My critical eye and sharp blue pencil were ready for action when I picked up the Pocklington Post, which is controversially pushing for 75% of user-generated content.
Surely, my darker side whispered, all this UGC palaver means it’s going to be full of badly-written tat, blurry cat pictures and superlative PR masquerading as news.
But I have to report that the enthusiastic team led by editor Ed Asquith is producing what feels like a vibrant newspaper with interaction galore – and importantly, readers seem to love it.
Let’s start with the splash on Thursday 6 February: no UGC here, instead this was a decent, staff-written tale about a rise in burglaries, always a good subject, including ten specific locations, dates and swag details of recent crimes.
On inside pages, there were two more page leads written solely by Post journalists: ‘Big leap in house prices, estate agents reveal’ on page three, and ‘Plans for more than 220 homes win town council’s backing’ on page four.
It was then difficult to find page leads that didn’t carry labels either highlighting them as ‘submitted’ or ‘written’ by readers. The ‘submitted’ category – seemingly an honest note that copy had been heavily rewritten – included:
- ‘Attractions that aim to be remarkable…’ on page five, listing and quoting local businesses competing in tourism awards run by Visit Hull and East Yorkshire;
- ‘Cool 500th celebrations’ on page seven, sharing the thoughts of pupils and staff at the town’s ancient school;
- ‘Fundraising couple give musical drama group a massive boost’ on page 24, reporting how £530 was raised for charity by a councillor and his wife; and
- ‘Making great strides for walkers’ on page 18, detailing the activities of various rambling clubs.
The ‘written’ category included ‘Keep thinking positive’ on page 10, a sweetly naive piece written by teenager Caitlin England in her ‘Voice of Pocklington Youth’ column.
Then came ‘Music of note at Studio Night’ on page 15, a newsy review with pictures by reader Margaret Stubbs; no prize-winning prose or images, but plenty of names and faces of local performers.
Local history author Chris Rock contributed his second spread on the Battle of Stamford Bridge for pages 20 and 21, quite an interesting feature that seems to have been exchanged for plugging his latest book.
Deeper in the paper on page 38, Peter Roberts, who works at Burnby Hall Gardens and Museum, penned a piece on his star artefacts, while William Wilson wrote about the rising interest in antique clocks.
On page 39, ‘Views from the Pews’ came from Rev Sue Pegg of St John’s Methodist Church, a friendly, self-effacing essay; and page 41 was full of facts and pictures about Pocklington Women’s Institute from reader Barbara Hall.
I know, I know – much of the above is parish pump stuff, but before you make that cynical leap remember: that’s largely what very local papers should be about.
The difference the Post is trying to make is that instead of staff writing this arguably ‘easy’ stuff, readers are making more direct contributions, and attending regular editorial panel meetings to discuss potential content.
The resulting copy may be a little loose in style, but there seems to me to be finer detail, more names and probably fewer factual errors.
Let’s be clear: I don’t think this would work well in larger towns and cities, where unknown reader’s bylines are no more appealing than reporters’ efforts, and where too many micro-local stories would weaken interest.
But in a town the size of Pocklington – population 8,337 in the 2011 census – the likelihood is that many contributors and subjects are known and liked by large chunks of readers.
The Post’s last recorded sale, by the way, was a weekly average of 3,302 copies in 2012, and although tiny this is not too bad given the town’s population, and the fact they were 100% purchased at 75p a time.
The Post – now 85p or 63p to subscribers – makes huge efforts to prompt UGC: more than a dozen direct calls for readers’ stories with contact details, an editorial thanking everyone involved so far, and a feature on pages 12 and 13 with 19 readers spouting happily about the content.
For me, this spread was crucial, and here’s a sample of comments: “There is a lot more Pock stuff than previously”; “It’s brilliant more readers are writing stuff”; “It took a lot longer to get through”; “A lot more in it”; “It seems to be jam-packed with news”; and “It’s just what our town needs”.
It’s obvious that Asquith is leading from the front in these early weeks – he was visibly listed as editor on page eight, signed the page nine editorial and was pictured with the editorial panel on page 13.
However, he surely can’t keep this up – he’s also editing Johnston Press’s Scarborough News, Malton and Pickering Mercury, Filey Mercury, Whitby Gazette, Bridlington Free Press, Driffield Times & Post, and Beverley Guardian.
But with an army – okay, a platoon – of lively, smiling locals already behind it, plus keen reporters, the new Pocklington Post might just have a chance of succeeding in its bid to properly involve readers for the long-term.
And before you scoff, I’m not encouraging publishers to replace journalists with readers: done properly, this won’t involve fewer staff, as there are tougher crime, court and council jobs to keep up with, as well as maintaining community contacts to gather, nurture, edit and retain good UGC content.
On that point, my main criticism of the Post on 6 February was the appearance of only four crime, three council and no court reports, although that may have been a one-week low.
While a story count of around 150 across all sections in a tight 56-page book was acceptable, Asquith must make sure readers don’t miss out on Pocklington’s harder news.