Citizen Journalism: North East Bylines

By Julia Mazza

It was their post on Twitter that caught my eye, back in August 2020. North East Bylines were looking for volunteers. I’m Middlesbrough born and bred although I don’t live there anymore.  But I sent an email anyway, offering my services in research. I mentioned that I’d written the odd article.

A reply came back  immediately from editor Yvonne Wancke inviting me to write something and I was soon digging up dirt on Claire Fox, the new baroness, self-styled lefty and her merry band of far-right activists dubbed by their critics as the LM network .

The North East Bylines website is free. It publishes a new edition every week and the site has a huge archive of articles.

The site covers what its title suggests: England’s North East Region, from windswept Northumbria to picture-postcard North Yorkshire and all the rust-belt in between.

It’s a broken local economy, where 37 per cent of children grow up in poverty. Kids go without food; babies go without nappies. 

The North East is like the Wild West. People with a little power think they can get away with anything and they usually do. There’s no shortage of things to write about.

I submit an article every few weeks, from Dominic Cummings’ Durham origins to the Ukippers who took over Hartlepool Council under an Independent flag. Then there was Offshore Group Newcastle, its offshoot Acquind and a clown-car of Russian-born directors who are major Tory donors. I’ve found myself covering stories that have a local angle but a national relevance.

North East Bylines fills a news vacuum. Although many issues are covered by the local press, journalists in the regional media simply don’t have time for in-depth research. The local papers have little money for investigative journalism: their drive now is towards online clickbait to maximise advertising revenue for their websites.

There are also some stories the local press won’t touch, especially to do with popular, powerful politicians. And certainly not, from my point of view, progressive Labour.

As I sent my articles around to local politicians I started getting tips that hadn’t even touched the mainstream media.

There are dozens of contributors, including Scott Hunter.  A retired German teacher, he forensically dissects obscure documents to reveal opaque practices at the Tees Valley Combined Authority.

In a recent article Scott probed the official reason for crustacean deaths along the north east coast, where dead crabs and lobsters were washing onshore in piles and stretches of sea, simply dead.  DEFRA said the cause was algae. Scott suggested – with detailed evidence – that the culprit could be chemical pollution.

The website covers light with the shade: topics like hidden local history, concerts and exhibitions.

Harry Gallagher is the resident poet.  He proudly announced that he’d sat on my mam’s knee as she taught him to read, in the same classroom where I painted Christmas scenes on the windows. That’s ‘hyper-local’ for you.

Yvonne lives in Newcastle. She’s a Maths teacher with four children. Week in, week out she produces a new edition, writing and uploading new stories in the intervening days.

Yvonne and her volunteers are not alone. Behind us is the Bylines Network that oversees and supports a group of eight local Bylines. The websites are all over England except Greater London, but for now exclude Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Bylines Network is the brainchild of Mike Galsworthy. He’s the magic gardener of campaigns.  He sows the seeds of ideas to the wind and they take root and thrive in his extensive network.

Mike has a PhD in Behavioural Genetics and spent ten years doing post-doctoral research in Slovenia and Switzerland before returning to British academia.

He set up Scientists for EU and he later organised the March for Change. He is now Campaigns Strategy Advisor at European Movement UK.

 In early 2020 Mike set up Bylines Network with writer Peter Jukes and businessman Stephen Colegrave.

Originally a scriptwriter with a long list of TV hits, Jukes is also a campaigner. He tweeted daily from the courtroom of the 18-month News International phone-hacking trial.

In 2018, Jukes and Colegrave founded Byline Times, an investigative journalism newspaper and website. The plan for the Bylines Network was agreed two years later.

Says Peter Jukes: “Mike Galsworthy approached me with the idea. The closure of so many local papers over the last decade has always concerned our editor, Hardeep, who was trained in local journalism.”

Mike Galsworthy adds, “I had a meeting with Peter and he’d just developed a white label version of Byline Times. I wanted it to be true grassroots local journalism, to harness all that energy and knowledge into a new framework.”

When Mike left the meeting he knew exactly where to start. The idea was to recruit the March for Change supporters and other anti-Brexit groups to produce local citizen journalism websites. All the Yorkshire Remain groups were already organised into Yorkshire for Europe. He knew someone to run it and rang Louise Houghton.

Louise, a former police sergeant who lives in Barnsley, is now Editor-in-Chief at Yorkshire Bylines, the first website to launch, and a company director of Bylines Network.

Says Louise: “Mike called me in February 2020 about setting up a regional online citizen journalism initiative. It was immediately a success and the level of interest was overwhelming and before we’d even launched, the pandemic hit and it became my full-time job.”

The Bylines Network has eight paid workers, mostly part-time. The full-time equivalent is just under three and a half staff.

The word filtered out to Yvonne through Mike’s Facebook post.  “First of all I had a chat with Mike Galsworthy to find out more.” Then she rustled up a group of ten interested people. “There was a real buzz at the first meeting. We got 12 articles together and set a launch date for early July 2020.”

And so North East Bylines was born.

Given that the March for Change groups and other networks that set up the Bylines are from the pro-EU stable, it’s intriguing that their policy is to encourage a diversity of views. There’s no ‘party line’.

Yvonne says: “It is true that we have a number of grassroots anti-Brexit (or pro-European) writers and team members. However, we are keen not to push this view too hard as we want to represent a wider view.”

Says Mike: “Any publication is going to have its own philosophical and political inclination. We’re helping people express their voices. Brexit isn’t the only campaign.”

He mentions the articles the Network has carried on HS2 – passionate arguments from both sides.

Yvonne says that the site has had a couple of articles by Tories, but the readership and writers are broadly on the left. Mike is Labour and ‘progressive’, as is Yvonne. Louise is a Green who campaigns for Labour at elections.

How far is the Network specifically campaigning journalism?  North East Bylines does cover local campaigns like the fight to close Hassockfield Detention Centre for women.

But, Yvonne says, “It’s not a campaigning organisation although many of our writers are campaigners of one sort or another. It’s about citizen journalism, speaking the truth and also about sharing local (sometimes hyper-local) stories about real people and places.”

Mike is interested in giving the grassroots a voice, an extra layer of capacity above the Facebook pages and the blogs.

Perhaps the act of running regional news outlets independent of the corporate media is a campaign in itself.

The local Bylines sites are made possible only because the Bylines Network handles a lot of the nuts and bolts of website management: technology, promotion, training. Head office also magicks the dark art of Search Engine Optimisation – making the sites more googlable.

There is also that small matter of getting the money to feed the beast, through small regular donations and larger one-off sums, handled mostly by Mike Galsworthy.

The network is always developing new ideas. North East Bylines now carries audio articles recorded by volunteers.

The next step is Bylines Gazette, with articles from all the regional websites. It’s subscription-based at £2 a month but the first issue is free. They’re working on the second issue now.

But the ideas, the network, the support are nothing without people. Volunteers – be they writers, researchers, techies, sub editors – are vital. So please get involved.

Julia Mazza is a writer for North east Bylines.

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