The newsroom where party poppers can go off at any time

Each week, Behind Local News asks an editor to share the secrets of the newsroom they lead. This week Alan Woods, at the helm of Essex Live based in Chelmsford, invites us into his newsroom:

Tell us about your newsroom

The team is young, lively, loud and competitive. The way the newsroom is run is fun, fair and flamboyant. Recognising brilliant work and looking after reporters is at the heart of everything we do.

When a story performs fantastically on Chartbeat, party poppers are set off. It’s fair to say we are food-orientated. At Easter and Christmas, the reporters who write the best performing articles get chocolate. If we meet our monthly audience target Domino’s is delivered. If we significantly over-perform then it’s time for a cheeky Nando’s.

Pizzas are a sign of a very good month

The reporting team in Essex really is a team. We have a 24-hour WhatsApp group. When I wake up to 560 unread messages on a Saturday morning I feel really popular until I realise there’s been a big breaking story overnight and it’s a gigantic chain of correspondence about that.

We love the big stories. I’ve had a reporter filming a fire stood on his car roof at 10.45pm, another shooting a Facebook Live video of a huge transformer on her day off and I had almost an entire team working one Sunday afternoon in December when it snowed. It’s all about flexibility. Those who stepped in to write about snow when there was an audience for the content were rewarded with time back and that’s why it works — because it’s fair.

EssexLive was created two years ago, bringing together several weekly titles and creating a site which covered the whole county

What’s the best thing about covering your county?

Since launching our countywide website EssexLive we are constantly finding new audiences and this is such a rewarding feeling. If it’s a good story, nothing is ever ‘off-patch.’

We have never sold a newspaper in Thurrock but EssexLive is one of the leading websites covering the area now.

Last week we created a Thurrock News Facebook group and we had 1,000 people join it straightaway. For me, it’s all about identifying areas that are poorly-served with local news online and creating content that readers want.

What’s the thing your newsroom is most proud of from the last 12 months?

I’m most proud of how we have evolved — and are still evolving — brilliant digital story-telling in a way that engages the reader better than ever before.

Essex is part of SEACAM — the south east and Cambridge — within Reach Plc and earlier this year we introduced the ‘five ways of telling a story.’

These are set formats that encourage reporters to think about every story being written and the best way to connect with a reader. There is no word count and every story is written to the length it deserves.

My content editors and I spend a lot of time thinking about the stories we write. Probably more time than ever before goes into the commission stage of the story-writing process.

The Essex team celebrate with ice-creams when it started to get hot

We think about who the reader is, we think about the level of detail we want from the story and we think about when the reader wants to consume it.

When it was hot we sent a reporter to London and back on the train to measure the temperature on board.

We sent a reporter to find the coolest place in Chelmsford city centre on the hottest day of the year.

We have asked the oldest people in Chelmsford what they think of the city’s newest developments.

We sent a reporter to find out what it’s like to live in our county’s most-deprived area, we spent a day on Europe’s largest council estate and we tried out all of our city’s ‘greasy spoons’ to find out which was best.

You get the idea. They’re all in-depth and detailed features and they’re also among the stories that have been most-read.

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

It would have to be when one of my trainees, Alasdair Hooper, spent 24 hours living on the streets of Chelmsford to write the most incredible feature about homelessness in the city. He recorded a phenomenal podcast episode for his series Humans of Chelmsford too, because he’s great like that.

Alasdair is very involved in the on-going story of the plight of our city’s homeless people and when the opportunity arose to sleep on the streets he jumped at the chance.

I think we’ve all covered this theme but Alasdair was keen to go one step further and produce something so hard-hitting that it would resonate with anyone who has walked through the city and ever wondered how these people came to be where they are today.

More than 13,000 readers spent an average of 4 minutes and 20 seconds reading his 3,500 word feature, so he absolutely nailed this.

Which story sticks out in your memory most from this newsroom?

We have broken new ground and found new audiences in the past year by live blogging from court. It is standard practise here now to go live when you’re covering a court case.

The readers love it and our audience data shows that.
We have live-blogged two murder trials and the tremendously sad manslaughter trial of a couple whose bouncy castle blew away, killing a young girl who was inside it.

At the second murder trial, we had no intention of running a live blog. My reporter attended the opening day and went live. The murder happened in Thurrock (of all places, see above) and we thought it would perform well online, but not brilliantly.

It became immediately apparent there was a huge level of interest in the trial. Chartbeat went through the roof, the reporter was hooked on covering it and cancelled several lieu days and pre-booked holiday to cover each and every day of the four-week trial.

Can you guess who got the only exclusive interview with the family afterwards when the two men on trial walked free? It wasn’t the media who covered just the first day and never came back.

There’s a very regional stereotype of Essex in the media. How do you handle this?

The Essex Live team pride themselves on celebrating the county

We embrace this stereotype at Essex Live and we set out to love everything about Essex. We embrace the stereotypes and it may (or may not) be true that some reporters have booked time off in lieu to ‘go home and do their tan’ on a Friday afternoon before a night out and others have used their lunchbreak to get their eyebrows threaded.

Where appropriate we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we make a point of this shining through our voice on our social media channels. We want to be the online voice of Essex so there’s no benefit to us in hating what our county is about.

If something new is coming to Essex and our readers are excited about it then so are we. If something happens that enrages our readers off then we share this outrage. This isn’t actually hard to achieve. We all live, work, shop and party here ourselves so it comes very naturally.

The team celebrate a high-performing story

If you had two sentences to convince someone to work in your newsroom, what would they be?

If you like Nando’s and Domino’s and you know how to deal with a party popper being set off without notice, you should come and work for me.

It also helps if you’re dedicated, determined, can think like a reader, know how to deliver the detail in a story and are lovely to deal with.

Now read this: Life in the Swindon Advertiser newsroom