Will Local World kickstart regional press fightback?

David Montgomery and Steve Auckland of Local World

It’s been an interesting week in the world of regional press publishing.

Local World – which brings together the 110 titles run by Daily Mail & General Trust‘s Northcliffe Media and Iliffe News & Media, including the Leicester Mercury, Bristol Post and Cambridge News, and counts Trinity Mirror as a 20% shareholder – will be a “one-stop shop” serving content to local communities, it has been revealed.

The companywill be chaired by David Montgomery, one of the most experienced media executives in the UK.

Announcing the new venture, Mr Montgomery, former chief executive of Mirror Group, said:

“This is an entirely new type of media business. The value of Local World will lie in its people, its franchises and its intellectual property.

“It will be unencumbered by the infrastructure of the industrial past such as property, printing presses and large-scale distribution or any legacy issues, such as high levels of debt.

“Local World signals the fight back in Britain’s regional media industry.”

Regional press’s financial problems are well documenbted, with most print titles losing sales hands over fist, while failing to monetise a growing audience online.

According to Paidcontent, this three-way tie-up promises to reinvent local news. Speaking to journalists, Montgomery was upfront about the need to change further, but wielded no axe:

“That will involve changes in how people go about publishing. Jobs are going to change fairly dramatically in this industry. I fervently believe the quality of people is increasing all the time. The response will be devolved to individuals at the local level. Individually, they will be doing much more self-publishing, there will be a re-organisation to facilitate that.”

Interestingly The Media Briefing pick up on an angle all but ignored by other media outlets reporting this story. They focus on plans for increased user generated content  and say creating hubs for local content, from regular bloggers to dads recording their kids’ Sunday football matches, is key to the group’s plan.

Aggregating and curating content, rather than just being narrator, is a key component.

They quote CEO Steve Auckland as saying:

“What’s really important for us is we’ve got a far greater emphasis on web, a far greater emphasis on user-generated content as an aggregator as well as everything else in news content.”

This is something I’ve had personal experience of working as a beatblogger on the Guardian Local project.  Local was a collaborative community journalism initiative to provide local online news and information in three cities across the UK – Leeds Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Sadly it ended as – officially, at least – because The Guardian felt it wasn’t sustainable (do remind me to tell you an alternate version of this story one day).

For me the innovation (for regional press at least) in Local World comes from acknowledging that online the role of a journalist is changing (and it’s a nod to the Guardian’s Open Journalism mantra).

PaidContent point out:

“…any local reporters will be uneasy at becoming aggregators or curators as well as journalists, and it will be difficult to shake the impression that taking in more user-generated content is a euphemism for replacing paid journalists with unpaid “contributors”.”

But journalists must understand that writing online is as different to writing for print as writing for TV is different to radio. They’re two different mediums (albeit with similar charactieristics). Stripping print copy and sticking it online just isn’t best practice. Readers (who are becoming every-more sophisticated and demanding) can sniff it out a mile off).

Hopefully Local World will see its owners’ promise of ‘no cutbacks for cutbacks sake’ kept – but also help herald in a new era in local journalism. An era where journalists do what they do best ie hold power to account, cover court etc – you know, the stuff only trained journalists can do. And the more parochial and wider stuff can be curated from bloggers and so called citizen journalists.

As an industry vet who’s worked for Newsquest, Johnston Press and others over 18 years, I know only too well that trusting companies and the people who run them doesn’t come easy.

But perhaps on this occasion it’s time to embrace the opportunities – not be fearful at the very mention of change. It’s the only way journalism’s going to survive in the future.

Media expert Roy Greenslade once said that journalism was going through its biggest change since the invention of the printing press.

It’s time to get creative.

Local World’s 110 titles include 16 dailies, 36 paid weeklies, 40 free weeklies and the franchises for free morning paper Metro in Bristol and the east Midlands.

Johnston Press, the UK’s largest owner of local newspapers, has rebuffed ‘Local World’, claiming that its priority is to pay down its debt..

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