Insert Headline Here : Hope It’s Nothing Offensive

A couple of years ago the BBC planned a network of local news websites, enhancing the existing product on the BBC News platform. These would be ultra-local : specific to your county, and contain a collection of news articles, video content and extended material – for example, a longer form interview from the regional TV news programme. It would have created dozens of jobs ion journalism, and helped many broadcast journalists extend their skills into multi media.

But the plans fell at the final hurdle. The BBC Trust decided that it would encroach too much on the domain of local newspapers. Indeed, a vocal campaign by the industry forced the BBC to not only abandon the project, but give a pledge that its websites would not become any “more local” than they already were. And in the spirit of supporting plurality, BBC News Online also started providing prominent links to local newspapers on their regional news pages.

Northcliffe owns dozens of local newspaper titles and their websites

But the drive to digital for the newspapers has been a mixed tale. At the time of the BBC proposals, local newspaper reporters were frequently being encouraged to take small video cameras out to stories – some of their efforts appeared on their websites. And in some parts of the country, journalists were effectively told that their website came before the printed paper. Breaking news was king – and getting the story online was the absolute priority.

All of this was done within existing resources, putting pressure on the journalists. But all of this changed recently with Northcliffe – one of the biggest regional newspaper publishers in the country – taking control of its websites away from journalists. The results have been less than impressive.

This Is…. the Nortchliffe Digitaal newspaper brand

Prevously, local newspapers controlled the network of “This Is” websites, ensuring that content was up to date and accurate. One of the biggest tasks in all of this was moderating material generated by readers : comments about stories, letters to the paper and so on.

But now it’s all done centrally by Northcliffe. Crucially, the group has decided to introduce a prominent “submit your own article” button online – meaning that anyone with a valid email address can put stuff on the site. Citizen journalism at its best.
Except few of these articles are “pre-moderated” – that is, checked for accuracy before publishing. This has led to a number of interesting headlines in recent days, most notably a claim that Carlos Tevez had signed for Nottingham Forest.

And whilst the odd over-excited “fanzine” story like this is pretty harmless, the potential for much more serious stuff is worrying. The Press Complaints Commission – hopelessly out of its depth in cyber space – has said that articles would normally be removed if two complaints are made to the publisher. But what’s to stop something highly inaccurate, offensive or illegal appearing on a Northcliffe website.

Of course, none of this is especially new. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites are full of speculation and lies. The question is, what is one of our biggest local newspaper publishers doing to stop it?

Interestingly, the National Union of Journalists’ Nottingham Branch has launched an investigation into the matter – and the good news is that Northcliffe’s senior managers seem genuinely concerned and interested We await to see the outcome.

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