How do you make local news on Twitter engaging?

Like this:

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This is @eveningnews, and it’s not your average local news feed. Delivering a wry, funny take on the day’s news in Norwich, it’s not scared to poke fun at the newspaper – and the results are a far cry from the sterile RSS-based robots that many news brands use on Twitter.

@eveningnews has, at last count, nearly 3,700 followers – not bad for a local newspaper with a print circulation of 18,923 – and it’s talkative. It doesn’t follow many folks back but it does engage with the followers it has, talking back, retweeting and chatting about what’s going on.

The voice behind the tweeting is Stacia Briggs, current UK Columnist of the Year and feature writer for the Evening News, who also tweets as @womaninblack. She says that far from seeing Twitter as something difficult, it’s child’s play by comparison to traditional writing: “Give me 140 characters in comparison to 1,500 words any day.”

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The feed was originally started by a colleague but quickly taken over by Stacia, and these days it’s very rare that anyone else uses it. Stacia admits being “extremely territorial”, and says that when the account was started she “was one of the only people on my newspaper who had some experience of Twitter – it’s not much of a basis for my unstinting belief that I could do the best job with the account, but it was a start”.

Like many folks looking at local news feeds, Stacia says she struggled to find something engaging out there – a feed that actually made people want to click on links, rather than simply treating the medium as a one-way publishing stream. So she set out to create something different.

“I consider the account to be fairly informal, hopefully amusing and friendly – sometimes a bit edgy and slightly naughty,” she says. “I don’t want bland RSS feeds or po-faced updates that command me to read a story. What I wanted to do is make the feed like a conversation: I’ll tweet a link, and then I’ll sometimes make an observation. Sometimes, the observations are quite oblique – I like oblique observations.”

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“One of the things I feel most strongly about is maintaining a voice, one which people recognise and can relate to,” Stacia says.

“Clearly, there are stories which are serious and which must be treated as such. I don’t post a story about an inquest and then make a joke – if I did, I’d imagine it would be my career that required an inquest after a very sudden death.”

But between the straight tweets that link the reader to important stories and keep people up to date, @eveningnews is genuinely funny and wonderfully compelling. It’s a fantastic mix that makes readers feel they have a genuine relationship and a line into the paper – as is shown by the number of stories that come straight to Stacia via @eveningnews – and it has a nice side line in gently mocking the newspaper’s occasional online mishaps in a way that brings readers into an inside joke.

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Looking at @edp24, a feed run out of the same office by the same team, the difference is clear – the Eastern Daily Press feed is entirely automated, even automatically passing on reporters’ tweets. The Eastern Daily Press has more than three times the circulation of the Evening News in print, and the circulation area is much wider – but it has just a few more followers than @eveningnews.

And despite regular attempts at engagement from the people who follow it, it simply doesn’t talk back. In this, it’s like most other news brands, both local and national – but it’s clear from what @eveningnews has achieved that much more is possible when someone committed and talented takes ownership and makes the news their own.

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Readers tell @eveningnews their stories freely, they pass on ideas, they offer case studies and point out errors – but the open dialogue has drawbacks. Stacia doesn’t stop when she goes on holiday or is unwell – keeping @eveningnews going is a constant task that transcends normal work hours and boundaries. But it’s worth it, she says.

“There’s a mine of untapped data and information on Twitter which hugely benefits newspapers – and I’m trying to access it. I’ve got some great, breaking stories from Twitter, and within minutes we’ve had them on our websites.

“A huge city centre fire was first reported on Twitter and we then followed it with live tweeting, pictures from our photographers and Twitter followers and regularly updated reports. It directed people to our website and was a great example of how Twitter can break the news and we can expand on it.

“I’ve been given feature ideas, news stories, pictures, video, song clips – it’s been like a news sweet shop.”

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And the best advice for people tweeting as news brands?

“Don’t churn out corporate slurry. Talk like a human being. Engage with people. Reply to people who talk to you. Look for the unusual in a story and highlight it. Encourage your reporters to find lots of stories about UFOs, big cats, sharks or local eccentrics – they’re Twitter gold.”

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Full disclosure: I worked for the Evening News from 2008 to 2010, and I am a total Stacia fangirl. Stacia’s job at the Evening News is currently at risk due to Archant Norfolk’s editorial review.

Rewiring the state

Last year I reported on Young Rewired State, when a group of committed and amazingly talented youngsters descended on Neontribe‘s offices for three days of making stuff. (The report’s not online because at the time the EDP’s CMS automatically took everything offline after two months; no, I still don’t know why they thought that was a good idea.) I remember being stunned by the results and by the people involved – the energy, the excitement, and the apps they made.

On Saturday, I went up to Neontribe’s new offices in Norwich along with 14 others to be part of the first regional Rewired State hack day – but as a developer, not a hack. (For the record: I’m no dev, I just mash things together and swear at them till they more-or-less work in a cargo-cult sort of way.) I got to work with three brilliant young people – Callum, Isabell (@issyIO) and Ben. They were all way ahead of me – I can’t wait to see what they make in the future.

The aim of the day was to use local government data to make apps. We started out with a computer each, a list of data sources, a whiteboard full of ideas and a lot of very tasty food (seriously, the catering was amazing). Oh, and 8 hours to go before we presented our work to a room full of local dignitaries. So no pressure.

The team I was working with decided to create Kebab Hunter, an app that mashed together reviews of local takeaway joints with hygiene data from Norwich City Council, then plotted them on an augmented reality Layar that could be viewed on your smartphone. The result was an app you could use to quickly find a nearby takeout that not only serves tasty food but also won’t make you ill. The bits I did were mostly to do with finding, cleaning and mashing data together (I’m indebted to @psychemedia for this timely post). Most of the time (well, when not eating the delicious cake, anyway) I had my head down, so it wasn’t really until the very end that I got to see what other people had been working on.

For me, with my very limited hodge-podge set of skills, the day was exhilarating. The time limit gave it a focus and a sense of urgency, and working alongside such a talented group of people was a pleasure and a privilege – and a very fast and efficient way of learning. I felt like my brain had gone through a wringer at the end of it, but in a very good way. And we had some awesome things to show for the effort.

Here’s what we made (I’ll add links to this list if I can find them, and if there are any mistakes let me know – I didn’t catch everyone’s name):

  • Where does Norfolk’s money go? A map of Norfolk council spending – Sym Roe
  • Bin Posse. Reminders of what goes out when by SMS – Rupert Redington
  • AV findings. Where voted “Yes”, and what were they like? (Apparently Yes to AV is strongly correlated with museum visits) – Chris Heath and Katja Mordaunt
  • Bridge Headroom. How much space is there under Potter Heigham bridge? – Michael Holness
  • Words about Norfolk. What words does Wikipedia link to Norfolk? – Rob Young
  • Festival timeline. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival lineup, displayed to investigate – Harry Harrold
  • Hey Chief! A humourous look at the value for money of Norfolk Fire Service. (Norwich has a lot of cat-related incidents, we learned) – Peter Chamberlin, Heydon Pickering, Michael Holness
  • Kebab Hunter. Augments a phone camera’s eye view of Norwich, with takeaway food safety info and reviews – Callum Weaver, Mary Hamilton, Ben Holloway and Isabell Long.

At the end of the day we presented our creations to local politicians, council staff and each other in the Octagon Chapel, a beautiful and oddly stately venue for such a high-tech day. I hope the folks who saw what we made see what’s possible when you get interested, creative people with l33t skills in a room with their data.

Afterwards, people were talking about the power of open data – its scariness, the fact that transparency can’t be done half-heartedly, the fact it can’t be controlled, but also the freedom to experiment and the excitement of possibility. And the need for devs, designers, interpreters and even journalists to bridge the gap between spreadsheets and stories, between data and people. Those were good conversations, and I hope a lot more comes out of this event.

Very, very good day.

Edited to add: @harryharrold has collected the whole day as it happened. Includes geese.