The Darlington Experiment 2.0: A case study for newspaper “pride” campaigns?

One of the more contradictory aspects of life in a provincial newsroom is that while it’s ok for those in the newsroom to speak critically of the patch they cover, as soon as someone else does it, they’re often heading for the front page.

On one hand, reporters will grumble about the lack of shops/cinemas/parking/people who smile, but turn any critical comments from high-profile folk into “shock horror, how dare they” pieces.

At the same time, many newspapers have campaigns which aim to instill a sense of pride in the community – a way of celebrating positives about an area,  which often launch shortly after the latest focus group has reported back that readers feel too many negative stories appear in print. And advertisers often say something similar.

But reporters up and down the UK will know full well that in many cases,  when they vox pop about  a town or city they live in, the majority are quick to find fault with it, or laugh at the amibitions of councillors locally to improve the area’s image.

I suspect if the same questions were asked at a hyperlocal level, people would be more positive when answering the question: “What do you think of where you live?”

But for newspapers and organisations which cover wider areas, what’s the solution to wanting to positively promote an area – because some readers clearly believe that’s what they want – even if the vocal majority are quick to criticise it?

The answer could lie in Darlington, where The Darlington Experiment 2.0 is setting out to change attitudes towards Darlington, both within the town and outside it.

But instead of turning to a centrally-organised publicity drive, or expensive advertising campaign to try and sell Darlington, it’s turned the project over to the people of Darlington to be positive about their town.

At the moment, it feels as though a small number of “pied pipers” are spreading the word via YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter but looking around the site there’s a real feeling of momentum gathering behind the project.

And the bit which is most interesting to me is the way it seeks to empower people to shout about what they like about Darlington.  People are urged to get “Dxting” on one of the social network sites, and the signs are it is beginning to take off. Full details on how to use one of the main social media sites is provided on the site, along with details on how to link content to the main Darlington Experiment theme.

Funding has been secured via the Darlington Partnership – a public/private group – to get the ball rolling, with experiment “lab rats” – aka local school children – going out and filming bits which portray Darlington in a positive light. That, it appears, will hopefully push it towards a critical mass to keep it going.

So, what can newspapers learn from what’s going on? Well, if there’s a sense of pride to be tapped into, open it up for that sense of pride to come to the surface. By all means start the campaign, but don’t force it. Work with people to encourage them to take positively about their area – sometimes people need a push in an age when being critical is much more popular – but don’t seek to set the rules.

Open up the campaign on social networks – don’t make the usual paper mistake of expecting the audience to come to you. And above all, don’t be prepared to fail. Darlington is taking its giant leap into the unknown. What’s the worst that can happen?

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