How we are creating a virtual newsroom: hyperlocal style!

Sarah Cheverton, Editor-in-Chief of Star and Crescent, a hyperlocal news website written by and for the people of Portsmouth (UK) shares her journey to build a digital identity of a news organisation with an aversion to advertising and a commitment to editorial independence. Sarah spoke at the Digital Identities seminar powered by Google News Lab in Stockholm on September 14.

Sarah Cheverton (@Cheversar), Editor-in-Chief of Star and Crescent

We launched S&C in February 2015. The website was born of frustration with the local media, particularly political coverage in the city, which too often duplicates the official line of people in power over the voices of local activists, critics and communities. As a result, we felt that there are always voices from the political and social spectrum that are missing and we’ve made it our mission to address that gap in representation. Social media has been central to building the digital identity for the Star and Crescent. It has been vital to our success so far and we are using it to build a virtual newsroom of contributors and co-editors.

We thought social media was a box that just had to be ticked, then we could move on. We occasionally posted some stories on social media, if and when we remembered

We want to create a news website that reaches the places other local news outlets are failing to reach. Our focus was solely on editorial. We wanted to produce high quality news, commentary and satire for our city because as far as we could see, it was lacking all three. At the start, we did not think social media was important. Sure, we made a Facebook page, we created a Twitter account, but we barely used them and we certainly didn’t monitor them in any meaningful way. We thought social media was a box that just had to be ticked, then we could move on. We occasionally posted some stories on social media, if and when we remembered.

So what changed?

This meme played an important role in introducing us to the idea that we could be playful with local politics as well as provocative on social media.

We made it onto Destination Local, a project run by Nesta focusing on hyperlocal news. Working on the project got us to engage with audience analytics — via Google — which taught us something that we had not expected: most of our readers came to us via social media. We realised that sourcing content and writing content was nowhere near enough for a contemporary news organisation. We had to promote the content as well. So we needed to learn about social media promotion, and fast.

As we always wanted to publish satire as core content, this meme played an important role in introducing us to the idea that we could be playful with local politics as well as provocative on social media.

When we took a fresh look at our social media presence we realised it was a bit rubbish. Our digital identity didn’t reflected who we were or our purpose. We decided to address this by using a meme reflecting a local preoccupation with dog mess on the streets. As we always wanted to publish satire as core content, this meme played an important role in introducing us to the idea that we could be playful with local politics as well as provocative on social media. We could shape our identity in a positive way and really differentiate us from our competitors.

We still use this meme to entice local satirists to write for us and it really works. We now have a dedicated local satirist — who we’ve never met in person — who writes for us on a weekly basis. We’re also receiving more satirical submissions than ever, though we may have local politicians and the government to thank for that since Brexit.

We became aware of some devastating cuts to frontline services for domestic abuse victims

Our next social media project was to run a campaign that would gather people to us for a positive cause. We became aware of some devastating cuts to frontline services for domestic abuse victims and decided we’d campaign on this.

We ran on both Facebook and Twitter for 5 days. This followed a fairly simple format. We made links with national and local partners, increased traffic to the website and increased engagement on our social media, as well as with local residents in the real world. But the biggest and best impact was undoubtedly: the cuts to domestic violence services were overturned at the next cabinet meeting. Even in my most optimistic dreams, I could not have anticipated this result.

For us the challenge is not to discourage anyone from commenting, but to encourage people to get involved in the conversation.

Our first social media campaign was a big learning curve. Since then, we’ve gone on to use it as the main way to source content, as well as to engage with our readers. Because a lot of our content is political commentary, we often attract quite heated responses. A key question for us has been: When they talk to us, how do we talk back? For us the challenge is not to discourage anyone from commenting, but to encourage people to get involved in the conversation. To reflect our identity, we also like to keep it playful.

Whilst we have no problem engaging with the left wingers in our local readership, gaining trust among the right is much more of a struggle, because they are so often the pointed focus of our content. all of our successes in attracting right wing writers to the site have come from social media or other digital platforms. The challenge for us is how we maintain and grow trust with both ends of the political spectrum without sacrificing our core values of representing missing voices.

Another challenge for us in building our virtual newsroom is around quality control. Working with a team of people you’ve never actually met is a lot harder than when you all share an office.

Another challenge for us in building our virtual newsroom is around quality control. Working with a team of people you’ve never actually met is a lot harder than when you all share an office. As a result, we currently work very closely with our contributors on fine-tweaking and editing work so that we can maintain a consistent quality that our readers can trust. Most of this quality control takes place online, and it’s very time consuming. However, it allows us to build strong, positive relationships with our contributors and co-editors, even though we rarely meet them face to face. Because our core team of three are all still volunteers and we have a very small income based on reader donations, our newsroom is likely to stay virtual for some time yet.

We’re currently exploring setting ourselves up as a media cooperative, which would allow our readers to become part owners of Star & Crescent and provide us with a regular income. We’ve also run and participated in several local political events which have provided us with modest funding. And we’re working with a local publisher on some potential collections of Star & Crescent’s finest content for us to sell. But we’re always to open to fresh perspectives and new ideas, because our city — like the world — really needs both.

Eliza Anyangwe, Henrik Stahl and Sarah Cheverton spoke at the European launch of the Digital Identities seminar in Stockholm on 14 September. This free programme is powered by Google News Lab and is open to journalists across Sweden.