Torin Douglas: Web will revolutionise media news coverage

The excitement surrounding the Internet seems to have died down somewhat, but Torin Douglas says web-based news will change the stories are reported.

The bottom has fallen out of the e-stock market and promising web-based ventures have closed. But, those who doubt the power of the Internet to revolutionise communications need only log onto the Media Guardian website. It has only been up and running since September and is not launched officially until the New Year, but with no promotion apart from editorial mentions, it has thousands of media people logging on several times a day. It is changing the way media news stories are reported, released and updated.

Take the overnight BARB ratings. Every morning, it reports the highlights of the previous night’s audience figures, much to BARB’s chagrin, since the ratings body insists that overnight ratings are unofficial.

Or take those “people moves” in broadcasting, press, marketing and public relations. When Matthew Bannister announced he was resigning as director of marketing and communications at the BBC, I was in Cork with several top media people at the Media Circle Forum. The news travelled like wildfire as one of our number had logged onto the site from his laptop and discovered the story.

Like any online service, the Media Guardian website can cover City media stories as they happen, as immediately as broadcasters and the wire services. However, it has really come into its own with the astonishing daily soap opera that is life at Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers. It has chronicled every twist and turn of the fast-moving saga – the arrivals, departures, handouts, walkouts, memos and letters that are making this takeover as lurid as any the media world has seen in recent years.

When the group’s seller, Lord Hollick, decided to award bonuses of £40,000 each to 25 Express staff, it was the website that poured salt on the wounds of the less fortunate by printing the complete list. It has produced daily updates of those who have left Desmond’s employ, and it was the first to publish editor Rosie Boycott’s letter to the proprietor, deploring the “heavy-handed” way 60 staff had been fired, including a woman seven-months’ pregnant and a disabled man.

Of course, this is not the first website to harness the immediacy of the Internet. Plenty of publishers have paved the way with websites regularly breaking news long before traditional media. Yet the success of MediaGuardian.co.uk is significant.

It demonstrates the power of an established brand to build a Web presence quickly and bear the start-up costs. Many websites try to bring media news to the industry but none has established itself as quickly.

It highlights the importance of investing in top-quality staff. Its two guiding lights have been executive editor Emily Bell, former business editor of the Observer (just elevated to editor-in-chief of the Guardian group’s overall online venture, Guardian Unlimited) and the Guardian’s media editor Janine Gibson. They have taken on a dozen well-qualified journalists, including Lisa O’Carroll from the Daily Mail, as site editor.

It shows the importance of making a site accessible to as many users as possible. Media-Guardian.co.uk does not charge a subscription (yet) and does not have an impenetrable logging-on procedure, as so many of its rivals do. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to register with media-related websites – life is too short and I have given up.

It demonstrates the importance of not trying to protect a parent publication by holding stories back until they can get into the following day’s paper. The website scoops the Guardian a dozen times a day. How can it not? It’s got a much larger media news staff than the paper’s and carries stories from the Guardian’s own media team. It is updated every few hours. A story will break from one organisation; an hour later there’ll be a follow-up based on a rival’s comment.

The website is changing the way in which media PR departments handle the news and media correspondents negotiate exclusives. Some newspapers and trade papers are now telling their sources they won’t give a story any prominence if it appears on the website first. And when a story breaks, PR people are under great pressure to produce an immediate response, rather than by the evening deadline of the following day’s papers. Some complain this means the website runs stories from the morning papers without checking them first, in the knowledge that the update will itself be a story. As they say in the 24-hour-news business, “never wrong for long”.

This can lead to an awkward relationship with the parent publication. The website scoops the newspaper daily, although some stories would not feature very prominently in the Guardian. The real problem is how to stop the Monday Media Guardian section seeming stale to those readers who frequent the site. How do you get people to buy Monday’s Guardian when the media features are all free on the website?

Already the relationship is evolving, in the light of experience. For a week or two, the Media Guardian diary carried stories that had been on the website. Now it doesn’t. More changes can be expected. The crucial question is how will it make money? Advertising is one obvious answer, including classified (with firms paying a small extra charge to have their newspaper ad put on the website). But what about subscription? Once people get hooked on their instant update, they won’t want to give it up.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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