Geraldine Durrant launched East Grinstead Online after her former paper, the East Grinstead Courier, relocated to the Surrey town of Redhill, 14 miles away.
The 64-year-old, who was news editor at the weekly a quarter of a century ago – came out of semi-retirement to kick-start the web project with the help of son Barney, a digital marketing specialist who previously worked for Google.
It was given an official send-off by one of its biggest fans – Mid Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Sir Winston Churchill.
“As weekly print editions across the UK continue to fold, I had long felt someone – and I had no thought of it being me – should start an online news site covering the town from within the town, and not from miles away,” said Geraldine, pictured.
Eventually Geraldine, who took a six-month pre-entry course in the late 1960s at Harlow College and worked in PR at Barclays in London before starting a family, realised no-one was better placed than she was.
She added: “I have 30 years’ experience of living and working in the town, a wealth of contacts and a keen interest in the community.
“And I also wanted an opportunity to promote what is a simply lovely place to live with some positive, grown-up reporting that wasn’t filled with the manufactured ‘axing, slashing and furious’ residents’ so beloved of local tabloids.”
The set-up – to use the Field of Dreams premise– involved Geraldine in a quick six-week hyperlocal course at Cardiff University and Barney building the site and seeing if anyone actually came.
A look of something between newspaper and magazine – a news story count of 12 postings a day and as many as 20 plus World Cup and Commonwealth Games’ picture coverage involving the town’s international hockey community – has helped set out the site’s stall.
East Grinstead Online recruited specialist columns by a professional cook, an astronomer, a vicar who writes the Thought for Sunday, and a theatre reviewer. She wants to train up a team who can produce ‘oven ready’ stories.
Now the schools are back Geraldine is working with the town’s sixth forms to involve their media studies’ students in projects too.
A ‘perfect storm’ of an exclusive story – a proposed travellers’ site on a long-established garden centre – brought 10,000 hits in a couple of hours. In July the site topped 28,000 unique visitors.
Geraldine is keen to push the ‘local’ boat out. “When I was news editor of the weekly nearly 30 years ago we had an editorial team of ten which included two full-time photographers, based in the heart of the high street,” she said.
“Now like many other newspapers, economic pressures have seen the staff dwindle to a couple of reporters. The other day I walked 200 yards between two stores in east Grinstead and picked up four stories – you can’t do that from 14 miles away,” she added.
“And this is the difference between what an experienced and committed professional team working on the ground, in a town they care about, can achieve, compared with a commercial business doing its tired best from several miles way with too few staff covering a too-large area.
“A local paper is about trivial stories – affecting life or people you know. If the story isn’t local – then it’s a trivial story about people who the community don’t know,” she added.
“It’s ironic that as someone brought up as a traditional journalist I should be the one embracing the benefits of the digital age,” she said. “It has to be quick, slick, get it on immediately – not wait until next week.”
Site visitor Jon Davies posted: “It’s good to see that there is life in local news reporting. It looks like East Grinstead Online has tapped into a lot of ‘free’ talent in the area. I guess that’s not that different to how The Huffington Post started.”
Down at the East Grinstead Courier it’s not all doom and gloom either. The paper switched from part paid for/part free to a purely paid-for publication at the beginning of this year – and as a result saw the ABC figure fall by 57pc.
But encouragingly since the change the weekly has registered a 13.9pc year-on-year increase in its paid-for sales for the period from January to June 2014 – rising by 510 copies per week from an average 3,648 to 4,158.