At the Heart of Its Community

This week we spoke to James Cracknell, editor of the Waltham Forest Echo about reader contributions, café news meetings and Cantonese opera.

Two years ago James Cracknell was a local reporter for the South London Press with a distant dream to one day edit his own paper. When he heard about a new publishing project for a community newspaper in Waltham Forest, where he had been living the past few years, he was intrigued. A community interest company had launched a successful bid for a Big Lottery fund grant to start a newspaper, with an aim to talk about and support the not-for-profit sector in the East London borough. He turned up to the first editorial meeting, a monthly event, now held in a local coffee shop where everyone is welcome and he has been to every meeting since. Then a year ago he became editor.

James says: “The experience of most local journalists is of a declining readership with the traditional audience eroded by social media and a changing appetite for news. It is imperative that as news producers we adapt and change with the times. As far as we are concerned the Echo belongs to our readers, they write for us and they drive the news agenda, we hold editorial meetings in public and we want our readers to contribute as much as possible so, while we set submission and style guidelines and the paper is professionally designed and edited, the content comes directly from our community.”

There are times when community groups need support and representation but cannot necessarily provide it for themselves. The Waltham Forest Chinese Association was set up some 30 years ago to provide a meeting point for the community to cook and eat together and connect with Chinese culture – Cantonese opera is a popular pastime. When the council announced the refurbishment of the community centre and the future unavailability of the space, the association reached out to the Echo.

The paper ran a front-page story about the group’s plight and asked readers if they could find them a new home. James says: “I had a sneaky feeling this would work – within weeks they were up and running again at the Resource Hub in Leyton. This is the rationale for the paper, we don’t want to preach to people or tell them what to think, but if we can support a good cause or give space for a campaign, that’s what we’re here for.”

With its increasing popularity and after going monthly, James felt that the paper needed the stamp of authority that being regulated could give them. “We thought that while Leveson was not a perfect thing, there had been a long enquiry, it was tangible and there are guidelines, so why ignore them? The news that the NUJ had given its official endorsement to IMPRESS was the clincher for us.”

It’s still early days for the Waltham Forest Echo but with an estimated readership of 60,000, advertising revenue ensuring that the publication is self-financing and as one of the first publications to reach full compliance with IMPRESS, James is understandably proud of how far they’ve come in just two years.