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On the street where you live

The Evening Gazette in Teesside has won a clutch of national awards for its digital development, which includes a pioneering network of postcode websites supported by an army of community bloggers. Gazette editor Darren Thwaites explains Teesside’s hyper-local strategy.

By Darren Thwaites

Back when I was cutting my journalistic teeth on a weekly newspaper in Yorkshire – before we’d even heard of the internet – we used to talk somewhat disparagingly about ‘parish pump’.

It was a slightly derogatory term for the parochial content that filled our digest columns, some of it provided by ancient community correspondents with a penchant for jam-making.

Like most young reporters, I was a great deal more interested in spinning dramatic intros to secure the next splash. And very proud I was too of some of the tabloidese I shared with the good folk in Last of the Summer Wine country. They’re still recovering now from the infamous Suicidal Sheep Rampage in Marsden village.

Looking back, I suspect most of the readers saw through my excessive adjectives and quickly turned to page 19 to find out what time the local sheepdog trials started.

So, a couple of decades on, it’s quite amusing that beneath the shiny, contemporary veneer of digital transformation, we’re actually going back to the future in a way my old editors would have been proud of.

OK, we now have video content, RSS feeds, Search Engine Optimisation and blogs; we have groups on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube and we even have interactive maps showing the price of fuel at your local garage.

Instead of community correspondents, we have more than 350 online bloggers providing masses of user-generated content directly to our websites on everything from junior football matches to local planning issues (no jam-making correspondents yet, but they would be made welcome).

At the heart of our digital success lies a fairly simple premise and it’s one that we all knew so well back in my weekly newspaper days. Quite simply, people are interested in what happens where they live. And from a commercial viewpoint, they still spend most of their money, and access most of their services, there.

We’ve built successful media businesses on this - although, if we’re honest, in a pre-digital age there was always a limit to how well we could truly service this need.

Limitations of print

Across the region, we publish at least 100 stories in the Gazette every day. It’s a great paper packed with cracking content. But drill down a layer or two into hyper-local territory and we don’t score so well. On my street in Teesside, for instance, we’ve published one story in 10 years.

The problem for all newspapers is that we’ve always had a finite number of pages. And, although readers have been keen to tell their stories and share their opinions, we’ve too often told them it’s not newsworthy enough or we don’t have the space. We certainly wouldn’t let them publish anything directly. We were the gatekeepers and we kept that gate securely locked.

In a digital age, we’re no longer the gatekeepers. We should be delighted every time a reader wants to make contact with us. If they have a story to tell, a picture to pass on, a video to upload or a comment to make, we should consider it a compliment.

It doesn’t threaten the skills base of professional journalists. Our strengths lie in investigation, explanation and presentation - and those skills remain as valuable as ever.

How it all started

The hyper-local revolution here on Teesside was born from a newspaper series on the real selling prices of houses. We split our region into the 23 postal areas that make up our core circulation area and covered one a day for four weeks.

We soon discovered the content had longevity online that far exceeded its print shelf-life. The information was searchable, accessible and relevant months after the newspaper had been pulped.

We got to thinking how we could add new, sticky, updated content to keep people returning. And out of that came the idea of separate community sites for each of the postal areas TS1 to TS23.

We knew our own professional journalists could feed the sites but we also recognised the need to significantly extend our reach into the community by calling on the help of our readers. Nothing was too big and nothing too small for coverage. We wanted high-volume content that was useful, user-friendly, interactive and multimedia.

This was the 21st century version of our old community correspondent columns – using new tools with better functionality and interactivity. We had unlimited space and searchable content. We could even include moving pictures and sound. And, of course, we didn’t have to be restricted to the subject matter or content providers traditionally catered for in the old community columns.

Overnight, we had the opportunity to become truly hyper-local in a way that we simply hadn’t been able to before.

Close to home

Quite soon, my own backyard was full of stories - and while they were hardly likely to make the national news, they held my interest because of their proximity.

The first hyper-local upload in my neck of the woods still serves as a classic example. It was a story about fly tippers dumping rubbish in the field behind our home.

A few things struck me here. Firstly, if the fly-tippers had dumped at the other side of Teesside it wouldn’t have held my interest (other than as the outraged editor of the Gazette, of course).

Secondly, the copy had not been filed by one of my own team but by a near neighbour, who, unbeknown to me, had been recruited as one of our community bloggers. We wouldn’t have known about it otherwise (clearly, I’m not as observant as my neighbour).

But the most important development for me was that people responded to the article, adding real value by revealing that those responsible were traders refusing to pay a recent rise in the council’s tipping charges.

So here we had a genuine issue and a mini-campaign being waged in the editor’s backyard – not by the editor but by the editor’s neighbour without the editor even being aware.

We’d taken the padlock off the gate and swung it wide open. It was a big cultural shift. We had to believe in this new world - and we had to drive it hard and care about it.

More depth, more breadth

Less than two years on and there’s no doubt we’re providing a better service than ever for our readers. We delve deeper into local affairs; we carry more views and opinions; we break news earlier and later in the day, and we carry more pictures – not to mention videos, audio and slideshow packages.

And while our digital platforms have driven this development, it’s also helped significantly strengthen our paper, with the best content reverse-published into the Gazette as well as other, new standalone hyper-local publications.

The sites are also proving a commercial success, giving advertisers the opportunity to target particular postal areas based on geography or demographic profile. It’s allowed smaller businesses, who may not have previously used our services, to reach customers at lower cost.

Our digital development has helped bring the editorial and commercial teams closer together. We share a new open-plan office with big screens displaying our multimedia content.

We’re recognising that consumers want specific, useful and targeted information. Relevant advertising has real content value – it’s a win-win scenario.

In 2007, we landed three national website awards, beating off the giants of national press and TV. Since then, our work has been showcased at digital and media conferences across the UK. It’s a terrific source of pride here in Teesside that we’re now admired as a modern, multi-media business and host delegations from far and wide.

The next stage is the roll-out of a dedicated mobile site. We’re enormously excited about the opportunities this presents. For us, it means everyone in Teesside will be effectively carrying a copy of the Gazette.

Need for comprehensive coverage

They’ll be able to access us anywhere at any time. We’ll need to make sure we’re delivering relevant and useful local content – and lots of it. We talk a lot about "comprehensiveness" now. It’s about aiming to have everything covered. Take local football for instance. Traditionally we might have highlighted a few games and given them a decent report. Now, the first priority would be to ensure every team, every game and every goalscorer is covered. That’s the cake, the rest is icing.

We’re not there yet – but we’ll need to be. A user of our mobile site might be outside a restaurant checking to see how the Gazette rates it. He won’t thank us for a beautifully-crafted 500-word piece on a restaurant three miles away.

Our team has made amazing progress over the last couple of years, transforming the way we deliver content.

We’re still learning and we’re still experimenting. We’ll continue to add new tools to our skillset, but the most important thing, right from the start, was having a team with the right mindset.

Our hyper-local success

* The community postcode sites are hosted from the homepage of, the companion site to the Evening Gazette.
* was launched in 2006 and now has a rapidly-growing monthly audience of around 200,000 unique users.
* Gazettelive was twice named the best website in Britain last year – by the UK Press Gazette and the Association of Online Publishers.
* The 20 community sites now have a cumulative audience of around 150,000 users. The top sites have more monthly users than the number of households in their postal areas.
* The sites were named Online Community of the Year at the 2007 AOP awards. There are now more than 350 bloggers with direct publishing access.
* The success of the sites has led to the launch of five reverse-published print products populated with content generated online.