How a Whitehaven newspaper led the world's media for a day

As Derrick Bird murdered 12 people, local journalists got the story. Matthew Bell reports

When Michael Moon, proprietor of Whitehaven's eponymous antiquarian bookshop, heard there had been a fatal shooting in Duke Street, he did what community-minded citizens have instinctively always done, and called the local paper. Two streets away, in the pink-stuccoed offices of The Whitehaven News, editor Colin Edgar and his staff were putting the news for that week's issue on page, Wednesday being press day.

After Mr Moon's call came through, two reporters were dispatched to the crime scene, which police were already sealing off. Derrick Bird, the taxi-driver who would go on to kill 11 more victims, was still at large, and the reporters were sent back by police as the town went into lockdown.

Over the coming hours, The Whitehaven News would become central to a breaking news story, as members of the national and international media descended on Whitehaven to piece together the events of a day unlike any other the town had ever experienced. The paper's website, which normally draws about 800 hits an hour, was soon experiencing 18,000.

Over in Carlisle at the offices of its sister title, the News & Star, a daily title also part of the family-owned Cumbria News Group, the IT department were fighting to cope with the surge in demand, with the site collapsing a number of times under the weight of traffic. A quick decision was made to extend the website's bandwidth to meet demand.

And it was not just journalists who turned to the local press to find out what was happening: over the next few days, friends and relatives of the victims would flood the site, leaving messages of support for one another on the swiftly created online Condolences Book.

The staff of The Whitehaven News, a weekly broadsheet, have been at pains not to seem to captialise on Wednesday's events. "There are no 'exclusives' at a time like this," says Alan Cleaver, the newspaper's deputy editor. "As with all tragedies like this, reporters and police help each other. You just work together and hopefully report fairly and accurately on what happened."

And yet the surge highlights the value of a local news organisation rooted at the heart of a community. The BBC's earliest reports were broadcast out of Newcastle, while Sky News was left scrambling and failed to get a reporter on the scene until the afternoon. Over the coming days national newspapers, including The Independent, Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian, would credit the local newspaper and website in their reports.

The Whitehaven News, along with all titles in the Cumbrian News Group, has in recent years invested in its online presence, and built up a strong social media network using some innovative techniques: a reward scheme set up earlier this year gives Facebook friends of the paper free advertising opportunities. Journalists last week used Facebook and Twitter to disperse information as soon as it was gathered. "The priority has been trying to get accurate information," explains Cleaver, "The reporters here have worked every minute of every day to check and double-check with their contacts. It's all on a scale we have never had to deal with before."

With any major news story, the local press will by definition have a headstart, but in Cumbria it is especially strong because of the county's extreme topology. "It's always a shock to people how big Cumbria is when they come up here," says Michael Glover, a local journalist and former editor of The Westmorland Gazette. "Because of the mountains and lakes, communities are more isolated and have very strong loyalties to whichever of the county's 15 newspapers covers their patch."

The nationwide decline in local newspaper readership has been felt here, and in 2008 the Cumbria News Group made 40 staff members redundant. But the decline is less acute here than elsewhere, with The Whitehaven News posting a 4.6 per cent decline in year-on-year circulation – to 15,450 – compared to the average for regional weeklies of 5.8 per cent.

The press continues to thrive in Cumbria, and it's thanks to this that Michael Moon's first instinct was to call The Whitehaven News on hearing of the shooting. Within hours, the world's media had arrived and the story was out of their hands.

Within a few weeks, once the world's media has moved on, the people of Whitehaven will return to whatever normality there can be, and the circulation of The Whitehaven News will go back to normal levels. The events of last week will leave an indelible mark on the town's history. But the importance of local journalists – to obtain and verify the facts as quickly as possible – has, at least, been proved once again

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

£22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

Guru Careers: PR Account Director / SAM

£50 - 60k (DOE) + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: A PR Account Director / SAM ...

Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Insight Analyst

£32 - £37K + extensive benefits: Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Ins...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific