Press Gazette reported on September 4 that the Northern Echo wants to hire “30 members of the public as contributors to its ultra-local websites“.
The recruitment drive is part of a long-term plan by the Echo to “increase the amount of ultra-local content on its websites”, according to assistant editor Nigel Burton.
The new recruits, who range from 17 to 70, will file about three stories a week. They’ll get training in photography, story structure and the site’s content management system.
Each correspondent usually has a journalist mentor, who will be a staffer with several years experience, as a point of contact if they have any problems. And, yes, they get paid.
Not about cost
Nigel Burton was adamant that the project is not about cost, saying “this is definitely not a move to replace our writers with so-called citizen journalists”.
“I cannot see a time when a paper like The Northern Echo would resort to using news submitted by reporters who have no formal NCTJ training.”
He makes the point that the Echo has the largest circulation area of any regional newspaper in the country, and that the staffers just couldn’t cover an area that size in detail. The network of local correspondents will augment news coverage by providing “ultra-local news on our community micro-sites”.
And the community has responded positively, though he concedes that there’s a problem with churn, and the Echo needs to keep pushing for new blood.
But, hearteningly, he says that people are keen to write for their local paper.
He also said that this is another way to find good journalists, saying that “we have identified three correspondents who have the talent to go all the way, and have held discussions to see if they are interested in the NCTJ pre-entry course”.
What about the implications for journalism education? Does it mean we should look more closely at developing networking and communication skills, maybe even training and project management skills, as well as production skills?
Maybe, says Nigel Burton. But the production skills remain key, especially internet and multimedia skills:
“I think it’s more important to make certain students have a really good understanding of the internet and multi-media. The Echo always looks for people capable of filming and editing video/podcasts etc, as well as crafting a neat turn of phrase or two!”
This is obviously a development we need to monitor and respond to in our curriculum development. Note also the stress on NCTJ standards and web skills.
Perhaps we need a brief survey of other local newspapers which could include looking at content, talking to correspondents, etc.?
You can read Nigel Burton’s answers in full here:
Q: What level of response are you getting?
Generally, very good. We usually “recruit” about 30-odd community correspondents every six months. The problem is keeping hold of them! There’s a distinct churn – people sign up then find it’s not for them – so we have to keep pushing for new blood all the time.
Q: Are local people enthusiastic about the idea?
Yes. The like the idea of writing for their local paper and, I suspect, describing themselves as part-time journalists to friends and family. They also like the fact that they get paid!
Q: Any indication of the kinds of people who are interested?
Surprisingly they are pretty much across the board. The youngest is 17, the oldest just past retirement age. Generally, though, we are seeing older people who have retired (or lost their job) taking on the role part-time.
Q: Is this an experiment, or is this a long-term plan for the newspaper?
It’s a long term plan. Newsquest as a group wants to increase the amount of ultra-local content on its websites. Various centres have done it differently. The favoured (and easiest) model is to divert some of the local newspaper content, written by professional journalists, and repackage it as “news from your village” etc. But I take the view that the best ultra-local content always comes from people actually embedded in a community. Recruiting local people also strengthens the link between that community and the newspaper.
Q: Any economic reasons for the move?
None. Like every paper we’re facing tough times, but this is definitely not a move to replace our writers with so-called citizen journalists. I cannot see a time when a paper like The Northern Echo would resort to using news submitted by reporters who have no formal NCTJ training. Until fairly recently, the minimum criteria to work here was having three years as a senior on an evening paper. That said, we have identified three correspondents who have the talent to go all the way, and have held discussions to see if they are interested in the NCTJ pre-entry course.
Q: How is this better than sending journalists out to talk to people in their own locality?
We do both. The Echo has around 40 journalists (not including subs and photographers) and they all have local patches to cover. But our circulation area ranges from Cumbria, through Tyneside, Wearside, Teesside, County Durham and North Yorkshire – the largest of any morning regional newspaper in the country. It would be unrealistic to expect our staff to be able to cover such a large area in minute detail. Instead, they concentrate on the bigger stories. The sort of ultra-local news on our community micro-sites isn’t guaranteed to get in the paper; although we see a need for it, which is why we have created an area on our website where space is not an issue.
Q: What will the relationship of the staffers (editorial and reporters) to the new contributors?
We’ve had no problems. Usually a correspondent has a journalist mentor – a staffer with several years experience – who is their point of contact if they have any problems, issues or need pointing in the right direction. In fact, several correspondents have tipped our staff reporters off about big stories. One even supplied a p.1 picture!
Q: Do you think this has implications for journalism education? E.g., should we be looking at equipping students to to work with networks of people like this by, say, looking at networking skills, communication skills, maybe even training and project management skills, as well as writing/production skills?
That’s an interesting question. I think in order to be a good journalist you need excellent social skills and the confidence to communicate well. The evolution of community correspondents, with their particular needs, will put those skills to good use. I think it’s more important to make certain students have a really good understanding of the internet and multi-media. The Echo always looks for people capable of filming and editing video/podcasts etc, as well as crafting a neat turn of phrase or two!