Monday, 25 August 2008

Purley Mail

I've been doing a round-up of Croydon community sites lately, and it's reminded me quite how good the Purley Mail is. It's a weekly email newsletter and basic website run by a former journalist, and member of the Purley Business Association Ken Trench.

It's a very niche product - and not just because it's so hyperlocal. It's obviously slanted towards business, but also deliberately avoids grimy crime - Ken told me his wife cannot bear to pick up the hard-nosed Croydon Advertiser because it depresses her too much.

It's a formula which, knowing his circulation, works very well. Even though we often have more Purley news, Ken's strength is his readers know he's focusing his sole attention on them.

This is something we can replicate with our hyperlocal sites, like the dedicated Purley section - but it's got me to thinking about how much you need to differentiate between how you treat each site to make each area feel special, not cloned. For instance, would you put stricter rules in place for commenters on the posh Purley site than the downmarket Thornton Heath one? Are there some areas in which you would take the view separating the site out far more is of more benefit than providing links to some of the more general parts of the site?

I think one answer could be to get our beat reporters to take more responsibility for their sites, making those judgement calls. It's something I hope we can work towards.

Meanwhile, in a cheerful article called Echoes of Dispair in the Guardian yesterday, Peter Wilby speaks about the pothole paradox - how potholes in your road are the most interesting thing in the world, but a mile away mind-numbingly boring.

He says hyperlocal sites are one answer, but they tread a fine line. I assume he means if you attempt to feed back mundane user generated content to the general newspaper, you will bore most other readers.

That's a problem which arises if you try and shoehorn that kind of content which, I think, only really works online into print. (It's undoubtedly a temptation for suits wanting to cut costs, and I hope one which won't make it into our newsroom.) But the technology which allows you to create endless variations on your content means it should be much easier to solve online.

Well, here's hoping . . .


Adrian Short said...

This focus on "sites" embodies a default assumption that individual news items will be read within the context of the paper's site, whether it's a very local one or a borough-wide one.

But as your own site demonstrates, content is now liberated from sites and can be grabbed from feeds and mashed up in any way that a user or republisher (worth pondering the distinction, if any) sees fit.

The more metadata you add to your news items, the more it becomes possible to create personalised My News mashups. Tags and geotags allow users to filter content by theme and location.

My News From Your Area demo just shows items from one local paper on a map, but there's no reason why it couldn't drag in news from various sources. Users can already do this for themselves with sites like Yahoo Pipes as long as someone has added the relevant geotags to the items.

When we get to the point that print editions disappear (and I think it is when rather than if, even if it's more distant than some might imagine) then the concept of a local newspaper with its own "title" will be meaningless. You'll have organisations and individual authors that contribute content into the pool, which readers then consume through filters they've constructed themselves or through third-party aggregators like Google News or my own Sutton Active.

critic said...

There is a fundamental flaw with the Advertiser and its website but its up to you to work out what it is. Newspapers are not just a collection of stories.

Jo Wadsworth said...

Adrian - that demo is really interesting. I've only just got going with GoogleMaps - does it allow you to truncate feeds so you only have current news in the same way Yahoo Pipes does? If so, that would be very useful.

However, while it's certainly true creating your own news package is becoming increasingly easy, I think there will always be a market for pre-packaged news - and for two reasons. Firstly, most local news will always take a degree of sniffing out (that old definition of news being information somebody, somewhere doesn't want published will always hold water). But equally, as we reach (cheap) information overload, a big chunk of people will always, I think, want their news compiled for them. We may find our jobs increasingly moving towards the latter. But no matter how lively a network of local blogs you may get, I can't see how you could replace a full-time reporting team as an effective local watchdog, which I still believe readers value.

Critic - how mysterious. But unhelpful. If you ever want to divulge what you think this "fundamental flaw" is, feel free, I'm all ears.

Adrian Short said...

The public Google Maps' handling of GeoRSS feeds is limited but useful: you give it the URL of a feed and it displays the items on the map. This is the easiest way of displaying a feed for casual use but you can use the API to build applications that do whatever you like.

You can use the same URL as a source for Pipes, of course. That provides a lot of flexibility without having to do programming, just "plumbing".

I agree that there will always be work for professional news gatherers alongside amateurs as now, but the two roles of finding/reporting the news and filtering/presenting the news will likely be increasingly separated.

As print declines, there will be greater scope for third parties to produce their own selections of news from various sources and present them in ways that appeal to certain audiences. Some of these third parties will be amateurs, some pros. This is already what I'm going in a modest way with Suttonboro. Note that I've found it necessary to rewrite the headlines of my chosen stories to maintain tonal consistency.

This throws up a whole host of commercial and copyright issues but while the "newspaper" as a title may continue to exist and be acceptable to some people, they'll also have many alternative bundles of news from which to choose from other aggregators.

Those that are really keen will make their own, but most will rely on trusted intermediaries.

This may well be the worst thing that ever happens to news media and fatally undermines consistent, long-term editorial goals. But I wouldn't underestimate the destructive power of "good enough" substitutes in the marketplace.