For the latest in our series of Hyperlocal Voices Damian Radcliffe heads back home to Sussex. Geraldine Durrant, Editor of East Grinstead Online, explains how the site serves the popular market town and how it was ‘an idea whose time had come’.
Launched just four months ago, the site is already generating substantial traffic, and publishes multiple stories every day. Here’s their story…
1. Who were the people behind the blog?
I have been a journalist all my working life, and many years ago was news editor of the local paid-for paper.
I moved on as Group Feature Writer for the Croydon Advertiser group and subsequently set up a freelance agency with a photographer colleague which supplied features to newspapers and magazines around the world.
I am mainly retired, although I still do the PR for East Grinstead Town Council and write regularly for the Catholic press. And I am the somewhat accidental author of four children’s books, the first three of which have been adapted for a stage production which has been touring the UK this year.
I edit the site and write most of our content. Barney has all the technical skills we needed to set the site up, and has been phenomenal in promoting it through social media and elsewhere, including in an article he wrote for last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph.
And we are both handy with a camera.
2. What made you decide to set up the blog?
When I was news editor of the local newspaper nearly 30 years ago we had an editorial team of ten which included two full-time photographers, based in the heart of the high street.
Now like many other newspapers, economic pressures have seen the staff dwindle to a couple of reporters and an editor based seven miles away. Photographic cover is provided from a base 13 miles in the other direction – and the coverage the town receives has suffered accordingly.
A month ago, for example, pages one, two and three were filled with stories from a neighbouring village, and not about East Grinstead at all.
As weekly print editions across the UK continue to fold, I have long thought it was about time someone – and I had no thought at all of it being me – started an online news site covering the town from within the town, and not from miles away.
So for the past two or three years I have been waiting for someone to do just that, and had they done so, I would have been delighted to pile in and give them a hand.
But no-one did.
And eventually I realised no-one was better placed to do it than I was.
I have 30 years’ experience of living and working in the town, a wealth of contacts and a keen interest in the community.
I also wanted an opportunity to promote what is a simply lovely place to live with some positive, grown-up reporting that wasn’t filled with the manufactured ‘axing, slashing and furious residents’ so beloved of local tabloids.
That in itself would not have been enough of course.
But Barney – who also thought it was a great idea – offered to handle the technical side of setting up and promoting the site, which he has done brilliantly.
3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
After both doing the Cardiff course on hyperlocals earlier this year we discussed how we should go about launching our own site.
Did we search out a team and get them involved first – with all the weeks of arguing and committee meetings that might involve before we actually did anything? Or did we – to use the Field of Dreams premise – build it, and see if anyone actually came?
In the end we decided to do the latter.
I was confident we could fill a daily quota of news and features fairly easily, and that if East Grinstead Online was good enough and interesting enough, it would engage a readership who would then want to get involved themselves.
I was also determined that our standards would be completely professional – and that all our apostrophes would be in the right place. But the idea from the outset was that we would also look for talented people from within the community to contribute.
So we spent a week building some pre-launch ‘timeless’ content, and a very comprehensive contacts list. I broached the idea of a town-based hyperlocal with our MP, Sir Nicholas Soames, who was hugely enthusiastic about it, and he gave us a generous message of endorsement for the project which we published as our lead story on launch day.
Then at the beginning of May, with a glass of wine and a great deal of trepidation, we hit the button that made us ‘live’.
I’m not exactly sure what I expected to happen next – a slow dribble of people finding us, and liking us.
But within minutes of our launch the town’s twittersphere was alive with interest in the ‘news’ kids on the blogging block, and it was suddenly and gratifyingly apparent that we were an idea whose time had come.
People took us to their hearts immediately and readership grew from day one far faster than we could ever have hoped or reasonably expected.
4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
Because I have been in newspapers and magazines all my working life, I was less influenced by blogs than by print.
We decided that we wanted our ‘look’ to be a halfway house between a newspaper – with hard news updated daily throughout the week – and a ‘county magazine’ with good quality features which are beautifully illustrated, with a weekend emphasis on lifestyle features.
Talented photographers in the town liked what we are doing and quickly volunteered to stock our photo library, and in one or two instances have gone along on interviews to take pics for us too.
And we have recruited specialist writers including a professional cook who does a weekly column, an astronomer, a vicar who writes our Thought for Sunday, and a theatre reviewer.
Once the schools are back next month we will be working with the town’s sixth forms to involve their media studies students in projects too.
One of the most gratifying aspects of East Grinstead Online has been both the community engagement and the opportunity it has given people to showcase their talents.
5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
East Grinstead Online is run exactly as any traditional news operation. Every Monday morning we send an email to all our contacts reminding them to send us their news and pictures from the weekend and asking them for a heads-up on what is coming up during the week.
We routinely check all the usual media sites for police, fire etc, and many of our contacts now come straight to us with stories without being asked. And because I do the Town Council’s PR anyway, I put their stories up on our site too, which gives them a much wider airing than if they were just on the Council’s own website.
We started off with the hope we could put up five stories a day, but we seldom put up fewer than a dozen and often hit high teens on a good news day.
And we are able we cover everything that happens in the town by getting the whole town involved. We are all reporters now.
Now is your chance for Street view fame. Get photographed by the Google Car. Its in EG now. Send us your pics of it. pic.twitter.com/mMFNVyXUHu
— EastGrinsteadOnline (@GrinsteadOnline) June 2, 2014
Twitter is a huge source of tip-offs, stories and pictures – no sooner does something happen than someone tweets about it and with luck posts a picture too.
And we are scrupulous about attributing our sources and giving proper credits and by-lines which in turn encourages people to send us more.
Barney is very keen on sport and we have international hockey players who are members of the town club. So he cultivated his contacts there and we received great match reports and pictures direct from both the hockey World Cup and the Commonwealth Games just as any other news organisation would. And he has done some great interviews with the principal players there and at the rugby club.
We operate professionally, and we are treated seriously.
6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
A key moment for us was a story we carried five or six weeks after launch about a local garden centre which was threatened with closure in order for the District Council to put a permanent Traveller site there instead.
The hapless trader only heard about this plan via a customer and was horrified that after almost 30 years he was likely to be turfed off, and – with all his staff – rendered jobless.
For us it was a perfect storm.
We were tipped off on a Friday, just after the local paper had published and we broke the story.
We had 10,000 hits on it within a couple of hours – a figure which grew rapidly as the day went on. We covered all aspects of the running story over the following days, and launched an online petition.
By the time the local paper came out five days later we had been all over it like a rash and there was nothing new to say.
It was a real breakthrough which not only saw our readership soar, but which also cemented us in the eyes of the District Council as a news organisation they needed to meet in order to discuss their future media strategy.
7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
We have been going now for four months, and our stats rise by the day. We had over 28,000 unique visitors in July, our last full month – and it is intriguing that we are attracting readership not just from the town, but from around the world.
8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?
Our biggest challenge was first setting up East Grinstead Online and getting it running smoothly – for which Barney must take all the credit.
Then establishing a routine for keeping it going without it taking over our lives.
I usually get up at 7am and spend a couple of hours getting the stories up and I then look in from time to time to see if there is anything we need to add during the day.
It isn’t particularly onerous, and people increasingly understand that while I will oversee content to ensure it is well written, and grammatically correct, I want stories and pictures to be delivered as far as possible ‘oven ready’ so they can be copied and pasted in without too much effort on our part.
9. Which story, feature or series are you most proud of?
Five weeks after we launched we had a royal visit when Princess Anne came to unveil a new statue by Martin Jennings honouring the world famous plastic surgeon Sir Archie McIndoe.
There was a photo call for all the people involved including actress Amanda Redman, the Guinea Pigs, the sculptor, McIndoe’s daughter and former colleagues, all of whom I photographed and interviewed.
I got the running story up throughout the day as it happened – from the Council staff sweeping leaves off the path around the statue in the early morning, to the moment when 2,000 townspeople gathered to see the silk cover tugged off.
I even went back in the early evening to photograph the statue in its new home when all the crowds had gone home.
It was an historic day for the town and we covered every aspect in around 20 stories and features which included a personal message of congratulation to East Grinstead which I had solicited in advance from the mayor of Mcindoe’s New Zealand home town.
I also provided photographs to the BBC and the RAF news.
I was naturally interested to see what the local paper carried three days later – expecting a wrap-around at least, or a souvenir edition at best.
So I was surprised and hugely disappointed when their coverage consisted of a modest front page picture taken the day after the event and a single shot on page 16 with some anodyne copy which included not a single quote from any of the principals.
They did however have a story about a ‘psychic llama’ on Page 9 – which we had unaccountably missed.
It was a poor effort.
But it absolutely illustrates the difference between what an experienced and committed professional team working on the ground, in a town they care about, can achieve, compared with a commercial business doing its tired best from several miles way with too few staff covering a too-large area.
And the plain fact there is no substitute for living in the town you write about: a couple of Saturdays ago I spent ten minutes walking between the supermarket and the High Street and picked up four stories en route. Moral: never go out without your camera!
10. What are your plans for the future?
When we started East Grinstead Online we did it hoping people might enjoy it – but that if they didn’t, at least we had given it a go and we would have lost nothing but time and a little pride.
Now we find ourselves with a hit on our hands and in regular receipt of emails which tell us how much our readers appreciate what we do, praising the fact that our stories are factual, accurate, well-written and reliable, and begging us to ‘keep up the good work’ – which is just what we intend to do.
At the moment we are bearing the cost of the project ourselves, but come September we hope to attract sponsors/advertising which will cover our outlay and perhaps even provide a modest salary to enable us to put more time and effort back into the site.
But in the meantime we both feel it has been a really positive experience, and a valuable contribution towards the town community.
We have promoted a lot of happy events this summer, run a couple of campaigns on issues which the town feels strongly about, and reported the news fairly, accurately and as it happens.
It is, as Barney so often says, All Good!