Helen Nugent, founder and editor of Northern Soul, on filling the news gap in the North of England, keeping deadlines to a minimum and why some PRs are friendlier now than when she worked on a national.
You spent more than a decade in London as a journalist. Tell us why you moved back to Manchester to launch Northern Soul and your vision for the site…
I’d been in London for 14 years, 10 of which were at The Times. It felt like time to go home. For a couple of years, I’d had an idea in the back of my mind to start a website called Northern Soul. The name being a nod to the Northern Soul music movement in this part of the world but, more importantly, encapsulating the notion that both myself and potential readers are Northern souls.
At the start, it was intended to be more of a personal blog. However after about six months back in the North West, I realised that there was an opportunity for it to be much more than that. Newspapers were cutting back on their coverage of the North of England, as well as cutting regional staff. I was struggling to find anywhere to read good quality journalism about where I lived.
Articles about culture in the nationals and several high profile magazines were very much focused on the South, despite the fact that there is an enormous amount happening outside of London. It was incredibly frustrating. So my plans for Northern Soul began to change. I worked with a graphic designer on the logo and with a consultancy firm called Simply Better IT on the design of the site. And it went from there.
Northern Soul turned one at the beginning of May. Today, we are a team of more than 30 people who write about the North, its people and its creative industries. The idea is to showcase all the great things that happen in this part of the world as well as talking to the likes of musicians, artists, authors and performers who come here.
Describe the site in five words;
Positive, engaging, intelligent, compelling, personal.
Who else is in the team?
The majority of the team are professional journalists and we have a couple of photographers so we can produce our own high quality imagery. Basically, there’s a range of people with different passions and interests. Helen Carter, the former Northern correspondent of the Guardian is on the team. We have BBC journalists, former Manchester Evening News and Yorkshire Post reporters, writers for The Big Issue in the North, leading Northern playwrights, directors and producers, published poets, novelists and journalism lecturers.
What areas of the North do you currently cover?
Many of us are based in Manchester and the surrounding areas so quite a bit of the coverage centres on Greater Manchester, Cheshire and Lancashire at the moment. However, there are Northern Soul writers in Newcastle, Yorkshire, the Lake District and Liverpool. The intention has always been to start in Manchester and expand gradually outwards across the North. Thankfully, that strategy seems to be working. We don’t have any boundaries; if it’s about the North of England or is happening here then we’ll cover it.
What are the key sections on the site?
The site is expanding all the time as we recruit more people and discover what readers want to hear about. However, the core areas are the Arts, Music, Books, Food, Small Businesses, Photography and Blogs. The blogs section has been the biggest surprise in terms of popularity. Several of the writers with special interests have their own columns; from cycling, gardening and poetry to cookery, running and science fiction.
One of the most popular sections is the Northern Soul Podcast. It runs weekly and is produced and presented by a BBC journalist who does one major interview a week and plays up-and-coming bands as well as established artists.
One of the site’s main strengths is the quality of interviewees. Northern Soul is not a review site. It’s more of a features-led magazine. So in recent months we’ve interviewed, among others, Sir Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Library Theatre, The Sage Gateshead, The Bridgewater, Manchester Art Galleries and Liverpool Biennial, Everything Everything, Clint Boon, John Thomson and Sinead O’Connor. We’re also starting to run more articles about architecture and heritage.
What can PRs help with most?
Access to key people. Anyone can go to gigs and visit restaurants and exhibitions. At Northern Soul we are trying to offer more value to readers – chats with interesting individuals, behind-the-scenes tours of key museums and galleries, interviews with bands, that sort of thing.
Images are very important for the site – what should PRs keep in mind when sending through pictures?
On a practical level, landscape pictures work better on Northern Soul. But the most important thing is quality. I loathe using pictures taken on mobile phones or images that have been around for years. The images have to be as high quality as the words.
How do you like to be approached by PRs?
Initially at least, email is best. As I have several freelance journalist roles and Northern Soul is growing at a fast rate, I have to manage my time carefully. If it’s in my inbox I might not get back to you immediately but I won’t forget it’s there – you will get a reply.
Three top tips for PRs when pitching?
Offer something exclusive or special. I’m not interested in trotting out press releases verbatim.
Keep it brief and to the point. I am awash with emails and don’t have time to read a long pitch.
Don’t pester. If I haven’t got back to you it’s not because I’m ignoring you, I’m just working on other things.
Are you interested in guest posts?
Yes, if the guest has something really interesting to say. Some of the best articles on the site are by one-time contributors who have a specialist knowledge of something. Northern Soul is about playing to people’s strengths. However, I have a Style Guide that I send out to contributors to keep my editing duties to a minimum so it’s helpful if guest writers are aware of that.
Are there any particular brands or companies you’d like to work with?
I’ve been lucky in that I have a good relationship with some of the most interesting and biggest cultural brands in the North. It’s been hard work establishing these relationships though, particularly after I lived in London for so long. I don’t really have a wish list as such – but I’d encourage any brands or companies who like the sound of Northern Soul to get in touch.
What lead times and deadlines do you work to?
I try to keep deadlines to a minimum. A lot of people write much better articles when they’re not under pressure and it’s supposed to be fun writing for Northern Soul. I think this approach is working as much of the copy I receive is clearly written by someone who enjoyed the process – and I think readers respond to that. However, if the article is time sensitive – a preview interview with the director of an upcoming play for example – then I will impose a deadline. But we try and plan things as far in advance as possible.
And finally you were previously a business and financial reporter at The Times – how different are the PRs you deal with now compared to your national newspaper days?
To be honest, they’re pretty much the same. But if I had to name one difference I would say that some PRs are much friendlier now. When I was a reporter working to daily deadlines, there was pressure to get answers quickly and succinctly. I am much more relaxed now that I run my own site – and writing about culture generally means that you are writing something pretty positive.
Read the article on Gorkana’s Notes from Basecamp site here.