It is one year since Roman Road LDN was relaunched and began running as a full time web publication covering Bow and Globe Town. And what a year it has been. As we gear up for year two, Tabitha Stapely, founder of Social Streets, the not-for-profit media company behind Roman Road LDN, looks back at the highlights of 2018 and gives us a sneak peek at what’s in store for next year.
Hyperlocal journalism is a fledgling field and those of us working in it are learning all the time. We have to be willing to disrupt traditional publishing models and test new ideas. Failures will be part of the journey and, we hope, will provide the learning for sustainable success in the future.
Local journalism holds accountable those in power. It provides essential information that supports the local economy and helps people get the most out of where they live. It empowers communities by reflecting on their shared experience of arts, culture, and heritage. We think reliable, impartial information about the local area is vital for the long-term health and vitality of local communities.
And we’re not alone. Our readership figures show how much the people of Bow and Globe Town value local journalism. In the last 12 months Roman Road LDN has been visited over 175,000 times by more than 96,000 people. Between Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram we have over 10,000 followers on social media.
Those are healthy numbers, but what makes them particularly striking to us is that the combined population of Bow and Globe Town is only around 40,000. This speaks to one of our other main goals – increasing the area’s visibility online.
In the digital age an online presence is essential for footfall, be it to businesses, art exhibitions, or markets. If something doesn’t exist on Google then for an increasing number of people it doesn’t exist at all.
From the start, one of Roman Road LDN’s main goals has been to strengthen Bow and Globe Town’s online presence. This has lead to a variety of content – features, news, interviews, photo essays, heritage pieces, the list goes on. Life on and around Roman Road is diverse and ever-changing. Local media should reflect that.
What have been the successes? Our most popular page this year was on Roman Road Market, which clocked almost 15,000 visits, showing that our much-loved traditional street market is still the biggest driver of interest in our high street. If a fraction of that number of website visitors were inspired to drop by on market day, and pop in to other shops in the area, that’s a success.
A personal highlight of last year was the photography competition we ran in partnership with Idea Store Bow and Tower Hamlets Archive Library. Inspired by archive images of Roman Road Market we asked local photographers to capture the spirit of the market today.
The panel of judges included local professional photographers and market traders. The 15 best photographs were exhibited at Idea Store Bow with a launch event where guest speaker and author Melanie McGrath spoke about memories of the Roman from her book Pie and Mash Down the Roman.
We learned from this that collaborating with several community groups on a project about our shared experience of living in our neighbourhood is a fantastic way for local people to make new connections locally, and to gain a greater understanding of each other. It’s also a good way of making sure the content we publish involves our readers.
There is the human value of sharing stories too, of meeting the people who make the high street tick. Cafe East still use Megan Agnew’s interview with Mustafa Has as their Instagram bio link, a fact we’re honoured by and is a testimony to the collaborative spirit on Roman Road. We love you guys.
We couldn’t have grown as we have without our ‘citizen journalists’ who have contributed content on a voluntary basis to support their community. A huge thank you goes to Tabitha Potts for being our book reviewer, to Cecilia Cran for her series of tours and trails of local landmarks, and to local photographers Claire Watts, Andrew Leo, and Massimo Ionnetti for their incredible photo-documentary features. Talented folks.
And of course there is news. When we covered Frank Wang’s fundraising campaign to return his coffee stall to its 15-year spot outside Bethnal Green underground station, readers responded. Wang’s campaign got a bump of several hundred pounds when we covered it. As is so often the case with worthy causes, people just needed to know they’re happening.
That’s the simple, timeless business at the core of journalism – letting people know. Ignorance keeps us separated from each other and the things we care about. Roman Road LDN’s job, now and always, is bringing people together.
The coming year already promises much. We want to build on our learnings and get closer to being sustainable. The Roman Road LDN editorial offices are now open as a co-working space – the Social Streets Co-Lab. This space particularly supports local freelancers and local community groups who want to work on projects about the local area. We hope this will become a community melting pot that will cook up new projects and ideas for what we should publish on the website.
We will also be working hard backstage on sustainable income. As a not-for-profit media company working particularly in neglected or disadvantaged areas, Social Streets faces not only the challenge of reinventing local journalism but also of doing so within economies considered too small or too poor to provide advertising income, which local papers traditionally relied on to operate.
We are working on an app and publishing platform designed for community-centered journalism. We will also be launching a donations functionality, allowing readers to make contributions. Our content remains free, but this will provide an option for readers who want to support us. Certainly, donations will be crucial to our survival.
The single most important outcome from last year was the evidence that, despite the naysayers, there is an enormous appetite for local journalism. It is this, more than anything, that will give us the determination we need to make it work over the next year and beyond. So to our readers, thank you.