from any central team."
Before last year, the group's online presence was simply a copy of what appeared in print, with little consideration for the particular requirements of the web.
"Effectively, all of our digital decisions — about how each story was handled — were being taken to a newsprint agenda. Whatever the headline was that went into the paper was the one that appeared online. But that print headline was dictated by the design of the page, how many ads there were, all that sort of stuff," says Hardie.
But since September, Associated Northcliffe Digital has been devolving responsibility for the 36 "ThisIs" branded sites to individual newspapers' editors. That process was completed last week when a group of Kent weeklies took control of their own sites.
Once handed over, the sites have been undergoing an interim relaunch with an emphasis on their affiliation with the established newspaper.
Trinity Mirror is undertaking a similar process, relaunching its sites with a stronger emphasis on established newspaper brands. Its "ic"-branded regional portals will remain in place as regional portals but are being gradually de-emphasised.
"As we launch our newspaper sites, the paper owns those sites. So the editor of the Liverpool Echo is responsible for LiverpoolEcho.co.uk and is responsible for managing that brand across channels in line with that aim to give our users what they want, when they want it, and in exactly the right way," says David Black, Trinity Mirror Regionals' digital director.
Archant's director of development Ian Davies says emphasising that a newspaper and its website are a single brand also encourages print journalists to think in a more platform-agnostic manner.
"If you've only been in newspapers and think of the web as an add-on, you need to change your mindset to focus on the brand. If you're at the Comet in Hertfordshire, for example — you have to want it to be the Comet that's first with the story, whether in print or on the web."
But while there is a growing emphasis on tying control and brand identity of sites to individual newspapers, a second, contradictory trend is to split and re-combine existing newspapers' patches into new "hyperlocal" market segments.
"I think we will see more granularity in our websites," says Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler. "We now have well over 300, and some of those have sub-websites with community pages." In some cases, it is as simple as dividing existing titles up into ever-smaller audience segments, such as the blog-style sites that Trinity Mirror's Teesside Gazette is introducing for each of the 23 post codes in the paper's distribution area. Sometimes, however, it means creating new portal sites that cut across multiple print titles distribution areas.
In what it calls a "layering" strategy, Associated Northcliffe Digital is expanding its 36-site ThisIs network to 50 sites by the end of the summer. The new online titles will draw content from multiple daily and weekly papers to split large coverage areas into smaller pieces, to provide users with more localised content.
"One of the key mindset changes that we're working on currently is producing companion websites that are predicated on the areas that they are designed to serve, rather than the newspaper that is producing them," says Hardie. "It's likely that the same area will be covered by three or four different newspapers. But we shouldn't say to our readers that therefore you should have to go to three or four separate websites to find out what's going on in your area."
Hardie says sites covering large areas with multiple daily and weekly Northcliffe titles, such as ThisIsCornwall, could be augmented with new ThisIsTruro and ThisIsPenzance portals.
"If there's a story about Penzance in the Western Morning News, that will be on the new site. But equally, if it's in the Cornishman or the West Briton, it would also be on that site," says Hardie.
In the longer term, Associated Northcliffe Digital hopes standalone hyperlocal sites could allow it to tap into local markets beyond the Northcliffe newsprint distribution footprint.
Archant, meanwhile, is planning something similar in its Norfolk stronghold, but will more radically break down the arbitrary geographic patches that are a legacy of newspaper distribution. The group hopes to allow users to create individually personalised news sites based on the locations important to them.
When the group's sites relaunch – beginning with the Evening News in Norwich in August or September – each new story will be coded with geographical information about the locations mentioned in the story. This geo-tagging will allow users to enter their postcode and see a news site personalised to prioritise stories within a radius around their home or place of work. "Once you've geographically tagged your stories, your ability to do hyperlocal websites is so much easier. I can create a website for half of a village if I want, because if all of the stories are tagged they are the stories that come at the top of the list," says Davies.
"I've long felt that people live their lives within the space that they dictate themselves. Because of the nature of print publication, we've had to define territories. We notice it particularly because we have titles in Norfolk and titles in Suffolk. Lots of people live on the borders between those two counties and they choose their sphere of influence, and we force them, effectively, to have one title over the other.
"And neither of the titles necessarily focuses on what interests them sat in the middle or don't deal with them adequately, or in the level of priority that they would like."
"In the past 18 months we've made huge progress towards complete integration of print and online," says Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler.
Johnston Press's "Newsroom of the Future" at the Lancashire Evening Post in Preston is serving as the group's testbed for multimedia integration. A similarly advanced effort has opened in Manchester, where Guardian Media Group's daily and weekly newspapers, websites, radio and television interests are produced from a single multimedia hub.
Elsewhere, video production has become an integral part of many newsrooms. Every reporter at the Hull Daily Mail, which pioneered regional newspaper video, is now a trained video journalist. Trinity Mirror now has 30 journalists trained as video journalists across the group and will be expanding their ranks in the coming months.
"If we want users to think of us as the primary place that they get information in their market, we need to be able to provide them with content in the form that they want it. Text is not enough and we see video as complementary," says Trinity's David Black.
Most newspaper video efforts remain experimental as newspapers seek approaches that most appeal to online audiences.
"There's a big appetite for video online; but I think the jury's still out on whether there's an appetite for video news bulletins online. One of the key focuses for us going forward is actually determining what we mean by video online," says Hardie.
Archant's Davies says the initial excitement about the medium is being replaced by a new focus on getting video content right: "The mistake that people have made is — and we were probably among them — as newspapers, video is new, so they shouted about having video.
"It's not about having video. It's about telling a story in the best way possible. Sometimes the best way of telling it is with an audio clip; sometimes it's video, sometimes it's just text."
Some of the emphasis on local video content is motivated to head off possible competition from the BBC or ITV, which have both signalled ambitions to develop local television news. But mostly, newspaper publishers are exploring video simply because they can. T
he barriers to entry have come down — video hardware and software have become less expensive, as has training for staff. Consumer broadband has made delivering video widely accessible.
Some are already imagining more ambitious projects as broadband speeds increase.
"If you look on down the line, you could well see a point where we will be experimenting with IPTV with a form of local news service on a loop, say, three or four times an hour, perhaps changing progressively through the day and providing an opportunity for local advertisers," says Bowdler at Johnston Press.
Video advertising will likely be just one element of a mix of revenue sources that is rapidly growing far more diverse than the traditional dominance of display and classified advertising. Local search and directory services are likely to play a more significant role, as are CV matching services in the recruitment area.
Much is left to be worked out about regional integration — not least establishing a unified measure of its effectiveness. With nearly all papers' print circulations in continuing decline and web traffic figures growing, publishers are understandably eager to begin speaking more about their brands' cross-platform reach.
The Newspaper Society has been working with publishers and media planners to establish a cross-platform media planning currency, a process that will likely take increasing prominence in the next six months.
"This is going to be absolutely critical because then we will begin to understand the value of our websites and our newspaper sites together and the kind of reach that they provide," says Black.
Different companies' executives differ on the long-term importance of digital revenues making up the gap from declining print revenues.
Johnston Press's Bowdler, however, is among the optimists who believe the primary cause of the print downturn is cyclical rather than terminal.
"Our print revenues have been falling primarily because of cyclical changes in the economy and indeed our recent announcement has seen a slowing in the rate of decline, whereas of course we've seen rapidly growing digital revenues.Whether online revenues will offset decline in print is in some ways not the right question," he insists.
Whatever the question, there remain precious few concrete answers, as Northcliffe's Hardie surmises: "The big challenge, not just for the regional press, but for the national press as well, is — what is the business model going to be? I think the only thing we can be sure about is that it's going to be different."