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Taking the leap into community journalism
By Barney Durrant | 17th Jun 2014
Five hundred stories is a milestone we recently passed at EastGrinsteadOnline.com. In only two months a small team had written, edited and published this many stories about the small community around them. It felt empowering to be able to take an idea or report an incident and have it published for all to see within minutes, accompanied by a photograph also created personally and edited only using an ordinary laptop.
Self-publishing has never felt more powerful and accessible and for a few pounds or dollars, anyone can set up a website and begin to populate it with their own thoughts, ideas or even artistic creations. Having chosen WordPress to publish the news site, I found it very easy to add video, photo galleries, even sound clips to enliven my articles and crucially to differentiate them from the printed fare that had been up until that point, the main organ of local news in the town.
Inspired by a community journalism course run by Cardiff University and a desire to make use of the digital tools that were becoming ever more popular and accepted by the mainstream, I didn’t hesitate to offer my help when my partner in crime and editor suggested that we should just go ahead and produce a site.
It seemed almost disrespectful to the weighty publications that abound in every newsagent across the land to suggest that all you need to compete with them in cyberspace, in real life of course too, is some enthusiasm, a connection to the Internet and some basic Web skills and of course the ability to find and write a compelling news story.
On our side was my partner’s many years of experience as a journalist and my Internet industry experience. However, I had never used WordPress before and only had a passing acquaintance with Blogger previously. I knew WP was the platform of choice for most bloggers, so I took a deep breath and set up a WP.com site for our new baby.
An hour or two later and we had something that looked very professional, an empty canvas on which we could scrawl our ideas and reach out to those around us, even now unaware of the little venture we were about to launch documenting the place they live. Quickly, a bank of stories was written and we had three or four days of posts scheduled in, so the blank pages of the site, were ready to spring into vivid life as the next few days passed. Social media sites were duly created and linked and our first stories were born, simultaneously taking their nascent breaths on Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.
Although, its not hard to know somewhere you live for many years in a physical sense, I discovered that there are always riches of a human nature that will be unknown to you however well you think you know a place. Suddenly, ideas for stories came almost unbidden and I found myself interviewing professional hockey players over email or asking a comic writer what their inspiration was for their drawing and writing. The local MP threw in his support and tenuous connections to the town were quickly dusted off and exploited as hooks for new features and interviews. East Grinstead was suddenly a hotbed of actors, singers, writers, cooks, artists, sportsmen and women and of course railway enthusiasts. We offered blanket and detailed coverage of a recent Royal visit when Princess Anne came to the town to unveil a statue to local hero, Sir Archie McIndoe, who pioneered plastic surgery during and after the war and whose patients are called the Guinea Pigs. Our photos were later requested by the BBC and RAF News to supplement their coverage.
A wider group was quickly needed to keep up the quality and frequency of our posts, so Twitter became a rich vein for finding both new stories and volunteers to help the two of us out. A weekly food columnist was recruited, a few photographers, a theatre reviewer and someone to give us a youth perspective. I chose to cover sport and became our self-appointed beer correspondent, when I interviewed the owner of a local micro-brewery. Saving all the fun jobs from myself, I then reviewed a new cabaret venue that has opened in the high street – strangely, a few photos of the resident burlesque act, Miss Rosy Apples, have somewhat boosted the popularity of that article – what first attracted you to this article?
As we approach an impressive 10,000 uniques a month for our site aimed at a town with only around 26,000 residents, it seems incredible that only a couple of months ago we were watching videos online from the course and hearing case studies from locations as close to home as Brixton or rural Wales and as exotic as the Mission district of San Francisco. However, now I know we have something very closely in common with these diverse neighbourhoods, we write about what we know and people in our town love what we write about them and what they do and what they love. In turn we understand our surroundings better, meet our community and we are all brought closer together by the glowing characters of a story very much like the one you are reading right now strung across your glowing laptop or iPad screen.
Since this post was published in June 2014, East Grinstead Online has reached a new milestone of 50,000 uniques a month. Congratulations Barney and the team! – C4CJ, January 2015
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