Last week a new media organization launched here in Edmonton, one that is quite unlike any of the others. West Edmonton Local is a project of Grant MacEwan University’s journalism program focusing on news in the west end of our city. It’s a website, an experiment in hyperlocal news, and a fantastic learning tool for MacEwan students. I talked to the new site’s editor-in-chief Archie McLean and two of its journalists about the project.
“As much as possible, we want to be an authoritative voice for the west end,” Archie told me. I think that statement says a lot about the new project – it might be easy to dismiss it as just thing for students, but to do so would be a mistake. West Edmonton Local is the real deal. “There’s a market for local news,” he declared. Chelsey Smith, one of the site’s contributors, agreed saying “there’s definitely a need for something like West Edmonton Local.”
Archie became the chair of the program back in August, and even then he was thinking about the idea of a local news site. “What’s the best way to channel the output and collective interest of 20 journalism students?” Traditionally, students would have had to write a couple of big articles during the term, giving them limited opportunity to work with editors. For Archie, that would mean 20 big articles all coming in at the same time. “It doesn’t reflect the media reality,” he told me. West Edmonton Local changes the approach – instead of learning to do journalism, students are doing journalism and learning from that experience.
Students are tasked with writing articles every week, and they also need to include a multimedia component. They’ll also do a few feature pieces throughout the term. They’re using Flickr for photos, and might also include Google Maps, video, slideshows, and other rich content. Chelsey told me “it’s a major time commitment, but everyone is so excited about it.” I also talked with Pamela Di Pinto, who highlighted the big head start the project is giving students career-wise. “It’s not often that my work gets published anywhere, so to actually have my name online is pretty cool.” Archie echoed that, saying that the skills students are gaining with West Edmonton Local will be valuable when they move to other organizations.
In addition to Archie wearing the editor-in-chief hat, the site has two student editors that alternate every two weeks. The Managing Editor helps with the articles and content, and the Community Engagement Editor (apparently the title has changed a few times now) focuses on Twitter, Facebook, and other aspects of the project. Chelsey is the Community Engagement Editor until Wednesday, and said she has focused on tweeting links and posting stories to Facebook, so that more than just the feature articles are read. “We want people commenting on our stories on the website, so it’s important to spread the news.”
The site officially went live on February 7. Archie and the team decided to focus on the west end partly because that’s where the MacEwan program exists, but also because the community seemed like it might be receptive to the idea. “It has a distinctive feel, it was Jasper Place until really not that long ago,” Archie told me. The project’s “boundaries” are west of 124 Street, and south of 111 Avenue to the river. There’s lots of potential news stories in the area, such as the Stony Plain revitalization, the LRT extension, etc. The boundaries are just guidelines, however. If there’s news that is relevant to the west end communities, West Edmonton Local will cover it.
While hyperlocal sites are nothing new, there aren’t many of them here in Canada, and certainly not from journalism schools. One of the sites Archie looked at was Mission Local, a hyperlocal site focused on the Mission district in San Francisco. The “trouble” section was borrowed from that site. Crime is one aspect, but there are other things covered in the trouble section, such as noise bylaw complaints, graffiti, etc. Stuff that is relevant to people in the community, but which might not meet the threshold to be covered in something like the Edmonton Journal.
Archie told me that the biggest challenges the project has faced so far are quality control and workflow. “It’s an ongoing challenge to keep a consistent voice.” The journalists are students of course, so they’re learning as they go, and they all have different abilities and experience. Workflow has also been a challenge, partially because the site is running on WordPress. Students pitch their own story ideas, and post the article in draft form. An editor comes in and checks things over, making any necessary adjustments (Chelsey commented that one of things she has learned so far is the importance of editing). Final approval is given from either Archie or Lucas Timmons, the production editor, and then the article goes live. Multimedia follows a slightly different workflow.
One of the most obvious questions about West Edmonton Local is what happens after school is over. “Worst case scenario is that it lives for a few months and then goes away, but ideally we want to keep it going over the summer,” Archie told me. He has applied for some grant money that would allow a student to work over the summer, carrying it through until the next term. Eventually advertising revenue could cover the operational costs, which at this point are quite small. Partnerships is another aspect of the site that Archie and the team are exploring. They’ve focused primarily on getting everything up and running so far, but are eager to speak with organizations in the community about how to work together.
The team sounded happy with the launch and the attention the site has received thus far. Pamela said the experience has been great, and that she’s excited to see the site grow. She also praised the work Archie and Lucas have put into the site. “They really are helping us out, getting our names out there.” Archie, perhaps unsurprisingly, said it is the students that should get the credit. “They’re putting the content up, and content is king.”
For now the site seems to be running fairly smoothly, but discussions about how to improve it are ongoing. “It’s so young, it could go anywhere,” Chesley remarked. Archie stressed that the team is looking for feedback at this stage. “We genuinely want suggestions from people on what we can do better.” If you have a comment or suggestion, tweet @westedlocal, leave a comment on Facebook, or get in touch with Archie.
For Archie, seeing West Edmonton Local come to life has been a great experience. “It was an opportunity to try building a news site from the ground up,” Archie told me. “It’s potentially an infinite amount of work.” His passion for the project definitely showed during our conversation however, so he seems up to challenge. He also knows this is a unique opportunity. “We don’t have any baggage, so we have the freedom to take chances.”
Congratulations to everyone involved in West Edmonton Local on what you have accomplished so far. I look forward to seeing the project grow and evolve!