Gazette breaks new ground with online election hustings

Archant’s North Devon Gazette broke new ground with the first of two online hustings events last Thursday night.

All six of North Devon’s General Election candidates went to the Gazette’s Barnstaple office to take part in the live debate.

Reporters Sarah Howells and Elliot Anderton fielded the questions on a live Scribble feed, mainly submitted by readers in advance, but also by those taking part on the night.

Editor Andy Keeble spent the evening hammering away, plugging the event on social media, taking photographs and posting them online, as well as drawing in tweets to the feed by getting people to use #votenorthdevon.

In the week leading up to the event, the team put out about 3-4 tweets a day, and on the day tweeted every hour to plug the hustings.

Sarah said: “Luckily, because we were sat with the candidates we could monitor when everyone had stopped typing, and we were also able to encourage them to respond to each other’s answers.

“Once they got the hang of the feed they loved it – and there was even a bit of offline banter too, which was great. And we managed to find a bell so when they got chatting or distracted, we rang it just before posting the next question. This added some humour to an otherwise intense evening.”

The Scribble feed (embedded into an article on the Gazette website) attracted between 20 – 40 people at any one time; overall stats show there were 191 unique users on the night (this has since risen to 284 unique users), spending an average of 31.2 minutes on the page.

There were a total of 8,573 engagement minutes – not bad considering the perceived apathy ahead of this election. Even the candidates seemed surprised so many people had tuned in.

The event (from 7-9pm) dovetailed nicely with the first Channel 4/Sky election debate, which started immediately after at 9pm.

Editor Andy Keeble said: “There was some very interesting debate on the night and a wide range of local, national and international topics covered during the two hours. Considering what’s at stake on May 7, there was also some great humour among the rivals.

“We were really pleased with how it went. We think we had a much better response than we would have had with a face-to-face hustings, and hope this will encourage people to get involved with similar debate organised for the Torridge and West Devon constituency on Wednesday night.

“That will be slightly different as most of the candidates will access the feed remotely; we hope we can get as good a rapport with them as we did having all of them in the office.”

The debate will remain online until after the election, giving readers a great overview of what the candidates think about some of the key issues affecting North Devon. You can view it here.

Annabelle Dickson, Archant political editor, said: “The North Devon Gazette has led the way in holding the first of many online question and answer events for the election, with many more set to take place across the group over the coming weeks.

“This is a great example of how the wealth of expertise and ideas across the group can be shared. Natalie Sadler in Suffolk was on standby to give advice and help, and now we can all learn from North Devon’s success.”