On the morning of November 4th, 2011 The Times journalist Mary Bowers and her bike were being cut from underneath the wheels of a cement truck by paramedics on the streets of London. Mary, 27, had been hit by the truck during her cycle to work, and within minutes was being rushed to hospital, where she remains today.
While Mary has been in hospital, her devastated colleagues at The Times have responded to the tragedy with the Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, a collaborative form of journalism aimed at provoking as much response from readers as possible, and raising awareness of one of London’s most evocative topics to the highest levels of government.
At October’s Meet the Media Event, held in the crypt of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Lucia Adams, digital development editor of The Times, explained why the campaign was such a success, and how engaging with people online has enabled journalism and campaigning to go much further, due to a unique position that The Times holds as the UK’s most digitally innovative newspaper.
The Cities Fit for Cycling campaign began with a heartfelt plea for safer cycling from a colleague of Mary’s, and quickly became a collaboration between The Times and its readers, who could follow updates, speak directly to journalists, lobby politicians such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, and of course share the campaign with their own friends and fellow cyclists. British newspapers typically sell only a few hundred thousand copies a day but a multi-platform campaign can reach millions of people within a morning, it can show them how them how things have changed between their morning commute and their journey home, and, crucially, it can make them proud of their own contribution.
“Focusing on the reader is key: there are some really powerful things we were able to do using relatively simple means,” Adams said. “The cycle campaign used lots of tools that are already out there – social media to help spread the word, writetothem.com powered the ‘write to your MP’ funciton on our campaign page and readers were given the opportunity to join our mailing list meaning that we could keep them up-to-date on the progress of the campaign.”
Amongst the highlights of the campaign’s achievements:
- Lucia Adams’ goose-bump moment, when Prime Minister David Cameron backed the campaign in Parliament.
- In September the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group APPCG announced that it is launching an inquiry in association with The Times newspaper to address the issue of ‘Why Don’t More People Cycle?’
- The Times and Philip Pank, its Transport Correspondent, won Best Media Campaign award at the National Transport Awards for its “relentless, informed and passionate” campaign
The Times’ increased ability to engage directly with their readers began a couple of years ago with the bold and risky launch of their subscription service for online content. While the rival sites of The Guardian, Telegraph and Independent remained freely available, The Times went behind a paywall.
Adams is proud of the effects that this decision has had on editorial activity at The Times, and says that the most powerful advantage of having a subscription model is getting to know the readers so that they can ensure that The Times’ journalism is relevant to them.
When The Times announced they were ending the availability of free content on their website and digital apps, everyone had an opinion and not many were supportive, Adams said. “A lot of people were saying, ‘News is a commodity. You can get news from anywhere. Only niche publishers would really succeed in charging for content.’”
This has proved wholly untrue for The Times. The site now has 295,000 monthly readers, and while it also remains Britain’s most popular quality daily newspaper, it is the digital drive that is making the most exciting inroads into the future of their journalism.
The key to a successful campaign is to know your audience and to reach them on a platform that allows them to take your story to its maximum potential. That means launching a campaign on print, online and tablet formats and often letting the direction be chosen by the audience rather than the writers. It is often now the case that a story only really begins to reach its potential once it has been shared.
This is just about updating them, not re-telling them what they have already heard that morning, adding an extra layer of texture to the stories.
“We need to think about what impact our journalism is having on our readers as well as how, when, where and why they’re choosing to engage with us,” Adams said
Nowadays, journalists have to think very differently about what impact their story has once it is out there. “It is really thinking about an article as being the beginning of the story in the eyes of the reader and working out how we can help readers engage with the story in interesting ways.”
(See more pictures of the event, and the stunning setting at St. Paul’s Cathedral, on our Facebook page in the Meet the Media photo album.)
For our readers in the United Kingdom: Follow Meet the Media on Twitter (@MeetTheMedia) to stay current on events we’re hosting in the UK.
Authors Sara Kuhlman and Andrew Woodall are members of the PR Newswire Europe team based in London.