"The paper sees itself as a campaigning paper on local issues," editor-in-chief Ian Murray told Journalism.co.uk for last week's podcast on the subject. In fact, the newspaper has won awards for its community campaigns, and recently celebrated the completion of a £2 million leukaemia campaign it was involved in.
Taking on campaigns helps the newspaper get "closer to the community", Murray said. "We're seen to be on the community's side. We're seen to be basically carrying out the role of the little man against the big organisation."
The three types of Echo campaign
At the Echo, campaigns it gets involved in fit into one of three types, Murray explained, from more public information service-style campaigns, through to issues which the newspaper picks up on by itself and decides to campaign about. And in the middle are those community-focused campaigns which the newspaper throws its support behind like risks to local services, and which have "a specific goal".
An example of the first type of campaign could be the Echo's Turn up or Tell 'Em campaign, which encourages readers to either attend doctor appointments or let the surgery know, to cut down the cost of missed appointments. This saw the newspaper run coverage in print and online, as well as putting up posters in local surgeries and accident and emergency centres. There is also the Echo's Stay Warm in Winter campaign, which is aimed at helping vulnerable people. The campaign includes publishing tips and advice, as well as encouraging readers to help an elderly neighbour, or connecting those who can offer some form of help with those who need it. Murray identifies this as campaigning on a "basic good community level".
Examples of the second type of campaign, which picks up on community issues, include the Echo's recent Have a Heart campaign which was in support of the child heart surgery unit at Southampton General Hospital. The newspaper worked with "the local authorities, the local health authorities, doctors and lots and lots of local people", to show their opposition to a threat to the unit. The campaign secured more than 250,000 signatures on a petition which was delivered to 10 Downing Street.
Finally, the third type of campaign run by the Echo are those which are sometimes born out of the newspaper's own coverage of an issue, which can work to highlight the matter to the newsroom as a possible issue to pursue, such as its Give Clampers the Boot campaign which called for the clamping of vehicles on private land to be banned.
Encouraging journalists to see potential
The Echo's journalists are actively encouraged to consider the potential for any stories to be developed, and one way to do that is by considering if there is a wider campaign to be taken up.
They should try "to see something as not just one-issue articles", Murray said, and ask "is this something that we can be going on to assist and to help [with]?"
"Should we be following this through? Is this an area that's a campaign? Why don't we do this? Come back fired up with indignity about something and saying 'you know these people are right, and we should be looking at this etc'."
He added that the Echo's journalists can look at the work of their colleagues to "see how campaigns have run, how we've actually lifted the lid on things". He added that "if not all of them then definitely the majority of them are keen to get involved in that kind of thing – they actually like running the campaigns".
In turn the community can then see that the newspaper is shining "a light in a dark corner" and pursuing the issue.
"That's what we came into journalism for, I hope that's what we came into journalism for, it's what I did anyway."
Choosing what campaigns to support and offering balance
Murray said then when it comes to supporting a campaign, the newspaper does so when it believes in the issue. "We actually look at the facts and the figures, because we're not a newspaper that says 'well okay we'll support anything that's going on because it's local'."
He added that reader comments and feedback, both online and in letters sent to the newspaper, help give the newspaper a good idea of what the readership feels about an issue.
"I still do look through the majority of letters which are submitted to the paper to be included for themes that crop up, and it's the same with the website. We look and see that certain stories are getting lots of hits, lots of comments left on them."
Sometimes these might be issues which had not at first occurred to the newspaper itself, but can be prompted by a large postbag on the issue, as was the case when the newspaper reported on a proposal to introduce fortnightly bin collections in Southampton some years ago.
"That was purely reaction from readers to one article ... that didn't ring any alarm bells with us, but you should have seen the postbag on it."
He added that they also get reaction online. "We can see things and we go 'oh look at that story that's gone right to the top of the 'most popular', and have you noticed when we put another story on about that, that the same thing sort of happened, we got tonnes of comments?'. That's an emerging hot potato."
But he added that even where they may not win the campaign, they would still work to raise important issues. "It's not a case of 'we're only going to do campaigns if we win them because we want to let the balloons off at the end', that's not the point at all. If it's the right campaign to get behind, we will basically do that."
But even when the newspaper decides to campaign on an issue, or support a certain campaign, Murray stressed the importance of putting across the alternative point of view.
"We always allow the other side to have their say, and not just a throwaway sentence at the end".
"... Because although we as the paper may be saying 'look, this is the way we think it should go', we are most definitely going to be balanced and allow everyone to have their say."
From posters to petitions: how the newspaper gets involved
There are a number of ways the newspaper gets involved with campaigns, beyond reporting on the issue, both in print and online. From making posters and placards to gathering petition signatures, journalists themselves can be actively involved in campaigns where the newspaper has signalled its support for the cause.
Online the newspaper will also build up the momentum of the campaign, holding votes on certain issues and gathering feedback and ideas.
With the recent leukaemia campaign the newspaper even offered up its building as the venue for the launch.
"They were saying 'we're looking for a venue' and I said 'well we've got a lovely building here, newsrooms are of interest to some people, I know you need to have something to attract people in, why don't we do it here?' And we actually did it here in the newsroom, at the end of a busy day."
Murray explained that the news outlet has supported the leukaemia campaign throughout. "We've promoted and helped them with their business breakfasts and all kinds of issues like that and then last week in fact it came to a conclusion with a wrapping up because we raised the £2 million between us all.
"So we can get really actively involved with staff even going out and helping to raise money, depending on what it is."
Considering potential upset
As well as the community engagement benefits, Murray also highlighted some of the difficulties the newspaper will consider before pursuing an issue, such as the possible upset it may cause to those involved with the organisation being campaigned against.
For example, if the campaign was about a council-related issue, there is the possibility it may upset its employees.
"You're going to upset all those people who will say 'hang on, that's my employer, I'm very proud of working for the council', and they should be. So there is that risk that if you are combatant, which we can be, that you're going to upset some people as well.
"So do we take that into account? Yes we certainly do... But if it's the right issue, well we will go ahead with it. But as I say, always balanced".