How we built a profitable local news site (clue: bring readers with you)

BelfastLive, the first digital-only Live launch by Reach plc (then Trinity Mirror) broke new ground when it went live four years ago. Editor Chris Sherrard looks back at what’s happened since:

Chris Sherrard

Allow me to briefly take you back to 2015.

Not a huge transposition in the grand scheme of time but one that feels like a different world in many respects.

Back then, Brexit and backstops kept nobody awake at night but we did wonder how One Direction would get on without Zayn Malik.

Over here in Northern Ireland, the rest of the world had little interest in our border or foibles and that was just fine by us.

But in Belfast I was scratching my head.

I lived and worked in a thriving, bustling city where, by and large, the darkness had lifted and optimism and cranes had filled the void.

But reading the papers and watching the news, you wouldn’t have known that.

Generally speaking, the media only seemed to care about Belfast when something horrendous happened. Even the local media.

I could see and feel that the reality was completely different and had an overwhelming urge to do something about it.

And, so, enter BelfastLive.

Launched in the last week of February 2015, brought forward so we could cover a big boxing match in the city on our first weekend, it genuinely is hard to remember a time when we didn’t exist.

For me, if something is going to be sustainable and, therefore, successful it must know exactly what it is going to stand for.

BelfastLive set out to report on Belfast as it was seen — and enjoyed — by locals

Our vision for BelfastLive at the time of launch was, and I quote, “to be the beating heart and a new voice for a vibrant, exciting city which has left the shackles behind”.

Let’s accurately reflect that vibrancy and be part of the excitement.

Let’s find out what the public want to read about. Let’s not assume.

Let’s not do what, for me, was the norm and be the only voice in the relationship.

Let’s be part of a two-way conversation with our readers whereby, yes, we tell them things (lots of things) but we continue to be part of that conversation wherever that conversation happens and takes us.

That would form one of the principle pillars of the site. Another would be positivity.

BelfastLive soon became part of the city’s daily life

As obvious as that might seem with the benefit of hindsight now, back in 2015 it wasn’t actually a thing to any significant extent.

My view was then as it is now: we live in such a fantastic place, one of warmth and self-deprecation and community spirit and an ability to handle whatever is thrown at us.

Let’s celebrate that. Let’s accentuate the positives wherever we can.

That does not mean we ignore the tragedies and don’t cover them properly.

But we much prefer the good news.

We prefer scratching at the surface and aiming the spotlight on the many unsung heroes living in our midst.

And the more hyperlocal we can get the more I feel we’re doing it right.

The whole world is writing about Donald Trump and the Kardashians, but who is reflecting what’s happening on the Falls Road or in working-class East Belfast?

I didn’t see it, certainly not without the spine of a political or religious agenda running through that coverage.

We don’t have that baggage and we haven’t collected it along the way.

In fact, one of our greatest successes in these four years has been that we get it in the ear from all sides!

The reason we have reached that point, to my mind, is because we are real. As a team, we are drawn from all backgrounds and we are passionate about different things.

The pieces of the jigsaw slot into place fairly neatly.

Our challenge has always been the same challenge my online editorial colleagues have encountered in every other newsroom: at the end of each month, whether it’s been a huge success or not, ALL of your key metrics are reset to zero.

There is never time to pat yourselves on the back for a month done well. You have to get up and go again.

When Facebook or Google has given you a kicking, you have to diversify the sources of your traffic and keep aiming high. Keep delivering.

We went from no site and no readers in the January of 2015 to in excess of one million unique users by the July.

That breakthrough brought with it not only a fantastic feeling but also elevated pressure.

Boom and bust or sustained growth and deeper engagement?

Thankfully not only have the readers stayed with us but they’ve read more, they’ve shared more and they’ve stayed longer.

They are loyal and we are acutely aware of their continued commitment.

Visions can only become reality with the right people part of that project, of course.

And I am blessed to work with an incredible team of journalists who get it. And got it right from the start.

We actually launched BelfastLive at the tail-end of February 2015 with six of us, as hard as that is to believe.

Quantity only becomes a problem when quality is absent, though, and we are constructed of some of the best journalists you will find anywhere.

Yes, such a shortage of bodies can make doing a rota to cover seven days of the week extremely difficult at times but where there is a will there is always a way.

We’ve made it work and we’ve hit the absolute heights. We’ve prioritised certain things and put the building blocks in place as and when the time was right to do so.

We certainly don’t think we have cracked anything. But we do hope that we have played a part in a journalistic revolution over the past quadrennium.

Right from day one, on soft launch day and throughout this entire journey, I have enjoyed the loyalty and the talents, of Nathan Hanna, Sarah Scott, Sheena McStravick, Jilly Beattie and Maurice Fitzmaurice.

Along the way we have added Shauna Corr, Ryan Smith, Gareth Fullerton, Harry Bateman and, this year, Claire O’Boyle, Christine Carrigan, Connor O’Neill and Chris Doyle.

Our family is growing all the time, in line with our audience and revenue.

I am indebted to them all for their efforts, their dedication and their stories.

And I am never anything less than humbled by the loyalty and engagement of the BelfastLive readers who can slag with the best of them but have been sensational company.

I don’t relish the amount of grey hairs another four years will surely bring me but I can’t wait to see where this journey will continue to take us.