The bedroom offices which united to launch 3 websites in lockdown
In June, with lockdown still firmly in place, Reach launched three new websites. As each site now appoints permanent roles for the future, launch editor Steffan Rhys explains how it was done and looks back on the many challenges and successes
We always knew that covering a breaking incident in Eastbourne or Kettering was going to be difficult while we sat in makeshift bedroom offices in Cardiff or Liverpool.
But over the last three months and more, a team of journalists has managed to do just that, while also providing three brand new websites with the kind of creativity, storytelling and journalism that has brought large audiences to more established titles.
HampshireLive, SussexLive and NorthamptonshireLive all launched in June (we also launched three further brands, CumbriaLive, WorcestershireLive and BrightonLive, whose content sits on existing websites).
Having decided to press ahead with the launches despite lockdown, in early summer a team of 22 journalists from around Reach’s Live network came together to try and bring our journalism to areas which hadn’t necessarily ever seen it before.
In the months since, there have been challenges and successes.
It quickly became apparent that being first to the scene of a breaking incident was rarely going to be possible. We’d also need to accept that tip-offs from members of the public would be more likely to go to a more established local brand than to one that they’d never heard of. Even getting freelance photographers was difficult.
But we quickly realised that we just needed to do what we always do: source, source, source. Even our biggest newsrooms are not in the position of having reporters just minutes away from every location at which a news event could conceivably happen. And in those circumstances, the first step is to find the people who are nearby and who can help.
Of course, there were times when we’d need to accept that we were not going to be able to source enough information (or pictures) from an incident to make our coverage worthwhile. That was always a tough call, but if we’re not going to be able to provide readers with useful information, we need to admit that and not try and wing it.
We also managed to cover court cases thanks to live streams being made available to journalists who couldn’t attend in person. So it was that we told the story of the secretive ‘Mad As’ drugs gang who brought turf wars and misery to Northampton, an important court case that would never have been reported on had we not been there to hear it.
But breaking news in the traditional sense is not where I consider our biggest success to have been. What we have done best is tell those fascinating stories that would have otherwise remain untold. The story of an abandoned mansion in Sussex that would have been the biggest built in England for at least 100 years, but remains unfinished more than 30 years after it was started, was read more than 500,000 times.
The mystery of a medieval village in Hampshire which once had an important manor house but has all but vanished without trace was read nearly 100,000 times. These stories reached millions of people on Facebook.
But when there was vitally important news to be covered, we did it comprehensively. When Northampton suddenly found itself staring at the prospect of a local lockdown, our experience told: the breaking story is just the beginning. After that it’s about explaining to the people affected what this means for them, why it’s happening and what they have to do.
And yes, we had fun. We know from years of experience that people like to read and share things that celebrate all that’s good about where they live. Which is why “22 reasons Portsmouth is the worst city in England”, which was of course a celebration of that historic city, was read 70,000 times. A similar article about Sussex was read 270,000 times.
In August, HampshireLive and SussexLive were read 2.2 million and 2.5 million times respectively. Northamptonshire, with a population half the size, was read 1.4 million times.
In total, articles on the three areas have been read nearly 12 million times since June, despite none of them existing at the start of that month. Their corresponding social channels are growing quickly and often featuring prominently in people’s feeds.
This success means we are now in the process of recruiting journalists to these sites permanently. Some are already in place, others will follow. You can find the job descriptions here.