Rupert Murdoch's warning that developing technologies "have the power to destroy not just companies but countries" must have sent shivers through the spines of many newspaper editors. But perhaps none more so than the local newspaper editor-he who tirelessly serves his region to bring his people their news. The shop closures which will mean they have to travel 10 miles for a pint of milk; the road works which will play havoc with a town's day-to-day life for weeks to come. These publications are facing real, immediate threats. Profit figures for Trinity Mirror are down 11.4 per cent. Similarly, Johnston Press profits dropped by 15.5 per cent. And these are the bigger players in local media.
Guardian Media Group CEO Carolyn McCall said recently the internet had "decimated" local media by taking the classifieds market and using it far more effectively. In his now famous speech to the Society of Editors, Paul Dacre declared regional media were in an "inexorable downward spiral". So when iCrossing's Anthony Mayfield said what makes successful online companies is the way they target interest communities, I was slightly confused. Under this remit- target your niche- local media has the potential to thrive. Readers of local paper want news tailored to their lives, their concerns. Local media should be making a killing here.
But it's not. And with circulations falling, the funding to set up online is unlikely to materialise anytime soon. But what about the abundance of free tools available on the internet? Twitter, Flicker, GoogleMaps. So I started thinking about how local media might use these tools to target their niche market.
I went to a town planning meeting at Penarth Town Council on Thursday night. Sounds thrilling doesn't it? But this is exactly the kind of area where local publications can use media tools to give their audience what they want. People care if there is going to be a Tescos built on the local park. They care even more if the next-door-neighbour is going to build a conservatory right next to their patio. Remember the story a few years ago when a man killed his neighbour of 20 years in an argument about a hedge? People want to know who's planning what, and GoogleMaps can show this in a visual manner to let your local audience know what might be affecting them. The map below shows the location of all the applications discussed at the Penarth meeting on Thursday. Click on them and you get details about the plans and what stage in the process the council are at.
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And it could be developed further. Links could be added to the full planning application or architect's drawings. Or an option for lodging objections or signing an online petition. Admittedly this isn't making any money but my counter argument for that is two-fold. Firstly it's free, so at least you're not spending anything. And secondly, despite Carolyn McCall's comments about advertising, a recent survey by OPA showed that readers trust local newspapers and their advertisers much more than national publications. This is something local papers can take advantage of. In many ways they can obey Anthony Mayfield's "rules of engagement" for successful online media ventures much more easily than the national papers. They're already deeply embedded in their "network" and are "live" within it. What is essential is that they use tools like the example here to remain useful to their audience as well. Where local newspapers will fail is if they do not realise that just putting your content online is no longer enough.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that my local newspaper, The Hexham Courant (big picture at the top) has revamped its website and begun to embrace the internet as a multi-media platform. They now have a blog, video news bulletins and access to their supplements on "virtual print" pages. It's still quite basic, but a big step in the right direction.