I live in Northumberland but work in the media travelling around Europe and beyond. At the weekend I frequently take to the hills near home to let off steam.
In the shadow of Simonside, near Rothbury, there are a series of incredible prehistoric panels of rock art. English Heritage has recorded more than 5,000 sites in the UK. The majority of these are in the upland areas of northern England and many are scattered around the countryside of the north east.
Scholars at Newcastle University are working hard to understand what the rock carvings mean and why they’ve been left in this remarkable landscape. I like to think my home is the location of some of the oldest forms of media.
A few miles to the south, the Northern Design Centre is a modern complex that wouldn’t look out of place in Silicon Valley, tucked in behind BALTIC on the south side of the Tyne. At 10am on a week-day morning it’s bustling: 60,000 sq. ft. of serviced office space that’s home to start-ups and early stage businesses, many of them focused on new forms of media. And it’s almost at capacity.
It’s a situation repeated elsewhere in the north east of England. Locations such as Campus North, home of the Ignite accelerator, Hoults Yard, the industrial warehouse space turned business village, and Sunderland Software City, are all regional hotspots.
The site maps for these and other locations around the north east tell the story of media innovation, and some of it world-class. Palringo Group Messenger is a community-orientated messaging app used by 28 million people worldwide. Reframed.tv synchronizes social conversations with time-specific comments in video. ScreachTV is aiming to disrupt the traditional TV viewing experience with an innovative internet platform.
Amsterdam, Berlin and London may attract the headlines and the attention of European business media and venture capitalists but there’s no doubt in my mind that media innovation is booming in the north east, fuelled by inward investment, home grown talent and infrastructure.
It’s underpinned by the fundamental building blocks for business and the north east culture and lifestyle. “We benefit from local entrepreneurs with an unshakeable desire to do high-quality world class work in media,” says Herb Kim, founder of Thinking Digital, a conference for digital thinkers and doers that takes place at Sage Gateshead each May.
“The growth of the internet has enabled entrepreneurs to do this increasingly outside of media capitals. And it’s our relative deprivation of sophisticated media companies that is driving people to start their own companies and tap into a global market via the internet. If you can’t find interesting media work, these days you can create your own,” says Kim.
Recently acquired by Warner Music, Boldon-based Playlists.net was among the first to capitalise on playlists for streaming music service Spotify. Founder Kieron Donoghue who will continue to run Playlists.net as a standalone division of Warner, cites focus as critical to success.
“I’ve learned to stay on the path you have chosen and be true to your vision,” says Donoghue. “I’ve lost count of the number of times that investors have said no to me or people have said that we don’t stand a chance as a business or that we’ll be dead within 12 months. It takes a cool head and a strong stomach to keep the naysayers from dragging you down.”
The north east’s geographic distance from London means there are fewer distractions. But it also means that larger media groups have the space to road test new ideas out of the spotlight.
“Having a strong and lively local media really helps as it gives platforms for discussion – when I see how some other regions are served for local media you realise how lucky we are in the north east,” says Chris Taylor, owner of marketing and public relations agency DTW in Guisborough.
Regional newspapers missed the initial opportunity that the internet provided as a means of engaging with their audiences, but some are catching up quickly. Trinity Mirror, owner of regional newspapers including The Journal in Newcastle, is redesigning the workflow in its newsrooms as a result.
A project called Newsroom 3.1 being piloted in Newcastle is based on a digital first strategy. Stories are published and shared in real time and are no longer held for print – already adopted by many national papers, but a new approach for regionals.
Northern Correspondent is itself part of this story. A digital and quarterly print magazine launched via Kickstarter, it celebrates long form journalism; the production values are high and it is printed on heavy stock. Its founders may have flippantly called the project a “New Yorker for Newcastle”, but the team is threatening to pull off its ambitious vision.
The internet has enabled anyone to create their own forms of media and there appears to be huge appetite in the north east. The North East Blogger Awards in October attracted more than 500 entries. “We were struck by how connected many of the bloggers were inside and outside the region, the size of their social media following and use of engagement and the quality of multimedia content,” says organiser Kari Owers, founder of O PR, a creative agency based in Newcastle.
In the shadow of Rothbury’s prehistoric rocks, I’m excited that, thanks to bloggers, local entrepreneurs and established organisations, part of the future of the media is being invented here too.
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