25 October 2014

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Dyson at Large: Readers love Johnston weekly’s UGC

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.

13 Comments

  1. JP Cost Cut Victim

    Glad to hear this has gone down well. I agree that Pocklington is just about the right size for this to work, where there is probably already more interest in the ‘parish news’ (and antique clocks!) I hope everyone remains as keen, but that the powers that be don’t roll this out as a model for all their titles. It must be appropriate on an individual basis. But, going on this, it could prove more successful, in some areas, than I thought. However, harnessing a loyal and vocal readership to help produce a packed, quality paper must be viewed as a plus to boost sales and engagement, not as a means of cutting costs.

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  2. Northerner

    And how long till these readers work out that they’re filling their local paper for free, start describing themselves as journalists and ask for wages? I suspect there was some very, very heavy editing going on.

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  3. Is it lunchime yet?

    No complaints, but isn’t this the sort of content that used to be in most local weeklies? It should be welcomed, but the problem comes when it is ALL that is in local weeklies.

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  4. northernhack, lancashire

    Reader panels are excellent. They tell you want they want to see in the paper then lose interest after a while and stop buying it anyway. The previous owners of JP titles have tried this before with chaotic results.

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  5. bobby, huffington

    The pocklington boys are our local rivals but the huffpost has a larger readership

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  6. OP, Scarborough

    How on earth can one person edit all these publications?

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  7. Desker

    Agree with Steve that Pocklington is the right size for this.

    Sadly I know that JP does not agree with this sentiment and is already looking at ways to take the concept into other papers.

    Even the Yorkshire Post will soon have a fully reader-generated section I understand.

    College and Student pages (produced by local kids at a college each week) are also being brought back in force.

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  8. Barnaby Page

    My concern wouldn’t be whether the community is capable of producing interesting copy, but whether it can do so – or has the interest and energy to do so – week after week after week. Many people have a story or two they’d like to get in the local paper, but what happens when those dry up?

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  9. It's old hat

    When I was a sub (admittedly a few years ago now) you had to explain quickly where a place like Pocklington is if you were going to write so much about the local paper there.
    The fact is that Pocklington is an isolated small town at the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds between York and Great Driffield.
    Property prices are high for East Yorkshire. Much of the population is retired and pretty comfortably off.
    Many of what jobs there are involve agriculture and (seriously) tourism.
    There are quite a few posh halls nearby. It is what you might call Tindle country.
    Readers will have better than average literacy skills and be more into IT than in many places. They will be proud of their town (wanting to keep houses prices up to pass something on to the grandchildren) and therefore more involved in local activities.
    More importantly, they have time on their hands.
    If a company started fracking in a local field, residents would write up the story themselves and bring it down to Newport in their Volvos if necessary to publicise their opposition.
    It is in these sort of rural, Nimby communities where reader generated copy works best.
    But for how long is anybody’s guess. I fear that without journalists some enterprising printer from Hull or York or somewhere will come along and spoil the party.
    I spent time subbing Women’s Institute reports, but I don’t think readers get so excited about dressing a peg competitions and similar activities in the internet age as they once did.
    Even Tindle newspapers, where this sort of journalism is carried to a fine art, are struggling with circulations.

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  10. streatham2

    “Pocklington – population 8,337 in the 2011 census –…
    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”

    Not too bad? Say, about equal to the Birmingham Mail selling 400,000 copies a day.

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  11. Steve Dyson

    Many thanks to all for the useful comments. I know many in the industry are cynical about the reasons behind UGC, but it’s been interesting to note a trial that doesn’t seem like complete madness – and then for your reasoned warning comments about the subject. Ifanyone didn’t see it, The Guardian’s media-watcher picked up on the issue yesterday here http://goo.gl/1dVE9S

    But far more importantly, the blog was tweeted by Johnston Press’ boss Ashley Highfield (@ashleyhi), which gave me the opportunity to reply on Twitter that I hoped he/JP “heeds comments prompted” from Htfp readers. Pleasingly, @ashleyhi replied: “Yes, absolutely, mostly make a lot of sense. This is about creating higher community engagement.”

    Again, there’ll be cynics, and I’m sure it’s right to take industry leaders’ instant comments with a pinch of salt. But, it’s healthy to have such a commitment on the record: JP’s UGC is about engaging readers more closely, (and by inference, re. comments made which he said “make a lot of sense”, not necessarily to be rolled out to every JP title, perhaps to be best-used at micro-centres, and for it to be realised that ongoing resource is needed for ‘harder’ stories and to retain reader input.)

    I’m sure I’m making a few assumptions there, but it’s a healthy debate, so thanks again for your interaction.

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  12. Confused

    Steve – I admire your faith in JP management taking on board any of the comments on HTFP and I think you are right that the UGC model will work better in smaller, if you like nucleic, locations.

    The problem is JP will next month say goodbye to hundreds of long-serving, experienced and, until the enhanced VR option popped up (albeit sums not exactly what AH might expect should he decide to leave) were loyal, stoic and dogged employees.

    Many of them will be leaving the big centres where dailies and dailies turned weeklies will then try and serve populations of 200,000 plus with staff numbers that a few years ago would have manned a district office.

    But then of course, we did not have ipads, mobiles, camera phones and a Costa Coffee to sit in and receive the local Mr Angry, victims of injustice and grieving parents.

    Sadly what you call ‘a healthy debate’ on the issues facing those who still work in the industry has about much weight as ‘locally decided’ and ‘consulting individual staff on these proposals’.

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  13. silver cane, manchester

    Total and utter drivel….

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