The 25,000 readers relying on KentLive to keep their daily commute moving

Sian Elvin

When Facebook announced it wanted newsrooms do more with its groups functionality earlier this year, hundreds were launched across the UK.

In Kent, an early focus on traffic and travel in a dedicated group has created a community of 25,000 people sharing information, with KentLive at the heart of it. The site’s social media and homepage editor Sian Elvin explains…

What started as a small online experiment ended up much bigger than we imagined, and has now become an essential part of our local community.

And last week that resulted in the 25,000-strong Kent Traffic and Travel Facebook group being given the Best Use of Social Media prize at the Kent Press and Broadcast Awards 2018.

Bouncing a few ideas around the Kent Live newsroom back in January to kick off our new year, we decided to set up a new Facebook group to help build a strong online community.

The Kent Live Traffic and Travel page

Not only did we want to find a new way of sharing stories with our readers now Facebook has changed its algorithm to make pages less prominent, but we also wanted to build the trust and credibility of our brand in the era of ‘Fake News’.

Delivering traffic and travel news seemed the perfect way to do this.

Readers (and reporters sometimes included) often see traffic news as some of the least glamorous parts of journalism, but we recognised it as a gap in the market which the nationals wouldn’t cover in as much depth as us and something which no one else in Kent had properly focused on.

The geography of Kent lent itself perfectly to this kind of group being useful to its residents, and others who often travel through it. The county is home to a huge number of commuters who get the train to go and work in London, drive across the county from east to west, use the Dartford Crossing to get to Essex or travel across the channel to Europe for work or leisure.

Jams on Kent’s main motorways are all too common

And who better to inform each other of what’s happening on the roads and railways than the people who actually use them? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve checked Google Maps to see if the motorway is clear to approach it a few minutes later and find miles of queues.

As a news organisation which covers an entire county — 3,700 square miles of land, to be exact — we can’t attempt to be on every single road at one time.

So we could have a mutually convenient relationship where if people post about a closed road after an accident, for example, we can speak to press offices, write a story and find out how long delays will last and when the road is going to reopen again.

After posting in local community groups and adding a line of information into our traffic stories to spread the word about the group, it quickly amassed 5,000 members, which surprised us.

But it was in February and March when snow blanketed the county that the forum really came into its own.

The forum became a vital resource which people checked before setting off on their travels — reading information such as road closures, train cancellations and live blogs on the state of Kent’s roads and motorways.

Members would also post their own warnings about icy routes and if they had seen any accidents. The group has now become a useful resource for Kent Live too, as it allows reporters to pick up stories, pictures and video and credit readers for contributing.

Conversation between members also highlights the good people are doing in the community, and triggers highly engaged, interesting (and sometimes hilarious) discussion.

What we didn’t expect though were the challenges which come with a group of this size. As you can imagine, a group of 25,000 people is tough to manage, because trolls can hide behind the comfort of their screens as they comment.

Obviously the nature of some of the news stories we post in the group — for example, people on motorbikes caught doing wheelies on the Dartford Crossing Bridge — cause disagreement in opinion between group members, and we often have to switch comments off posts to prevent arguments becoming out of control.

Sometimes people message us in the middle of the night asking us to remove a post, or kick someone out of the group. And then they wonder why we don’t reply. We have to remind them we’re human and need to sleep sometimes!

But overall, most people are helpful and make the group the great community that it is. We can’t wait to see it grow — if we got 25,000 members in six months, who knows where we’ll be in a year.

Here’s what Kent Press and Broadcast Awards host Simon McCoy said of our win: “Kent Live set up the Kent Traffic and Travel Facebook group to create an online community for those who live in and travel through the county.

“By February this year, it had 5,000 members but following the snow that blanketed the county, this soon rose to 22,000 members who rely on it as the first port of call before heading out.

“The judges thought this was a great use of social media and whereas a lot of media would consider traffic and travel ‘boring and secondary’, Kent Live has created a brand-boosting, story-finding machine with a real sense of community.”

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