When it comes to understanding local news you have to listen to what the people at the Express and Star in Wolverhampton have to say. It has built itself into the best selling regional newspaper in England under its independent ownership.
So the thinking there about online and citizen journalism which is explored in an interview with the deputy editor, Keith Harrison, at journalism.co.uk is a must read.
Micro-local news, he says, is what is going to survive. To do that the paper will need 500 citizen journalists. The picture which Harrison paints suggests an online version of what a multitude of small weekly newspapers did until not all that long ago.
Harrison says ultra-local is definitely the way to go and continues:
If you promise ultra-local, you’ve got to be able to deliver it. The number of journalists we have  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.
I am increasingly convinced that he is right. It is not only about providing content it is about connecting with the community, maintaining a sense that it is their newspaper.
Harrison says that one man still sends the Express and Star the pigeon club report on postcards. That takes me back to my second job, on the Buxton Advertiser, and collecting various scraps of paper with reports of flower shows, the service at the Methodist Church, funeral reports and accounts of the most interesting object in a matchbox competition at the Women’s Institute meeting.
From there I went to the Western Daily Press which, under editor Eric Price, was the fasted growing regional newspaper at the time. He combined innovative design with a fairly brash approach to world and national news and intensely local, but lively, coverage. We wrote features on villages, found stories in dahlia shows and recorded golden weddings.
Some of the skills of that era of newspapers and a whole lot of new ones are needed to make a success of online ultra-local news. That raises a whole lot of questions about recruitment and training.