Sky's Tyne and Wear local video news website: Not yet in profit, but providing other 'more nuanced' benefits

Launched in February 2012, Sky Tyne and Wear is an innovative attempt to create a video-based local news website.

With a 14-strong team, the site has yet to turn a profit. But Simon Bucks and James Marley of Sky News believe it is a site which has broken the mould and provided a benchmark for the future of local journalism

Sky Tyne and Wear began life as a way for Sky to explore the possibilities of ‘local’ but with no specific agenda. We wanted to see if we could produce a credible service and engage an audience, from scratch. There were some prerequisites: the service should be video-rich (Sky is, after all, a deliverer of great TV); it had to be of high quality, with the gloss which is Sky’s hallmark; and finally, we aimed to be broadly positive about the area – we would not ignore bad news but we would also seek to celebrate the best of the region and focus on its successes. Why digital only? The advent of rapid broadband, has meant that video is the fastest growing medium on web and mobile, and there are few barriers to entry on digital platforms.  

Why Tyne and Wear?

It is sufficiently large to be consistently newsy, but compact enough to be manageable with a small team. It is steeped in local pride, homogenous and sports-mad, a crucial factor since one of Sky’s core offerings is sports coverage. There were other geographical areas which fulfilled these criteria but Tyne and Wear was the ideal choice. It has more than its fair share of gritty news (it has been especially hurt by recent spending cuts) yet its inhabitants have a collective character which is upbeat and positive. It also has two Premier League football clubs, with fanatical followings, plus a panoply of other top notch teams playing a range of sports from basketball to ice hockey. In addition, there is plenty of lower league and youth sport which we thought was ripe for the ‘Sky’ treatment.

Our research suggested the existing media landscape in the North East seemed to have space for a new entrant. The local BBC and ITV television news programmes covered large areas, so Tyne and Wearsiders had to share airtime with a much larger region. The digital offerings of the area’s newspapers, though strong and well established, were based mainly on text rather than video. Likewise, local radio’s focus was chiefly on its broadcasts. There was, we thought, an opening to offer something different on web and mobile which would find a different audience.

A new service demanded a new type of journalism, and a new type of journalist. We envisaged ‘mo-jos’, mobile video-journalists, working from home and kitted out with everything they would need including video cameras and laptops. There have been mo-jos before – The Guardian tried them briefly with their beat bloggers and some American papers have experimented with the idea. But no-one had been as ambitious in the tasks we set our VJs: find and set up stories, shoot, edit, take pictures, and write text. Where would we find people with those skills? The answer inevitably, was that we couldn’t. We had devised a new breed of journalist which didn’t actually exist, so we would have to create them more or less from scratch.

We started with nine VJs, mostly in their twenties; an eclectic mix with backgrounds mainly in newspapers, radio and digital news, and although one or two had TV or video experience, we avoided people with preformed ideas. The essential point of a pilot is to innovate and experiment.

Getting started

Training was going to be key. Fortunately, at Sky News we had Ed Bayliss, a camera operator/editor with a genuine appetite for teaching youngsters, who agreed to run courses in shooting and editing. But even equipped with these essential skills, it was clear our new recruits would need something else to produce great story-telling video. Enter Michael Rosenblum, an acerbic New Yorker who has been the guru of video-journalism for more than 30 years. The ‘boot camps’ he runs with his English wife Lisa are intensive four-day affairs during which he in turn cajoles, threatens, excoriates and praises his students until they have got the idea. There were some tears, but the effect was dramatic; recruits who had never filmed before were soon producing work which we would be happy to put on the site.

The initial plan was for a core service of news and sport, but some early research gave us another clue. Several people told us that frequently they found out about local events only when they saw them on the news, when it was too late to go along. We thought there was room for a ‘What’s On’ section where anyone could post details of upcoming events. Inevitably, it would need someone to run it, so we added a community manager to the staff, joining a news editor and a sports editor.

Launch date was 14 February 2012, Valentine’s Day, partly because our initial slogan was: “We love Tyne and Wear”.

The team had been running a pre-launch internal service to build up a bank of features and develop the format. Ruth Holliday, the launch news editor, wrote a video style guide: essentially there would be no dull set-up shots or pointless pay-offs. Digital users have short attention spans, so it is vital you get to the point quickly, and don’t hang around. Meanwhile, Simon Elliott, the launch sports editor seconded from Sky News, recruited a corps of ‘militia’ as he called them: young journalism students who would help film lower league sport.

The beauty (and the curse) of digital journalism is that you never have an old media style deadline. Like rolling news, there is no drop-dead moment when the paper goes to press or the bulletin is broadcast. Updates can be added at any time, as they arrive. The result was that the small cadre of staff were burning the candle at both ends (not under instruction but out of sheer enthusiasm and desire to make the project succeed). It couldn’t go on.

We reinforced the news and sports desks, recruiting Mark Masterton as an extra sports VJ. But it remains a lean team, probably the smallest on the patch, with an editor (James Marley) three sports and five news VJs, two producers, two day editors and a community manager to maintain a seven day operation. We also introduced more coherent shift patterns and ordered strict adherence to working hours. But you can’t suppress youthful enthusiasm and, as in many news organisations, for some it’s not just a job, but a way of life.  

Being a ‘Mo-Jo’

It is a physically tougher way of life than that of the average journalist.  The VJs take their equipment everywhere, and although it is designed to be compact and lightweight (the Sony NXCam video camera is barely 850 grams) the entire kit weighs around seven kilograms. Sky News’ chief cameraman George Davies, located an innovative product we thought would be perfect to transport the kit: a wheeled case with a handle which doubled as a tripod. Sadly, it was an innovation too far. Our pioneering first VJ India Adams found the tripod handles made the cases too heavy to carry for any distance, and they tended to blow over in high winds. They were quickly replaced with conventional rucksacks.

It was important that any material shot by the VJs should also be useful to Sky News and Sky Sports News, so the kit had to meet High Definition broadcast standards. The Sony NXCam records full HD pictures, has two XLR microphone inputs and is extremely user-friendly. Sports journalist James Craggs, who had used manual cameras previously, admitted: “When they gave me the Sony camera and said: ‘Just leave it on auto’, I thought arrogantly: ‘This camera isn’t better equipped than my eyes.’ But within 30 seconds of going out on my first job, I found the camera was cleverer than me. It makes the job of filming and working as a solo crew as straightforward as I believe it will ever be.”

Each VJ is also equipped with a high quality stills camera which can be used to shoot video in extremis, a MacBook loaded with Final Cut Pro for editing, and a large-memory Lacie external drive for rushes.

Our vision of the ‘mo-jos’ was that they should be fast, flexible and responsive, so we equipped them with iPhones for instant coverage of breaking news. Initially, we thought these mobile pictures would be uploaded directly into live blogs, before being replaced by high quality video later. In fact, iPhone footage has been so good it has been used to create full video packages with voiceover and has been broadcast on Sky HD TV channels.

The original idea was the VJs would work almost exclusively from home or on the road, shooting and editing on their laptops and uploading their work via Wi-Fi or mobile internet. The office, a small room in Sky’s Gallowgate contact centre, was set up to be a newsdesk, not a newsroom, with half a dozen desks. As often happens in pilots there was a gap between the vision and the reality. Young journalists feeling their way on a new project want plenty of advice, company and coaching, and most days the VJs gravitate to the office to share ideas and experiences. When the handful of desks are full, they overspill into the corridor or canteen. Initially, we had budgeted for a graphics designer, but quickly scrapped the idea, partly on cost grounds and because we realised that Neal Walker – a digital producer on secondment from Sky News – was a Photoshop wizard: a one-man graphics department. 

Why digital is different

The ability to publish via the internet from a café, pub or from the back of the car comes into its own on breaking stories. When trouble flared after a derby match between Newcastle United and Sunderland in April 2013, Andy Hughes, a Sky Tyne and Wear video-journalist, captured close-up scenes of mindless violence on his iPhone from the heart of the riot. It epitomises Sky Tyne and Wear’s approach: be there to capture the moment. Much was written on the story but nothing as compelling as those few seconds of iPhone video. 

What next?

Sky Tyne and Wear remains a rare beast: a digital service which gathers its own content but has no old media platform – and this raises the inevitable question about commercial viability. Sky Tyne and Wear has proved it can attract a loyal digital audience to vie with those of other North East Media.  Frequency is increasing, and the service has a larger Twitter following than other local media (24,000 followers) , and a growing Facebook fanbase (14,000 likes). By most definitions the pilot has been a success. But digital advertising remains stubbornly cheap and it is a challenge for any digital platform to be profitable. So there has to be a different analysis.

The value of the service to Sky cannot be measured simply in advertising revenue. It is a powerful platform for communicating the breadth and depth of Sky’s services and products to existing and prospective customers. Its popularity translates into additional positivity about Sky and also helps underpin its reputation as a great employer in Tyne and Wear, where hundreds of people work at its contact centre.

These benefits are much more nuanced than straightforward advertising sales, but Sky Tyne and Wear will have to demonstrate its value to the business against many other competing and worthwhile projects. The next few months will be critical, but whatever the outcome we believe we have broken the mould, creating something original and compelling which will provide a benchmark for ‘local’ journalism in the future. 

Simon Bucks is associate editor at Sky News

James Marley is editor of Sky Tyne and Wear

This feature is an edited extract from an essay which appears in What Do We Mean By Local? The Rise, Fall – and Possible Rise Again – of Local Journalism. Edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler. Published this week by Abramis priced £19.95.

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