2019 was the year our Essex newsroom went global. In 2020, we want to fix court reporting

Alan Woods is brand editor at EssexLive, which is the largest news website in Essex. His team’s year has included covering the death of local legend, leading numerous campaigns — and they plan to do ever more in 2020:

Which story from your newsroom will you remember most from 2019 and why?

I will always remember the way Essex approached the tragic death of Keith Flint in March.

On the morning news of his death broke, there were people in the newsroom who were genuinely saddened and shocked at his passing. Keith was a true Essex Boy and he lived just down the road from the office, so I knew our audience in print and online would expect our brands to mark his colourful life.

In print the Essex Chronicle published two commemorative front pages for Keith. The first was in the week of Keith’s death, when Design Content Editor and Darryl Webber created two front pages and we asked our Facebook audience to choose their favourite — 6,000 people had their say.

When the eyes of the music world descended on quiet Braintree for the week of Keith’s funeral, we published a wrap-around image on the main edition of the Chronicle and an eight-page pull-out supplement inside.

I never expected the subsequent response to these editions. I thought we might get a handful Prodigy fans from across the country wanting to buy a copy of the supplement so I included a fact box in our digital coverage referencing it.

From this point onwards my email inbox blew up, and I received more than 1,000 emails from Prodigy fans across the globe requesting to buy our newspaper.

Effectively, we had 1,000 ‘pre-orders’ of the Chronicle before it was even published. Working with newspaper sales and one of our reception teams, we mobilised a makeshift ‘sales department’ in the Tunbridge Wells office and this amazing team was tasked with contacting buyers from America, Australia and Japan to take payments.

The Essex Chronicle truly went global and editions now sit in the collections of Prodigy fans around the world.

When covering Keith’s funeral online, EssexLive had the job of standing alongside every national title in the country and several from across the world. We knew our coverage needed to be of interest to our audience locally but it attracted a significant number of Prodigy fans to our Facebook page as a result of our initial coverage of Keith’s death.

Our Facebook ‘likes’ showed a marked increase (4,000) in the weeks after Keith’s passing and we knew we had an audience expecting in-depth coverage of his funeral. Alongside the expected live blog and picture-led breakouts, we broadcast the procession and service (from outside the church) via a Facebook Live.

Reporter Alasdair Hooper went live for two-hours and the broadcast reached 529,000 people.

Looking around the regional press, can you point to something from another newsroom which stands out to you? What was it and why?

I hugely admired the WalesOnline approach to the Rugby World Cup. The 24-hour staffing for me was a turning point for regional media but also a confidence vote in what we can achieve when covering a news story of global interest.

Stefan [Rhys, digital editor] and Paul Rowland’s [editor-in-chief] approach hit me as extremely bold, confident and ambitious and has encouraged me to think bigger when planning the future.

I thought the WalesOnline coverage of the tournament was industry-leading. In a cluttered marketplace, their coverage stood out and had so much personality that it absolutely earned its place.

What did you learn in 2019 about local journalism which you’ll remember?

Campaigning journalism is so rewarding. In the Chartbeat-obsessed digital newsroom, it is all too easy to get drawn in by the numbers and quick wins that have worked on other regional websites.

In Essex we create weekly content plans for reporters that set out a series of stories we would like written by the end of the week, so reporters can see in the short-term what they should be trying to deliver.

These comprise a series of lengthy leanback features, listicles and social media shout outs to find stories about the issues that matter to our readers at that time. But we have had some big success with working on longer term campaigns. These have been planned weeks ahead of delivery and have taken substantially more work than our regular features.

Our most successful was our male mental health campaign, Speak Up For Essex Boys, which was delivered by the very talented Elliot Hawkins. The sensitivity he used when approaching this series of was inspiring and cemented him as a true role model for younger reporters in the newsroom

The campaign launched at a time when male mental health was at the top of the national news agenda, as the first story was published on the day that Love Island’s Mike T sadly took his own life.

The subsequent stories saw Elliot talk to the families of young men from across Essex who had taken their own lives. It was rewarding to see EssexLive supporting an issue that was so relevant and important through brilliant digital journalism.

If you had one tip to share with other editors about being an editor in 2020, what would it be?

Find the headline success metric that best works for your newsroom. In Essex, one of the most important figures at the end of a month is the number of High Impact Articles (HIAs) the newsroom has written.

The number is emblazoned in big, bold, colourful letters on the wall in Essex so reporters can see how it differs from previous months, whilst a monthly ‘reporter by reporter’ league table chucks a bit of competition in the mix — there’s no escaping HIAs.

I believe HIAs are a metric that measure quality journalism, but also appreciate that it may not be the metric that best measures success in every newsroom. It’s key to find what does though, be that page views, AET or something entirely different.

What do you hope will happen in 2020?

I hope we’re able to find a way that allows us to sustainably cover all three courts in a way that delivers significant audience. At the moment, we regularly attend inquest hearings in both Essex and Hertfordshire because the hearings are of significant interest to our audience.

But cracking magistrates and crown court is my New Year’s Resolution. Our presence at crown court sentencing hearings in 2019 has fluctuated, whereas our attendance at crown court trials has been virtually non-existent.

As for magistrates, I can’t remember the last time we went. However, from our online and in print coverage of the magistrate’s results we know there is a strong audience for court coverage. Much like many aspects of regional media, the old model of court coverage is broken and it’s down to us to find a new way of making it work.

What will you be looking for in new reporters when recruiting in 2020?

I’m looking for someone who wants to get to know our audience inside out and someone who wants to fly the flag for our brand.

Qualifications are so far from everything. If you have a brilliant attitude, are willing to try new things and can write an accurate and legally sound story that is appropriate for our audience, then you’re of interest.

How would you sell your newsroom to someone thinking about applying for a job in 2020?

I want my team to come to work and have fun, whilst telling digital stories in the most brilliant and creative ways for our growing online audiences. If you want to do this then you should apply to come and work with me. In Chelmsford we are obsessed with success.

We want to be the best. If you work in my newsroom, you’ll be out of the office as much as you are in. We go to the scene of the biggest stories and we’re first to break them. You will join a fantastic community of reporters and can expect an endless supply of chocolates, cake and pizza.

We even turn all the lights off and work by Christmas lights at Christmas (it’s called Earth Hour…).

What’s the most memorable thing to have happened in/around your newsroom this year?

A man arrived in reception and said that we’d written a story about him. Our office manager called a Content Editor down to talk to him but by the time he got there, this chap had vanished into the toilet.

The Content Editor was a bit confused as to where the man had gone, so popped to the loo as well. By this point, our visitor was washing his hands and our Content Editor joined him, seemingly not questioning who this strange chap in the gent’s toilets was.

When they realised afterwards who each other were, it transpired that the visitor was a man we had covered the week before in a court story. He had been convicted of performing a sex act on himself for 20-minutes in the middle of a park in Chelmsford and he had Hepatitis B.

Our Content Editor was slightly taken aback by finding out he’d just shared the urinal next to a convicted sex offender.

Alan Woods, Brand Editor, EssexLive

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