Next year, millions of homes will only be able to receive their TV signal digitally, with the old analogue signal being gradually turned off across the country – starting next month in the Cumbrian town of Whitehaven.
In January 2006, the Lancashire Evening Post claimed to be the first UK newspaper to begin a complete digital switchover, in the sense that every journalist was to work simultaneously for both the print and online edition.
The process was completed after six months, and now – just over a year later – the LEP boasts that every member of editorial staff produces video and online stories as well as printed pages.
The LEP’s pioneering integration strategy has given it a certain notoriety – news executives from almost every national newspaper publisher, including regional newspaper rivals Trinity Mirror and newspapers from America, Scandinavia, New Zealand and Japan have been to their Preston offices to see how it works.
But how has the switchover affected the way staff work? Editor Simon Reynolds talks excitedly about being at the forefront of a ‘revolution’in newspaper publishing, peppering the conversation with facts and figures.
‘When the project was finished, we were the first fully-converged newsroom,’he says. ‘We don’t have one person with the internet in the corner and no one else joining in – this is a situation where the whole team is genuinely working for the paper and the web simultaneously.
‘We’ve been very open and honest about what we are doing. We do believe there is a lot the industry can gain from knowledge sharing – we’ve listened and learned as well which I think is the good approach – no one has a magic wand in this new digital age. It’s a real challenge.”
Johnston Press invested a ‘six-figure’sum in the LEP’s digital project, and Reynolds spent the money on training, a basic editing suite, cameras and reorganising the office. Did he ever think it was a risk?
‘I think it was [brave]. They invested a lot in terms of technical equipment – there was a significant financial investment. We’ve invested in people and had a lot of training done with new skills for staff. It was a bold move and I think it needs to be applauded, because we were first off the blocks.”
The gamble has certainly boosted web traffic. But the paper’s circulation, in common with almost every big city regional title, continues to be in decline.
Last month’s ABC figures showed the LEP was down 5.6 per cent year-on-year, with a circulation of 32,178 in the second half of this year.
However, page views on lep.co.uk – according to internal records – have since January last year risen from 442,000 per month to a high-point of 2.6 million. Unique users for August were 260,231 (up from 117,765 in August 2006 and 40,000 in 2005).
Now Reynolds sends reporters out to record video everyday, is it sill correct to still call the LEP a newspaper?
‘Newspaper is a funny phrase. The way I see it is the web is an electronic edition of the newspaper. It’s not the internet and the LEP in print – it’s all one thing.
‘We present stories differently [online]. We use video, we use audio, we carry stories of a different length, we tailor stories primarily for a web audience. There isn’t that much of an audience crossover, I don’t think – so once you accept that lep.co.uk is just another edition of the newspaper, then it’s a very easy journey from there.”
On a good day, the LEP team uploads more than 100 stories to the web and has a target of uploading four new videos.
The one-day record so far is 174 stories, more than 200 pictures and 47 video clips, posted during a local chemical plant explosion.
Publishers and editors have long been suspicious about giving away content for free, but Reynolds confidently asserts that improving the LEP’s online output – including more online-only stories and features – has not affected the paper’s circulation ‘one iota”.
‘You can have your cake and eat it. It’s clear to me you can have a good solid performance on your printed product and have lots of unique users online,’he says.
‘I’m not really worried [about circulation decline] because we’re looking at total audience – we are measured across the group on print circulation and monthly unique users. The audience for the LEP is the largest it’s been for 50 years. The growth online by far exceeds the decline in print.”
Not all regional journalists have been as enthusiastic as Reynolds about the transition. The NUJ Leeds branch voted to suspend all multimedia training at the Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post in March until staff received assurances from management about working hours, safety and insurance issues. Reynolds says there were no such disagreements in Preston.
‘In this particular centre, the staff have been absolutely fantastic – they have embraced the change,’he says. ‘There has been very little resistance – people were open to ideas. We shared the process with them, we didn’t impose anything. We looked at it as more of an adventure than a top-down thing.
‘Right at the beginning, there was more fear of the future. I know there have been issues at other centres but not here.”
Every reporter at the LEP is now trained in uploading and editing both their video and text for the website, and every sub-editor works across print and online. But a reporter, says Reynolds, is still a reporter.
‘We don’t say to everyone that they have to carry a camera, write a [web] story or do a picture gallery. What we say is: ‘We’re a team and we want to be able to handle anything that is thrown at us.’ So we said to them: ‘Here’s this brave new world, it’s very exciting, we think it’s very important to the future of the business and we’re going to give you the opportunity to train and get on with it.’ People wanted to be involved.
‘We’re not trying to be a television company – we’ve got a newspaper to fill and a website. It’s a different skill.”
Pointing to the city some miles away from the LEP’s out-of-town office, Reynolds says: ‘I’ve just sent a news reporter out on a story now and he’s grabbed a camera. It’s past our final edition now and anything that he gets will go online. He wants to do it – it’s not been imposed.”
Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, told the House of Lords Communications Committee in June that the regional press was in a ‘spiral of decline’due to dwindling classified advertising revenue. But Reynolds disagrees and says newspapers – if they embrace online journalism – can flourish.
‘A lot of people who are going on our website have never bought the newspaper – and they probably never will. I don’t see how that can be decline.”`