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.

Home Sweet Home: Playing in the streets

Evening News: Home Sweet Home versionThere’s a cake shop next door, a giant hamster over the road and soldiers are fighting zombies on the roof. MARY HAMILTON welcomes you to the new-look Evening News.

Breaking news: the postman has delivered a letter.

That’s how most of the news comes in to the Home Sweet Home offices of the Evening News. It’s delivered by a tall man in short trousers, a flat cap and socks, who leaves the envelopes leaning up against the front canopy of the 20cm cardboard building.

I built the office myself, from flat-pack cutout to fully-fledged busy office building complete with newspaper bundles and Plasticene journalists, sharing glue, card and colouring pens with neighbours and strangers.

I even recreated Bernard Meadows’ eyecatching bronze ball sculptures, carefully rolling and squeezing yellow moulding clay and poking it gingerly with a pencil, before giving the rest of my clay to an excited six-year-old who wanted to make bees for her garden.

It is part of a performance – or perhaps an exhibition – called Home Sweet Home, the brainchild of Goldsmiths graduates Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe, in which participants build their own city from flat-pack parts and then experience its evolution as it fills with people playing along.

Watching the tiny town sprout from a black and white canvas into a riot of colour in the extravagant surroundings of Blackfriars Hall was both surreal and sublime, as bizarre buildings and peculiar personalities developed thanks to the imagination of neighbours.

But when the letters began to arrive the town took on a new and magical dimension, with stories, greetings, and feats of collective imagination all emerging thanks to the postal service and the presenters at the radio station.

My letter reads: “Dear Editor, An escaped swan ate my shoes!  Please put it in your newspaper! Yours, Joz Norris, No. 188”.

Immediately I spring into action. I post a breaking news update on the billboard outside the office – crafted from matchsticks, card and successive layers of paper posters – and dash off a return letter asking for more detail about the attack.

Over time, petitions spring up on the community notice board. A campaign to build a public swimming pool gathers pace. Disgruntled residents try to force an election. A little girl who runs a flower shop donates a sponge-and-cocktail-stick floral display to my office.

A small zombie outbreak spreads and threatens other city properties, so the Evening News drafts in a local militia to fight them off. Other businesses welcome the zombies, selling them vintage clothes and inviting them in to a night club.

And I get another letter from Joz saying that he’s bought another pair of Doc Martens but he doesn’t think he’ll be able to look a swan in the eye ever again.

The whole experience is a testament to the power of play. Adults and children alike tap into the storytelling possibilities of the town, expressing their personalities through their houses and opening them up as the community evolves around them.

While some people come along, build houses and leave, those who stay build stories around their houses, and the whole community evolves and changes as the project progresses.

A giant hamster in the back garden of one house is asked to join the Spiegeltent as a performer. A few hours later he has moved to the circus with signs advertising his upcoming performances.

I spend the weekend doing what journalists do: asking questions, writing down stories, monitoring the notice board and answering letters, preparing for a burst of activity on Sunday night as I put the Home Sweet Home edition of the Evening News together.

The following day, when I return to Blackfriars Hall with a stack of miniature newspapers under my arm, the Spiegeltent has disappeared, replaced by a giant hamster run with tunnels, hoops and a swimming pool.

I arrive at the office to discover someone has stuck a giant red ball to my door, in imitation of the large inflatable ball currently touring Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. They are planted on the church, the fire station and the city hall, too.

For a short time this miniature cardboard community has been incredibly real. It has had action, politics, feuds, joy, fear and anger, and the people who created it have told hundreds of tiny stories that were, for a while, incredibly important, as they literally changed the way their city was constructed.

As the houses were dismantled and returned to their owners, I felt deeply privileged to have been present at the birth and the death of Norwich’s smallest suburb, and to have been able to tell just a few of the stories the residents created.

A version of this article and its accompanying miniature newspaper
were originally published in the Evening News