The challenges and surprises of covering a snap general election as an indie hyperlocal

By Matt Abbott | 8th Jun 2017

Editor in Chief of Portsmouth hyperlocal, the Star & Crescent, Sarah Cheverton, revisits the last 6 weeks of election fever in a behind-the-scenes look at how they worked with local residents and writers to bring alternative perspectives to local mainstream news.

When Theresa May called a snap election on 18th April, my heart sank, for many reasons. Chief among them was the knowledge that I would be out of the country for a large part of the campaign, talking to international journalists from Europe and beyond about S&C at a series of Digital Identities workshops supported by Google News Labs.

As I heard the news of the snap election, I was preparing to leave for Norway for one of the workshops, and a week or so after that, I would be heading to India for a week to do the same.

I wondered how we could possibly coordinate the preparation, editing, publishing and promotion of our content while one of our two-person team was out of the country.

It didn’t take us long to work out the answer – we’d ask our readers for help, for one thing. What we couldn’t have anticipated was that fate would drop a new volunteer into our midst, just when we needed him the most.

Within 10 days of the election announcement, we got to work. I prepared a number of visuals asking local people to get in touch with their views. We responded to social media comments in the same vein. Tom Sykes got in touch with our former contributors and asked for their perspectives.

Within days, our readers and contributors begin to deliver submissions to us, and we were thrilled at the level and quality of the articles we received.

We were also extremely lucky at the timing of a new addition to the team, reporter Mark Wright, who began to work immediately on securing a wide range of interviews with local candidates and commentators.

Several key themes emerged fairly quickly, and remained consistent across the election, including:

Tactical voting – this was a big issue for our writers and readers, particularly in Portsmouth South. First covered by Matt Wingett, who supported tactically voting for the Lib Dems in Portsmouth South to ‘keep out the Tories’, Matt’s follow-up made an even bigger splash when – with days to go before the election – he made a public u-turn declaring he would vote with his heart and throw his lot in with Labour after all. This was followed by a fierce plea from Labour activist Claire Udy to vote from the heart. More broadly, the issue of tactical voting came up in our interviews with candidates and commentators, with a broad range of arguments for and against.

Media bias – the subject of our first piece of election coverage by Portsmouth writer Katie Roberts, the issue of biased media reporting and ‘fake news’ was the focus of several pieces of our election coverage. These included an article we were proud to publish from David Cromwell of Media Lens, and a range of interviews such as this one with local writer Gareth Rees, and activist Jon Woods. A growing distrust of mainstream media sources – linked to corporate ownership of large news outlets – was a recurring theme for many of our readers, writers and interviewees.

Fear for public services – the final issue that came up repeatedly for our writers and interviewees was the growing fear for the future of public services under another 5 years of Conservative government and austerity. Mentioned by all the candidates we interviewed, a growing fear for Portsmouth’s NHS hospitals and services was second only to fears for the future of local schools. It was also a recurring issue from writers and residents in a range of articles covering the election, and an issue we regularly saw in comments on our Facebook page.

We’ve been amazed – as we have since we started S&C – by the support from our readers, contributors and local residents during the election campaign, and as ever, we’re very proud of all we’ve achieved together. But don’t take our word for it, have a look at the coverage yourself, and make up your own mind before you go to the ballot box.

Of course, our election coverage was not without its own challenges, which included:

Time and capacity – attempting to cover an election over six short weeks with only three volunteers was always going to be a challenge, particularly when one of them was out of the country. Particularly challenging was coordinating submissions, editing, publication and promotion, especially when one of us was working in a different time zone, some five and a half hours ahead of the UK. We dealt with this by allocating clear areas of responsibility across the three of us, and keeping in regular communication with each other – even from different continents. Without Tom Sykes and Mark Wright managing the website on a daily basis from Portsmouth, though, we would have struggled to publish as much as we have.

Capturing a diversity of views – we’ve been very lucky that a diversity of local commentators and residents submitted many pieces, covering a range of political perspectives. Because S&C is thought of locally as a left-leaning site – we have heard ourselves referred to as the Hammer & Sickle, for example – it is always a challenge to encourage our more right wing readers to write for us, and the election was no exception.  Until, that is, regular commenter on our Facebook page, Ian Morris, agreed to write a piece for us on why he’s voting Tory in the election. An interesting and funny read, we’re grateful to Ian for putting his head above the parapet to talk to us – something even the Conservative candidates wouldn’t do – and we look forward to more articles from him in the future.

Arranging candidate interviews – we did not realise when we began to plan our election coverage that this would be one of the biggest challenges we’d face, and it’s been a steep learning curve. Our most recent addition to the team, Mark Wright, set out to conduct a series of interviews with local candidates and commentators, and we were lucky enough to be able to run interviews with Ian McCulloch (Green Party), Gerald Vernon Jackson (Lib Dems), Stephen Morgan (Labour) and Darren Sanders (Lib Dem). Both Conservative candidates – Flick Drummond and Penny Mordaunt – declined to respond to our interview requests. Time was our main enemy in interviewing candidates, as we massively misjudged the length of time it takes to schedule an interview during a snap election campaign, and we simply ran out of time before we could make sure we covered the north and south campaigns equally.

Despite the challenges, we published 34 pieces of election coverage between 18th April and election day – including some great pieces of satire by S&C regulars Jack Caramac and Sir Eugene Nicks. We want to say a big thank you to all our readers for your support over the last six weeks – writing, commenting and sharing our election coverage – and, as ever, we couldn’t do this without them!

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