Local sites for local people

How well do the bigger regionals use the power of the internet? Charles Arthur reports on the best and worst
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The Independent Online

Express & Star

Express & Star

westmidlands.com/

Print sales: 157,800

Wow! That's one busy website. More like a mad tabloid; online, simplicity and quiet usually works best. The front page has 17 stories. There are discussion boards, but they're full of pettifogging. Many classifieds, very searchable. Regional areas well served, but the site is so busy it's exhausting to use for long.

Manchester Evening News

www.manchesteronline.co.uk

Print sales: 141,700

Owned by the very web-savvy Guardian Media Group, this should be a standout site. Besides the usual menus of news, you can build your own site on it - and many have. (The most popular is the Manchester Publicity Sunday League weekly roundup.) There's even a local "event calendar". Very slick.

Brighton Argus

www.theargus.co.uk

Print sales: 38,300

For a bustling city that is almost a suburb of London, shouldn't this have more zing? Except that the forums are busy, bursting with potential local stories - a key way in which the net can transform regional papers. Has a useful free directory for local businesses, and lots of local information. Yet, generally, it feels a little flat.

Eastern Daily Press

www.edp24.co.uk

Print sales: 71,100

Repeatedly awarded best regional paper website. It's obvious why: there are clear text links, plus forums and interactive features such as "text the editor", desktop news and "how to use this site". Plus the Farmers' Market, which links to farmers' own websites for produce. More than a newspaper online; one for the rest to aspire to.

Yorkshire Evening Post

www.yorkshire-evening-post.co.uk

Print sales: 68,600

"Do you agree that the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe should never be released? Yes/No" asks the front-page poll (in a neatly leading question). That's the extent of its reader interaction, as the rest is just a billboard. No reader forums - even though they highlight issues that become stories. Still, the news page is clear.

Belfast Telegraph

www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Print sales: 94,540

Winner of the IPR Website of the Year award. A busy yet clean site, with dozens of departments; more segmentation helps you to find your way (since you don't have to guess which category something belongs to). The forums are called "interactive letters" but to the casual reader seem to have stopped working in February 2004.

Birmingham Evening Mail

icbirmingham.icnetwork.co.uk

Print sales: 107,400

Elegant pages, easily navigated. With three Premiership football teams in the area, there's plenty of sport to fill up. The restaurant booking system is neat, and the "expats" system - for people who've moved out of the region - is clearly popular. The lack of forums is missed, especially with the Rover closure. Good, but imperfect.

Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

icliverpool.icnetwork.co.uk

Echo print sales: 129,681

Part of the Mirror Group's "ic" network, found around the country. Well localised - there's a separate category for "Beatles". The "debate" area is disappointing, as it's just a waiting room for letters. The same applies in the forums for the discussion about football teams. But there is enormous depth to the site.

Nottingham Evening Post

www.thisisnottingham.co.uk

Print sales: 72,269

Tidy site (part of the "this is" network) which integrates local news, groups, and forums. The news seems like an afterthought, with most of it in a linked page. But that's not necessarily bad. Online, regional papers are only partly about news; the rest is about creating a community of readers who can use the site and see the adverts.

Shetland Times

www.shetlandtoday.co.uk

Print sales: 11,270

Remote, windswept, and utterly fascinating. "Marine news" and "Environment" understandably take precedence over "Sports". The first weekly in Scotland to go online (in 1999); worth noting just for that. Busy forums (for its size). All round, a lesson to others in staying relevant to the local community.

Dundee Courier & Advertiser

www.thecourier.co.uk

Print sales: 81,002

"Taking you to the heart of Tayside and Fife," boasts the masthead of this DC Thomson publication. In that case, it needs electroshock. Boring layout, dull, limited and not especially regional content, letters laid out in a flat list, and no way to tell them what you think of it. Perhaps that's as well. Bad execution, thin content.

South Wales Argus

www.southwalesargus.co.uk

Print sales: below 40,000

Another of the "This is" newspaper websites. Reader forums removed "due to legal advice". Perhaps the Welsh are very litigious. The link to town guides looks promising, but is broken. Far better is the "big stories" section - unique to this site? - with a set of stories specific to the area, dealt with in depth, and updated.

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