Birch Cliff News: A two-month status report

Birch Cliff

It’s been two months since the launch of Birch Cliff News, a hyperlocal website in the suburbs of Toronto, and I’m happy to report that yesterday our page views surpassed our population.  Yep.  There are 13,084 people who live in the boundaries we’ve defined for the neighbourhood and we have 13,157 page views.  And counting.

I am pleased and very surprised, but I’m not writing today about metrics because when it comes to hyperlocal news, I think the numbers are secondary.

What’s most important is that if an informed community is a stronger community, Birch Cliff has taken a stride or two forward in the last two months.

Life is Local

I recently read an inspiring column by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian that better explains what Birch Cliff News is all about than I can explain it myself.

“The adage “life is local” has never been more true. Most of us continue to live our lives locally – working, relaxing with family and friends, eating, shopping, and playing sport.  Research has found that 80% of us spend at least half our time and money within just five miles of home and we have a growing appetite for local news and information to help us navigate our lives locally.”

The quote is from Lynne Anderson of the British Newspaper Society.  Yes, she’s British and yes, she’s talking about print.  But I think her message rings loud and clear across the pond for a small community perched atop Toronto’s Scarborough Bluffs

2012 Birch Cliff Fun Fair

If you’re the mainstream Toronto media, Birch Cliff is the kind of place where nothing happens.  And that’s OK by us because it’s pretty much why we live here.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have news. It’s just our news.  In our little pocket of Toronto, the closing of a store is news, the local Fun Fair is news, Grade 8 graduation is news, and the high school prom is BIG news.

So when something newsworthy by mainstream media standards actually DID happen in Birch Cliff, it’s not surprising that downtown Toronto paid scant attention.

Widespread basement flooding

Basement flooding July 15, 2012

On July 15th, hundreds of homes in Ward 36, which includes Birch Cliff, flooded with stormwater and raw sewage – we’re talking feces, condoms and feminine products floating in basements.  There’s no official recognition from the city of Toronto yet that it’s an infrastructure issue, but it’s clear in the minds of almost everyone who lives here that the culprit is our aging, combined sewer system.  The story got a little bit of mainstream media attention, especially when our local city Councillor Gary Crawford convinced the Mayor Rob Ford to come out and have a look, but not much else. Part of the problem is that it happened in the same week that 25 people were shot at a block party on Danzig Street (much) further to the east of our neighbourhood.

And here’s where hyperlocal news can play an important role.

It was an opportunity to serve the community by casting a net described by Dan Gillmor as narrow and deep, as opposed to the wide and shallow kind of fishing expedition that most major news organizations engage in out of necessity.

Our journalism

Birch Cliff News has produced a large number of stories about flooded basements and there would have been more if the website wasn’t new and had more writers. Most of the stories are quite long, bucking conventional wisdom that the online audience has a limited attention span and stories shouldn’t exceed X number of paragraphs.

Flooding Meeting July 22, 2012

On July 22nd, when 200 angry and frustrated homeowners met with city councillors to discuss the flooding, Birch Cliff News ran 1,435 words, compared to the Toronto Star’s 291 words.  I’m not faulting the Star, it’s just that their audience is different that ours.  Our audience consisted of people who raced downstairs in bare feet and ungloved hands to scoop poop out of their basements, had less than one minute to rescue beloved possessions and are now spending tens of thousands of dollars with no guarantee they’ll be fully reimbursed by insurance companies.  They are desperately in need of information.

Stabbing in Birch Cliff

Breaking news, July 28, 2012

In the midst of the flooding crisis, a young man was stabbed multiple times by a gang of teenagers in the middle of the night on one of the nicest streets in Birch Cliff.  Trust me, this just doesn’t happen here…but it did. I went door knocking in search of the victim, talked to neighbours (some still in their pyjamas), until I found the house and from there it wasn’t difficult to find an eyewitness.

The story rated a couple of paragraphs that morning in a small handful of mainstream media outlets and was dropped almost immediately due to lack of interest.  But every day as I study my WordPress search engine terms, I see that people are inputting variations of “birchcliff stabbing” because they want more information.  I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me who know a 20-something near that street and asked if he was the guy and if he is OK.

Bending the “rules”

Along the way, we’re bending some so-called rules and best practices I learned in journalism school and honed as a professional journalist, in order to adapt to the needs of the community.

I’ve withheld people’s names for reasons that would not pass muster with senior executives at organizations I’ve worked for in the past.  I’ve sought quote approval from interview subjects prior to publication.  On two occasions, sources have been emailed the entire story before it was posted on the site.  There were good reasons for all of this but I can’t reveal what they are without violating trust.

City of Toronto crews inspect sewers

When the city of Toroto’s water department asked if they could post their own article on the website, I agreed for that particular story because people whose basements flooded were anxious for official information and little was forthcoming. As it turns out, it’s the second most viewed page on the site.

Toronto Water isn’t the only organization with an interest in writing for Birch Cliff News.  We’re actively seeking submissions from many community groups and the offer of a platform has so far been welcomed by the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Centre and St. Nicholas Church, with more to come.  The key here is transparency.  The authors of these posts are clearly identified by name and title and I know all the neighbours are savvy enough to process information from someone who writes but is not a trained journalist.

The goal is sustainability.  If Birch Cliff News is to survive, it has to be more than the voice of one person – it has to be the voice of the community.

Why people engage with local news

In the Greenslade column, Lynn Anderson identifies five core reasons why people engage with their local newspaper:

“It helps them get the best out of where they live; helps them feel part of the community; is honest and believable; is more accurate and reliable than other media; and they can rely on it for news they cannot get elsewhere.”

In terms of my own professional perspective, I’ve learned that covering news in your neighbourhood is different from waltzing in from a big media organization to spend a day in someone else’s shoes and write a story for mass consumption.  I couldn’t agree more with former Guardian editor Peter Preston, who is also quoted in the column from a recent article for Local Newspaper Week:

“Journalism isn’t about sitting in some lofty office thinking great thoughts. It is about knowing the people you’re writing for, understanding their concerns, their hopes and fears. And you can only do that if you’re out there amongst them, being part of the community you aim to serve.”

Thanks to everyone who is supporting Birch Cliff News. I’m grateful that you’re reading and contributing to the website.  Many thanks to the half dozen writers who’ve done a fantastic job producing stories.  If anyone else wants to write for the site, just let us know!  And thanks for all the ideas being submitted by readers, because it helps us stay on top of what’s going on.

It is my hope that Birch Cliff News is meeting the needs of our community.  If it is, that’s worth more to me than 13,000 page views.

Life is local.

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