Saturday, April 21, 2012

New Western Star blog

Cross-posted at the Western Starblog

This is the first attempt to do a blog for the Queensland newspaper, the Western Star. Established in 1875, the Star has published every Tuesday and Friday continuously for 136 years from the town of Roma, 490kms west of Brisbane. It roughly covers the Maranoa council region serving towns such as Mitchell, Injune, Surat and Wallumbilla, in a rough 140km radius of Roma. (photo of Hodgson grain mill at dusk - Derek Barry)

That makes the area we cover larger than the European country of Croatia. But while Croatia has 4.2 mllion people in its 57,000 sq km, the Maranoa has just 13,000 souls spread across its 58,000 sq km.

Up to about a year ago, the Western Star was a print only publication. We took our first tentative steps onto the Internet when we created the Western Star Facebook page. We also created a Twitter page and linked the Facebook feed to also display in Twitter. We used the Facebook account to promote the newspaper and to publish community information that could not wait until the next print publication.

It wasn’t until January 2012, the Western Star finally started putting its content online starting with a back to school story. In early February, there were serious floods in the region that impacted Roma and Mitchell which gave us a chance to put important and timely content. Both towns broke river and creek height records. Thousands were cut off, hundreds of homes were inundated in both towns and one person lost her life in Roma.

A disaster management group was set up to deal with events in both towns. This author was invited to sit in on the group. This proved invaluable at getting reliable information out quickly via Facebook and the web site. The flooding happened on a Friday so previously we would have had to wait until Tuesday before publishing any information. Not this time. We were usually publishing as quickly as radio and in far more detail and authority. The feedback we got was that we were providing an essential service with timely and reliable information and we also posted a huge gallery of photos of the flood impact in both towns. Our Facebook likes soared from around 200 people to over a thousand in a couple of days.

The reliability of that information was directly related to my ability to sit in on the decisions as they were taken. The fact we were trusted by the audience was because I was trusted at the disaster group meetings to do the right thing. Occasionally in these meetings, dirty laundry got aired and I respected all requests by those doing the airing, not to publish this material. I told them if they could not debate these life and death matters freely, then there was no point in my being there. I would only publish material I felt to be in the public interest.

As soon as possible after the meeting, I would get back to my desk and write up a report on the latest flood news to go on the web and on Facebook. There were updates from the firies, ambos, police, SES, Ergon Energy, Main Roads, Council and other agencies. If something was particularly urgent, I would send an update directly from the meeting to our Facebook page. Things were happening so quickly, we occasionally got things wrong. When this happened we were quick to put out a correction and an explanation why we got something wrong. Trust was critical to our mission, so it was something we valued immensely.

The positive audience reaction shows what can be done when a news outlet is trusted. Today, our Facebook has stabilised just under 1300 “likes” which while small is still a substantial subset of our readership. Our print circulation of around 3000, and there is at least a thousand people that read us on Facebook that don’t read the paper. These are people who don’t buy or read newspapers or are part of the Roma Diaspora interested in the region but who live somewhere where they cannot easily buy the paper.

I am unsure what audience this blog will attract. That is in part because I am unsure what content will be provided here that isn’t provided elsewhere. Blogging is actually an older technology than Facebook. Blogging took off in 2002 after Google Blogger provided an easy to use interface to a population traumatised by 9/11 that wanted a public platform to write about it. Now people write blogs about everything under the sun. Blogging is a brilliant democratic tool that opened the freedom of the press to everyone.

Writing a blog is relatively easy but finding an audience remains difficult. The word “blogging” has negative overtones, its bad reputation often spread by newspapers. Yet newspaper websites are now chock-a-block with “blogs” because it seems to offer a way of publishing something in a simple and easy to use format. There is no general agreement on what a blog is other than it is a log of writing presented under a banner in reverse chronological order with the ability for readers to add comments. In many respects Facebook does this but not everyone is on Facebook. That why a blog is still useful and why there are now hundreds of millions of them on the Internet.

I am hoping the Western Starblog will evolve to fill some niche in our writing I’ve yet to fully understand. I welcome comments and suggestions on where to take it next.

Derek Barry,
Editor, the Western Star

No comments: