Using the crowd to hold those in power to account

My first experience of life as a daily newspaper reporter was in Accrington, the town best-known for being referenced by the very Scouse lads in the milk advert of the 1980s.

That was in 2000. Back then, one of the big issues facing the town was the decline of retail in the town centre. From the Accrington office of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, where two reporters were based in a tiny first-floor room with cracked plaster on the walls and a chain-link ladder to throw out of the window in lieu of a fire escape, it certainly felt like a town in decline.

Fast forward 15 years and the district office of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph is now gone … but the decline of the town centre is still an issue which bothers local people. Recently, the Accrington Observer broke the news that Marks & Spencer – which had always felt a peculiar presence in Accrington – was quitting the town. Homebase and Morrison’s are off too.

So how do you breathe new life into a story which is at least 15 years old, and has become something of a received wisdom in a town? “This place is going to the dogs” etc etc.

The Observer launched a survey, using surveymomkey, asking 15 questions about the town centre’s problems, such as where people do their shopping, why they shop in Accrington and, crucially, how they would describe Accrington town centre.

Over 3,000 people took part, including 1,600 in one day. The results were conclusive: Local people feel the town centre needs urgent action.

The result was this front page the following week:

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It’s one thing for a newspaper to take a view on an issue and demand action, it’s quite another for it to do so with the backing of over 3,000 people who have shared detailed thoughts on an issue.

Journalism is at its strongest when readers are involved – and this is a great example of just that.

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