Newsnet Scotland – It seems to have caught on

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“Why don’t you turn it into a website?”
 
It was January 2010 and the UK general election was looming.   I was sitting in a small Greenock café called ‘The Café Balfe’ and the question was posed by my companion, whom I had not seen for almost 20 years.
 
He was referring to a small monthly online newsletter I had created called ‘Newsnet Scotland’ that I emailed to 400 subscribers.  “Make it a website,” he said, “let more people read your articles”.

I pondered the website suggestion but dismissed the idea.  The newsletter was difficult enough, but the work required to build a website and arrange for hosting made it a non-starter.

But my companion persisted and when he offered to set up the site himself and arrange hosting I agreed and the seeds of Newsnet Scotland as we know it were sewn.

In March 12th 2010 Scotland’s newest news site went live with a team of just two, one looking after technical issues and the other writing.  That first day saw 206 people visit the site.  Last Thursday, election day, witnessed over 10,000 visits alone.

Today Newsnet Scotland is the fastest growing news site in Scotland with followers as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.  Over 50,000 comments have been posted and over 3000 articles published.  Scores of contributors help make the site a varied and interesting daily read.

However, the early days of the site were oh so different.  At around the time of launch, a tentative email had been sent out to a handful of well-known and respected Scottish bloggers asking if they would be interested in helping out.  My intention was to try to tap into the substantial online resource that inhabited Scotland’s blogging community.  But few replied and those who did were sympathetic but understandably less than keen to contribute to an unknown website.

With just one writer (me) things would be tough; a news site was only credible if it contained fresh content every single day.  The only other regular material came from respected journalist Kenneth Roy who had allowed me to reproduce his articles from the Scottish Review.  Weeks later Mr Gerry Hassan would also agree to me reproducing pieces from his blog.

The site owes both these gentlemen a debt of gratitude, they were key to the site surviving the early days.  With no journalistic experience whatsoever my initial attempts at writing were time consuming, but I persevered.  I churned out article after article, opinion piece after opinion piece in the hope that help would eventually arrive.

It did, but it took six months.  In the intervening period I probably wrote and published between five or six hundred articles.  Newspapers were scoured, radio programmes listened to and TV shows recorded in an attempt at ensuring articles were accurate.

One area of particular concern was the handling of political news by BBC Scotland.  I had decided very early on to draw attention to what many perceived to be a manipulation, even bias, by the state broadcaster in this area.  So successful was the site at exposing questionable behaviour, that the BBC banned any mention of Newsnet Scotland from its online blogs – a situation that still exists.

The coverage of the Al Megrahi release by the BBC was particularly disturbing and the highlighting of the very many examples of selective reporting on the issue remains to this day one of the most widely read series of articles on the site.

Despite limited resources people were flocking to the site, stats indicated that we were even challenging the Caledonian Mercury in terms of site visits – but the team was still two.

Then in September 2010, at last, I received two offers of help.

One was from a gentleman who offered to provide regular articles based on sports betting.  Alan Barbour was a betting odds specialist who had been contacted by a reader of the site.  Within a week I had set up the ‘Odds On’ sport section and Alan has been regularly providing articles on golf and football ever since.  Readers of Alan’s section would have seen him advise a punt on the SNP when they were sitting at odds of 5 to 1 to win Thursday’s election.

The other offer of help came from a blogger called Alex Porter who suggested I add an economy section to the site.  Alex then started to provide regular pieces on economy, they became an instant hit.

There were other offers of help.  Many people were by now donating money to the site, the early expenditure made by me was recovered and funds were now accruing.  Readers were also contributing their own articles and others were offering to help promote the site.

It was timely and welcome, but it also meant additional workload for the team in the form of proof reading, administration and communication.  By now I had no free time to speak of, between my day job and the site my working day had stretched to 15 hours most days – my wife was a Newsnet Scotland widow.

As we approached Christmas 2010, the team was reduced by one when the original tech man and site creator left.  It was now me and a handful of volunteers; some produced content and others helped with research and team building.

At the end of the year we established contact with the people behind the excellent Bella Caledonia site.  However the ad-hoc nature of Newsnet Scotland’s volunteer structure didn’t lend itself easily to a planned collaboration and by January 2011 things were still the same.

Things changed though as we entered the New Year proper, a sizeable donation to the site enabled Alex Porter to commit full-time and a contributor to the original newsletter, one Paul Kavanagh, joined the team.

These two changed the whole dynamic of Newsnet Scotland and Alex began building a network of contacts who would help take the site to the next level and beyond.  The old look disappeared as we developed a new more professional look.  Paul’s contribution to Newsnet Scotland resulted in an article from First Minister Alex Salmond himself praising the excellent series of articles Paul had written on the languages of Scotland.

In mid March this year, almost exactly one year after launch, I formally handed over control of Newsnet Scotland to Alex Porter and the team he had put together.  I continued writing articles but the handover allowed me some much needed respite.

I like to think that the site has played a valuable role in acting as a counter to the traditional Scottish news outlets.  Last week saw an historic victory for the SNP and a referendum on Scottish independence is now certain.

For me the task is complete.  The site is in safe hands and the dream has been realised, I am now taking a complete rest from anything to do with Newsnet Scotland for two weeks and will decide what, if any, contribution I intend to make in future.

I have given almost two years of my life to Newsnet Scotland and have experienced many highs and some lows.  There have been many late nights as I worked to ensure that we had new articles for the next day’s front page.

Finally, a bit about me.  I’m an ordinary Greenock man who worshipped Labour as many from my background did.  I am nearer to fifty than forty and have watched as my contemporaries became the lost generation.  Many succumbed to drink and/or drugs and too many died young.

I lived for many years in England after leaving Scotland aged 22 in search of work – I returned at the age of 32 and, like many, took on whatever employment I could find.  I have earned less than £5 per hour and worked in scrap yards, building sites and factories.

I have two brothers, one who is on the methadone programme and recovering and another who is taking himself through college after being made redundant at the age of forty.  We are a close family and well respected in the area.  Family members regularly ask how ‘my paper’ is doing and my mother is now a regular reader.

At the age of forty, after six years of home study, I graduated with a BSC Honours degree in IT and computing and now work in IT.  My graduation ceremony was attended by Winnie Ewing of all people – I had no interest in politics then but certainly knew who Winnie was.

I took an interest in Scottish politics at around the age of 42.  I looked at Scotland’s vast natural resources and realised that Labour had let Scotland down.  There was also a sudden realisation that Scotland’s mainstream media was not as balanced and factual as one had been led to believe, the original newsletter was borne of that realisation.

Newsnet Scotland really has come a long way and I often think back to that day in the Greenock café when my companion urged me to create the site.

Who was he?  Well, he was my son and I hadn’t seen him since he was five years old after I lost touch when I moved to London.  Almost 20 years later he sought me out and together we created Newsnet Scotland.

It seems to have caught on.