Our newsroom: Focusing on the basics helps us win new readers online

Hannah Chapman with some of her team in the Northern Echo newsroom

In our final ‘Our Newsroom’ of the year, Hannah Chapman, editor of the Northern Echo, shares the secrets of one of the country’s most famous regional newsrooms:

What’s life like at The Northern Echo?

There’s never a dull moment. We cover a huge patch, from the heart of North Yorkshire right up to Tyneside, taking in County Durham and the Tees Valley, so it’s a geographical challenge as much as anything.

The paper has a tradition as a liberal, campaigning title and all our journalists hold themselves to the long-standing principles built up since The Northern Echo launched in 1870.

That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun though — we’ve just uploaded one of my favourite stories of the year, the tale of Chicken and Licken, two hens stolen from a special school in Darlington which have been returned to heartbroken pupils after an eagle-eyed Northern Echo reader spotted them in a nearby garden. After a police investigation they were handed back to the school caretaker in a pub car park. A truly hen-spirational tale.

Tell us about your newsroom

Our main newsroom is in our Darlington head office, but we also have reporters based in Bishop Auckland and Durham. We split our reporting shifts between 7am and 8pm, with starts at 7, 9 and 12, to give us plenty of digital flexibility for early and late breaking news.

Our building is a classic, grand old newspaper office, so you can’t fail to have in mind The Northern Echo’s heritage every time to come into work. But that doesn’t mean we are stuck in the past. We have big screens displaying our web data so all staff can see in real-time how the day’s stories are performing, and we’re using this mass of information to find out what people want to read, and then write more of it.

What’s the best thing about covering your area?

The variety — and the people. One minute you can be dealing with a story from a leafy village or market town, the next a grim crime story and the next a hard-hitting social affairs piece. Our readers are so passionate about the region and the paper — they leave me in no doubt if they don’t like decisions I’ve made, but I’d rather have those tough conversations than have readers who don’t care.

You’re the first female editor in The Northern Echo’s history. How has it been since you started the role?

It’s been really intense, but thoroughly enjoyable. Quite a few people have asked me about being the first female editor, and of course I was thrilled to get the job. But I think it would be a proud day for anyone who was appointed as editor of The Northern Echo, man or woman.

What changes have you made?

I’m really keen to get back to basics, particularly online. In print we provide the best spread of local, regional and national news and sports we can, because that’s what our readers want.

But I believe that online, people come to us for what I’d describe as “properly local” news. By this I mean stories from the heart of their communities that they can’t get anywhere else.

The data backs this up, so instead of hitting our online readers with masses and masses of news, some of which may be less relevant, we’re focusing on fewer, quality stories of the type we know people will respond to.

What are you most proud of since you became editor?

The single biggest project we have worked on was our Armistice Day special Sunday edition.

It was 112 pages of immaculately researched content, the majority from our chief feature writer and renowned local historian Chris Lloyd. It was a challenge to put together, but seeing it on the shelves in the newsagents made all the hard work worthwhile. It is so important that we continue to tell stories like those unearthed by Chris about the many, many individual tragedies of the First World War.

We’ve also been pushing our Instagram content a lot more. The audience there is a totally different demographic for us, so it’s an increasingly powerful tool for getting our content in front of new people.

What do you most enjoy about the job?

I do a lot of work with trainees and our two apprentices, and I really enjoy helping them to develop. We have such a talented bunch and I love supporting them as they grow in confidence and become valuable members of the team.

What stories are readers most likely to remember from your newsroom recently?

We picked up on social media that a local man had started a foodbank nomination challenge, similar to the ice bucket challenge, in that he was donating a shopping trolley full of goods to a foodbank. The story went viral, and was run by national, and international media — and more importantly raised the plight of foodbanks in need of donations this Christmas.

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