Local papers can attract ridicule at times. The stereo-typical “Cat stuck up tree” headlines are good for a laugh – “Reading man almost wins lottery” is the most comical genuine example I can remember. But I think the local press is a really important part of the community, keeping us informed, entertained and providing some scrutiny over local councils and institutions. Last week saw the relaunch of GetReading, the former Reading Post, or former former Evening Post, as In Your Area. Recent years have certainly seen a significant shake-up in the newspaper industry, local papers especially, and this latest initiative, with Reading as a guinea pig, is a nationally significant development. Here are my observations.
1) What is your area?
It’s interesting how local papers define their catchment. The Henley Standard is still determined to cover Caversham, refusing to acknowledge the 1974 boundary changes. The Wokingham Paper officiously applies its borough boundary even though no living soul has a clue where it is, let alone understands it. And then the Reading papers completely ignore all political borders in favour of appealing to anyone believing they have some kind of geographic or cultural connection with the nebulous concept that is Reading.
In Your Area is on to a winner here. You enter your postcode and then it asks you where you think you live. You select the areas you’re interested in and then your news is tailored to match. Below, I’ve entered the postcode of Earley Town Council’s offices. I think they need to be slightly more sophisticated than just ordering results in pure distance, and instead weight by the volume of news about each one. That way Reading and Wokingham would be placed higher. The list should also be longer – it’s not inconceivable that Tilehurst is still of interest to an Earley resident, yet it doesn’t make the cut. The site also lets you enter further postcodes to define other regions of interest. This makes a lot of sense and could be taken further – most people have connections to many places: former homes, where they used to work or study etc.
2) Combining sources
Whilst building your news feed, you’re given a somewhat theatrical spinner telling you it’s meticulously combing various sources of information one at a time, as if it’s booting up the matrix. I’m sure there’s no technical connection between each message and what it’s actually doing at that time. Whilst impressively dramatic, after a few visits this is a bit annoying. It’s a neat feature to include house prices and local restaurant hygiene ratings, but I don’t want to sit and wait for them to load every time. Just give me the news.
Equally, I’ve seen technical errors when trying to load the feed, and some holding messages at times, so clearly they’re having some teething problems. Getreading was always terribly slow to load, mostly due to pop-up videos and adverts that thankfully seem to have been culled. But the new site could surely be faster still if it loaded the news first then the other features on-demand.
3) Heading for trouble
The most feedback about the new site that I’ve noticed on social media is around being able to access the right kind of stories, and specifically Reading Football Club news. Personally, I’m interested in both the town and the football club. When I shout out, “What’s with this boring never-ending possession with no visible intent to do anything with it”, I could equally be ranting about Jaap Stam or the faceless institutional owners of Station Hill. In this regard however, I suspect I’m fairly unusual! I reckon a good many of getreading’s audience only care for the latest updates on the football. Even the Wokingham Paper (which is excellent by the way) strays from its rigid district boundary into RG2 to cover the Royals, so there’s clearly a huge demand. Bowing to complaints, In Your Area‘s landing page from getreading.co.uk now features a link to a Reading FC subsection. Bizarrely, this “newsroom” page that you’re redirected to from getreading.co.uk actually provides a better user experience than the main site, with two-columns of stories on desktop, faster loading, and no ads. I think separate headings for key sections is probably the answer.
4) Yes, that really was a Chronicle article you just saw
At first glance, this new site appears to be an attempt at efficiency by owner Trinity Mirror to provide a single homogenous website to underpin all of their regional papers, lazily forcing the user to enter their postcode to access their nearest title. But on closer inspection, you see that they’re attempting something grander. I quickly noticed that in addition to getreading articles, and the gimmicks of house prices and crime statistics, In Your Area is also bringing in stories from other local press. Clicking these links takes you away to those papers’ websites.
I think this is a bold and exciting move. They’re conceding that maybe rather than wanting the specific journalism of their own title, the user is just wanting relevant local news from their area. If they can establish In Your Area as effectively the front page of a local internet then the traffic they receive would see the value of advertising increase. The concept does exist, known as aggregation, but I’m unaware of a specific local news aggregator already out there.
5) Stick with it
I think there’s always a bit of a backlash when familiar websites change. The new site is an improvement on the slow and distracting getreading. With a few tweaks, and a little time to get used to, the new format should be a hit, especially if they can maintain the seemingly lower level of advertising. But I guess that touches on the bigger fear that many have raised. Is this a last desperate attempt to find a sustainable model to fund the journalism? It wasn’t that long ago that the Evening Post employed hundreds of people, including those old boys with implausibly ink-stained hands selling the paper around the town centre every afternoon. It seems a world away. I’ve heard rumours that current getreading employees number as low as half-a-dozen. Perhaps we owe it to them to check out the site every day, and even click an ad or two if we want local news to survive.
6) Game for a laugh
Personally, I find the material that getreading produces to be of a good standard. A few hastily written photo captions aside, I think they do a great, professional job covering the local area – however you might choose to define it. Perhaps one criticism is that maybe they could bring a little more fun to proceedings. Something I’ve learned writing my little amateur blog, is that people really do react to a joke. Quite like getreading, my “serious” posts on social media might pick up a few interactions, but make people smile and they’ll share all over the place.
I know that papers have a serious role to play, but at the respected national titles the cartoons are some of the most talked about and influential features. Could our local press afford to be a touch more irreverent and satirical at times? People need to know the bad news, they want to find some good news, but they’re crying out for a giggle.
7) What is a getreading?
Finally, to add to some humour, perhaps the identity could be refreshed. If the website is now In Your Area, why do we still need the url-friendly GetReading name? Why not bring back the Evening Post brand for the in-house written articles on the site? If the vision is to combine all sorts of different sources together, including maybe even rambling blogs such as my own, then don’t you want the professional stuff to stand out? GetReading is a left over from the last attempt to modernise, and I wonder whether the famous old name might help reconnect with their audience. What’s for certain is that once more, after its role as digital-only pioneer, Reading finds itself again at the forefront of the evolution of local media, and that’s got to be worth reading about.Follow @readingonthames
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