Reclaiming Local News: An Interview with S&C’s Founders

To mark S&C’s event on the state of local news tonight, we’re publishing an interview with Editor-in-Chief Sarah Cheverton and Founding Editor Tom Sykes about why they started the site, how they run it on a daily basis and their plans for S&C’s future development. Dr Dave Harte is one of Britain’s leading researchers into hyperlocal journalism. He also maintains the Openly Local website, a comprehensive register of hyperlocal news websites around the British Isles.

David Harte: Remind us how long S&C has been running.

Sarah Cheverton: Since February 2015.

DH: You know as well as anybody that people start hyperlocal sites for lots of reasons. I just chatted to a guy who’s retired and he’s doing it because he’s very community-minded and he wanted to spend his free time in that way. What are the reasons behind you guys starting S&C?

Tom Sykes: The main one is that Sarah and I – plus quite a lot of other people – had expressed disillusionment with the local media discourse in Portsmouth. It’s very narrow in terms of its social and political focus. For more than 100 years the Portsmouth News has been the only game in town. It has always been a conservative paper and you can go back through the archives to see that. More recently there’s been alarm around certain of their columnists holding quite primitive views on subjects like mental health. The News was also criticised for putting a ‘Vote Tory’ advert on its front page just before the last General Election and has always tended to shy away from – or at least not properly grapple with – the pressing social problems in the city such as homelessness and the other effects of  austerity policies.

SC: We had a desire to create a complimentary and critical form of media that expanded political debate in the city. We were inspired partly by Private Eye and its combination of satire and critical, investigative reporting. We’ve also always been keen on bringing marginalised, more diverse voices into the mainstream media.

DH: Was there much of an alternative press in Portsmouth before S&C? Or even a wider plurality of local titles? Is it a bit like Birmingham, where I come from, in which during the twentieth century there was a process of conglomeration that left us with just one local paper?

TS: The issue of proprietorship is quite interesting in Portsmouth. Essentially, the News has been dominant for a long time, but only in the last 20 or 30 years has it come to be owned by Johnstone Press which, as you know, owns lots of equivalent local titles around the country. What’s a bit ironic for me, though, is that I’m a jobbing journalist outside of the work I do with S&C and I’ve written foreign affairs articles for the Scotsman, which is also owned by Johnstone Press!

When you have large corporations running media outlets you generally have a narrowing of the terms of the political debate. I know that in the 1960s and 1970s there were underground newspapers in the Portsmouth area. I’m no expert on this but I have spoken to people who tell me that in suburbs of Portsmouth like Havant, which was a pretty market town that turned into a kind of edgeland of fast food joints and a giant supermarket, there was an Oz-style radical underground paper. That was the 1960s and 70s – it’s long gone! The trajectory of the media since that time has been commercialisation. Now, in the digital age, we have a bit more of a plurality of hyperlocal sites, but they’re not doing quite what S&C does.

SC: Aside from the News, there are a few different models. The only one that I know of that’s a not-for-profit like us is Express FM, a community radio station that’s been going for some time. It’s run by 99% volunteers but it doesn’t gather its own news. In fact, they’ve approached us to provide them with news coverage. Apart from that, there are commercial franchises like About My Area or commercial independents that sell advertising and produce advertorials. There is one that’s Facebook-based and has no accountability or editorial direction at all. It posts anonymously. That’s very controversial for a lot of people. There’s a plurality in Portsmouth, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s always bringing quality news.

TS: A lot of what gets put out by other hyperlocals is glorified PR. Obviously, this isn’t a problem that’s limited to hyperlocal media. Since the 1980s we’ve seen the same thing going on in the Murdoch press in the UK and indeed in the US and elsewhere. Hyperlocals that are PR-based serve a good purpose in the sense that they promote interesting things going on in Portsmouth culturally. The problem is, they don’t think critically about Portsmouth. Their angle is more like, ‘Aren’t these people wonderful – go and use their services or buy something off them.’ Whereas at S&C we like to think that we’re identifying problems in our city that people care about and that need to be analysed and discussed properly.

DH: Let’s just talk a little bit about the day-to-day practice of S&C and how it operates. What is your process for finding and researching stories? Are you getting stuff thrown at you in terms of press releases and contacts with council and police? How do you find stuff to put out?

TS: Something we could never have predicted before we started was that all kinds of contributors would come out of the woodwork to work with us. Most of them were very talented writers and passionate about the issues they wanted to write about. To this day we get bombarded with proposals and suggestions for stories. A lot of them we don’t or can’t use, but it always surprises me how much we can use. Obviously, anything we do use has to go through an editorial process. We spend a lot of time fact-checking and making sure that the angle and the narrative that’s being put forward in articles will make sense to the general reader and fits S&C‘s news values. We also actively go out and source stories from communities. I teach at Portsmouth University and when there’s good work turned in by students that has a local emphasis, I’ll publish it. The students are happy to get their work out there in the public domain; they can put it on their CV and so on. Sarah also has close connections to various other communities in the city and she gleans material from those too.

SC: Operationally, our model has changed a lot since we started, and continues to. The catalyst for those changes has always been funding. When we started we were using an issue-based model where we would publish every two months a job lot of 40-60 articles. We’d only put out two of those issues before someone flagged up on Twitter the NESTA Hyperlocal News project. We applied for that pretty much as an exercise in articulating who we were because we were still very new. I didn’t think we had a hope of getting on that project, but as a result of getting on it we were asked to post 3-5 times a week. That changed everything! We got our first scoop in that period and we ran a popular campaign against funding cuts that were being made here in Portsmouth and negatively affecting the city’s provision to help victims of domestic violence. Nesta allowed us to become a relevant and responsive news organisation. After the Nesta project was over we found it difficult to sustain that 3-5 posts a week model and in December 2015 we had to pull back from publishing quite so often simply because I was in danger of having a nervous breakdown! The stress and pressure of doing it was too big.

Later on we received an UnLtd [Star People] award that meant I could be funded as a social entrepreneur to investigate how we could build a revenue stream for S&C. But the UnLtd grant didn’t allow me to invoice for my time and I didn’t actually get paid at all. That has been the challenge right at the heart of what we do: how do we generate an income so that we can continue to generate relevant news? At the moment we’re reliant on our external contributors to write stories for us that follow a ‘slow journalism’ approach because we just don’t have the capacity to run breaking news. Our focus is more critical, in-depth reporting and analysis. That either comes from Tom or I – and we have to do that on evenings and weekends – or it comes from our contributors. And that engagement Tom and I do with our writers is very time-consuming because we’re going back and forth with them by email or on social media.

Since our involvement with Nesta, local activists and professionals have been contacting us directly. One example of that is a doctor who worked with us on a story about the five year Sustainable Transformation Plan for the NHS in the local region. We also worked with a local fireman who was concerned about the impact of cuts on the local fire service and its ability to respond to fires in high-rise buildings. Now those people weren’t professional writers, which meant a lot of extra editorial work and additional reporting from our core team. The doctor who wrote the NHS story sent us about 450 words initially, but the final article that went out was about 1500 because what landed on us was to make that content accessible to our readers, who wouldn’t necessarily know the specialist terminology the doctor used in her first draft.

So in order to make jobs like that easier to do, at the heart of our future plans must be sustainable income.

We will be publishing the remaining parts of this interview over the coming weeks.