This afternoon shortly after 2pm a call came through to the newsroom tipping us off about a fire close to Royal St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich.
Quick calls to two golf clubs in the area and to Kent Fire and Rescue Service headquarters soon stood up the story, five crews had been tackling a grass fire burning over an area of roughly two hectares since around 12.30pm.
We then set about writing copy for our website. Details were scarce at this stage, with the fire service offering only basic facts and the golf club affected declining to comment while the incident was ongoing.
A short piece appeared on the web around 45 minutes after the news was revealed through our social media channels, with a stock picture added for illustration once I had a chance to trawl the picture archive for something suitable.
We were then able to update both Facebook and Twitter with a link to the copy on our website, providing our followers with the latest on a story we had broken to them less than an hour earlier.
This is, I freely admit, rather unremarkable stuff. A simple breaking story published quickly with basic details in an attempt to be first to get the information out to the wider world.
The reason I chose to write about it is that it neatly demonstrates how far our use of the web has come in the three years I have been in this newsroom, and how much more many local newspapers could be doing to harness tools which are out there and waiting to be used.
When I started at the Express we wouldn’t have been able to handle a story this way. I arrived in 2007 to find I would be using a computer with no access to the internet and that I would not be provided with a work email address. Even as a self-confessed technophobe, I knew this was a ridiculous situation for an organisation hoping to be a successful communications business in the 21st century.
We publish our print edition every Thursday, and in 2007 if this fire had happened on a Thursday we would have been in trouble. We had no website, so no means of publishing the story until a week later, which would make the story redundant unless a decent new angle could be found to make it relevant seven days later.
Since then things have, thankfully, changed for the better. We now have email, internet access on our desktop, and a website. I wouldn’t describe this as progress, merely going some way to catch up with the rest of the world.
This all means we are now in a position to publish online when a story breaks.
I was tempted to say we are “able to publish online immediately”, but that would be a little wide of the mark. Copy has to be written, all kinds of information has to be entered into the system, the publish button is hit, the system thinks about it for a while, and eventually the story appears on our website some minutes later.
This is when Facebook and Twitter, two free methods of immediate and direct communication with our readers, come in to play: the time between getting hold of a story and it becoming visible online on our website.
Let’s take social media out of the equation for a second. For someone to find out from us about the fire this afternoon they would either have to wait for the print edition a week later or actively hunt down the story online, either by coming to our website directly or by using a search engine to locate it.
Both these methods rely on the consumer actively seeking out our product – but by using websites such as Facebook and Twitter we can take the story to them, removing the need for the reader to pursue the story themselves and allowing us to channel content straight to them.
Facebook is ludicrously popular, and if I had the time or inclination I could track down all kinds of facts and figures to demonstrate this, but I am pretty confident that for many users Facebook is among the first three sites they visit when they go online.
When you log on to Facebook you are welcomed by a news feed detailing all the latest information from those people or organisations you are connected to. At present more than 720 people are connected to the Dover Express on Facebook. That means that when they go online among the very first things they encounter are breaking news updates and links to stories from our website, our content brought directly to their desktop.
Creating a presence for the Express on Facebook cost nothing and it takes up a only a small portion of my working day to maintain. So I find it staggering to think there are newspapers out there that, despite claiming to be in the communication business, are not using this most simple of communications tools to connect with their readers.
When I started this blog earlier this year I used my first post to admit to my Luddite tendencies, but said I was willing to embrace new media in my working life:
I know I’m way behind the curve on this, that’s what being a Luddite will do to you, but from here on in I’m determined to embrace new media and see where it takes me. Should be an interesting ride.
To my surprise, just months later, I now find myself talking with the zeal of a convert.
I didn’t expect to become a cheerleader for journalists using social media so quickly and comprehensively, and I wouldn’t claim to have discovered even a small percentage of the ways in which we can use the internet to entertain, inform and connect with our audience. But I do believe it is the duty of every journalist to embrace and experiment, see what works and what doesn’t, and ultimately discover how their hard work and talent can be communicated using these new media.
It feels like I’ve learnt a lot through trial and error in recent months, and small successes, like using Facebook and Twitter to break an unremarkable story in minutes one Thursday afternoon, give me the determination to learn more.
There’s no point anyone in our industry trying to pretend this new world doesn’t exist, head in the sand won’t work here. It’s time for newsrooms across the country to start finding out how they can make it work for them. Who knows, they may even start to enjoy it.