A hyperlocal website founder who once updated a missing person story from the top of a mountain in Madeira has celebrated ten years of dedicating himself to what he said is “at its centre community journalism”.
Your Thurrock editor Michael Casey encouraged others to “have a go” at starting their own hyperlocal sites as he hailed the growth of independent news over the past decade.
Casey, a member of the advisory board for the Independent Community News Network based at Cardiff University, praised hyperlocals up and down the country from On The Wight to the Edinburgh Reporter and said “it’s good to see the growth in independent news”.
Casey told Press Gazette: “I like the way, with hyperlocals, people have come from different fields.
“Obviously it’s important you know your spelling, punctuation, grammar and your law, and [you have] emotional intelligence, but I see people and I think you should have a go. It’s a great job.”
Casey, who celebrated Your Thurrock’s tenth anniversary at the start of this month, shared this advice: “Every day’s a blank canvas. Never take your readers for granted, and just keep plugging away.”
Casey decided to start his own venture after spending two years at Newsquest’s Thurrock Gazette and wanting to experiment more with digital tools like video and social media.
He said a local person told him they “thought Your Thurrock would be like World War One when I launched it on 1 September – it would be over by Christmas”.
But now, after ten years of the website being run with help from voluntary contributors, Your Thurrock has 6,000 videos, 36,000 stories and gets around 2.5m page views each year.
The website began with a focus on video but has now developed into a more “formal” local news website, although Casey still makes an effort to film as many Thurrock Council meetings as possible.
In February, one such video ended up catching out a councillor who made a rude symbol and mouthed “wankers” at the Labour group. When Casey pointed it out the next day, publishing the video on Youtube, the councillor was expelled.
Another successful video came from a local talent show in 2011 featuring future X Factor winner Louisa Johnson. After she rose to fame on the show four years later, the video received almost 500,000 views.
Five years after launching Your Thurrock, Casey decided to start sister website Your Harlow with funds from Carnegie UK Trust’s neighbourhood news initiative.
The Harlow Herald and Harlow Citizen have both closed in the past ten years, while the Harlow Star’s newsroom has moved to Chelmsford as part of Reach-owned website Essex Live.
Casey decided to fill the gap by “stepping up” his Harlow coverage in the past year, and said the website will now easily reach 1m page views in 2018, doubling its figures from last year.
Your Thurrock has more direct competitors than Harlow – Thurrock Independent and Newsquest-owned Thurrock Gazette in print and Essex Live online – but Casey said they each have their own niche.
His, he said, is that he has built a name for himself in the borough over 12 years by covering community events on the ground.
He is therefore often sent updates as soon as news breaks and ends up updating the website while away from Essex, whether he is in Edinburgh or up a mountain in Madeira.
Casey said: “The more papers disappear or the more papers become obsessed by page views, unique views and road crashes and crimes, the more important we become to celebrate the community.”
He added: “There is nothing worse than attending a community event and then, on your way back from that community event, somebody says the air ambulance has landed in a field and you get to the air ambulance and suddenly there’s a photographer from a large news group standing there.
“That’s what upsets the community groups – they think ‘when we ring you up you say we haven’t got anybody available’ – and I think that’s wrong.”
The websites are funded through advertising and lottery grants for individual projects like the Harlow is 70 project in partnership with Harlow Museum, in which elderly people were interviewed about why they came to the town.
Casey is now doing a similar project on Your Thurrock with Grays Lives, interviewing people about why they live in Grays to keep people “at the heart of what I do”.
“I’m not making a million but I don’t have massive overheads and we’re competitive and we’re reasonable and we find different avenues of revenue,” he said. “It’s a modest enterprise.”
He has shied away from launching a print product, saying it would take up too much of his time and that he did not want to have to finance it.
However he dreams of launching a title which would dedicate one edition each month to the history of the area, after speaking to elderly people and realising they miss having history and archive content easily accessible.
Casey said: “If I closed down on Saturday, I’d like to think that if anybody went to our archive of 36,000 stories in ten years they’d find something of use about life in Thurrock between 2008 and 2018.
“To me as a kid who studied O Level history in school and learned the importance of community, that’s the most satisfying.”