‘We need 500 more reporters’

ExpressandStar.comKeith Harrison, deputy editor of the UK’s second biggest regional newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express & Star, talks to Journalism.co.uk about the web, citizen journalism and the financial bottom line.

Give me an overview of what the paper is doing online

“We did always have an internet operation, but there was always this septicism about putting material online to the detriment of the paper. Because of the herald of broadband, we set up a microsite for the World Cup last year and tried to do things in a completely different way; we brought in video bulletins from PA, we set up our own sort of daily Soccer AM show and got in our various local celebrities like Steve Bull, Paul Ince, Glenn Hoddle for video interviews.

“That worked really well and it was basically a testbed for what we could do technology-wise away from the main site. We took what worked from that and, in the context of a redesign for the full website, made video a central part of that so we needed some full-time video journalists, which we’ve now taken on. We’re doing two or three video reports a day, sports reports, one-on-ones – the Wolves reporter would be interviewed by the video journalist on a Friday afternoon for a preview of the game, things like that.

“They’re getting quite a lot of hits but we’ve found the thing that gets most is hard news stuff. Crashes, murders, any footage sent in by readers on cellphones of fires, thing like that.”

Have you got any examples of that?

“One guy who works for us, but not as a journalist, took some footage of a warehouse fire at the end of his road just on his mobile phone; we put it online, the quality wasn’t great, but I think people forgive you the quality because the content is that strong, and that went through the roof in terms of hits.

“During the World Cup, we said ‘send us your pictures’, and on the first day we got one, the second day maybe five, but by the end of the week we were getting 150 pictures a day.

“We’re setting up a community platform where there would be basically village correspondents who post on our website. The main thing is this dilemma of getting funding for it and changing the culture.

You seem, if not sceptical, as though you are looking for some evidence

“Financial evidence. Editorially, journalists have embraced it, we’ve seen great enthusiasm from photographers, from journalists. What we’ve got to do is make a financial argument for it so we can make this tipping point. There’s a lot of goodwill on the floor, a lot of enthusiasm from the reporters, but we just need to get everybody to accept this is where we’re going to go. The big barrier is the financial one because, at the moment, we charge 35p a night for our product and you can get it online for free. It’s a sticking point.

“We need to stress, when we’re talking to management, that it’s not an either-or situation –  it’s an as-well-as [both newspaper and website are important]. In fact, the evidence we’ve heard is that it hasn’t actually damaged that circulation that much because you’re selling to a different audience, a younger audience who have got BlackBerrys or whatever and are much more computer-literate, maybe an international audience or expats.”

Local news seems like a particularly tough play for a younger audience, would you agree?

“When the comet struck the earth and the dinosaurs were wiped out, the things that survived were the ants and the tiny insects. The comet has now hit the earth and it’s the smaller, micro-local news that’s going to survive and we’re going to grow into the next generation of news delivery, which could be online.

“If you wanted to say ‘the dress circle is meeting at 7.30pm at Mrs Miggins’ House in Accacia Avenue’, the only way you could do that 20 years ago was in a newspaper. [Now, people use the internet] – we’ve got to embrace them because, if we don’t do it, other people will. We need to exploit the brand loyalty and trust that we have.

“Ultra-local is definitely the way to go. If you promise ultra-local, you’ve got to be able to deliver it. The number of journalists we have [60] is huge compared with many other regional papers – but, even with that many, we can’t deliver ultra-local news all the time. To do it, we’re going to need another 500 reporters – we can’t take them on, they’re going to need to be citizen journalists. They want to get this information out there; we need to say ‘yes, we’ll be your electronic parish noticeboard, come give it to us and it will be in the Express & Star’ – whereas, if you just set it up on your own, you’re only going to have a limited audience.

“The only way we can do it is not by paying our full-time staff to do it but by giving our readers outside the opportunity to do it and for them to contribute and feel part of the newspaper.”

The notion of ‘citizen journalism’ seems to have matured since the initial euphoria

“It’s become, in the last six months, a really cliched word, ‘interactivity’ – that’s what we’ve always done. On your first in the job, you sit down, pick up a phone and say ‘Mr Smith, I believe you’ve got the dominoes night who won the dominoes?’ We’ve still got a guy who sends up the pigeon club report on the back of a postcard, which he’s probably done for the last 50 years, which is fantastic.

That is interaction. It sounds as though interaction has just been invented in the last six months, but that’s what we’ve always done. All we’re talking about is different channels of interaction – everybody’s now walking around with a mobile phone, you’re texting your mates six times a day, just text us with your opinions on, you know, Wolves re-signing Steve Bull.”