19th September 2023
Spotlight On | Rhys Everquill, managing editor, Great Central Gazette

“The current established model of local journalism is no longer sustainable. We aim to do things completely differently.”

Rhys Everquill is a journalist and managing editor of Impress member publication Great Central Gazette, an independent, not-for-profit newspaper based in Leicester.

Having undertaken an undergraduate degree in drama, Rhys made the switch to investigative journalism and, in March 2023, was part of the team that set up Great Central Gazette.

In our latest Spotlight On interview, we talk to Rhys about his route into journalism, The Gazette’s desire to drive positive change and how their approach to news production can help win the public’s trust.

You have been trained in investigative journalism. What was it that made you want to go down that particular route of the profession?

I’ve always been passionate about storytelling and different ways of telling stories, and I guess investigative journalism stood out to me because it’s one of the more effective ways to bring about positive change in society. I originally didn’t come from an investigative journalism background. I did an undergraduate degree in drama, but then decided I wanted a bit more hands on ability to hold people to account, and I was quite political, so I wanted to make some change in society. I found journalism was the best way to do that. Then I got introduced to investigative journalism and I guess the rest is history.

The Great Central Gazette only launched in March 2023. What was it that motivated you and the team to start the publication?

The team and I did it because we all agree that the current established model of local journalism is no longer sustainable. Journalists often are required to churn out an excessive number of stories each day, to reach arbitrary pageview targets to bring in advertising revenue. We aim to do things completely differently. We have a focus on quality journalism that isn’t reliant on online ads and clickbait headlines, and we avoid sensationalism.

Rather than operate off ad-revenue, you have instead gone down the route of grants, membership contributions and donations. What was it that motivated you to take this approach rather than the more common use of online ads?

Advertising is a changing market. It’s unstable, it’s unsustainable. Overnight, a newspaper can have the rug pulled from under it by one of their bigger advertisers, and that can lead to a huge revenue gap, and the first thing to go when that gap appears is jobs. We’ve seen some of the biggest cuts to local journalism jobs over the last couple of decades. I think our model, which is cooperative membership, it gives people an ownership stake in the business, so they want to see it thrive and do well. The realities of independent media are that it’s a very poorly funded sector, and I think that as membership grows, we hope to reduce our reliance on things like that [grants and donations], and be entirely reader funded in five or 10 years – however long it takes.

Sparking positive change was one of the motivating factors behind starting the Great Central Gazette. What sort of positive change do you want to drive?

In Leicester, I would say it’s community cohesion. That’s quite a pressing issue at the moment. We had some unrest in Leicester recently, which made national headlines, with tensions between different religious and cultural communities.

I’d say from the beginning of the Gazette, we’ve always tried to remain accessible and open to everyone, and make sure everybody has the same ability to access the information in the way everybody else would. So, for example, our website has an accessibility tool, which can translate any of our articles into 100 different languages. They can be read out in 40 different languages and many of those are the most commonly spoken languages in Leicester.

I think more broadly, I hope we can put a new spin on the co-operative model of local journalism. Obviously, it’s been done before with the Bristol Cable, Manchester Meteor more recently, Exeter Observer and The Ferret. But we’re very much starting to explore shared appreciative inquiries, like what Now Then are doing in Sheffield. But tapping into our membership, in a way that other non-member organisations can’t do. And that will allow us, when our pilot goes out, to produce high quality articles. The last six weeks has been our most successful period since launch and those partnerships that we’re forming with these shared inquiries will allow us to produce more high quality articles on a regular basis, rather than ad hoc, when we have the time and the resources to do so.

You say you are taking the approach of producing slow, quality news. Why do you think this is needed at this point in time?

People are abandoning news, which isn’t great for my job, but they’re fed up with it, and I’m fed up with it as well. I want to see solutions and I think people say that you should always make things that you want, because in all likelihood, somebody else wants that thing as well. So I think taking our time with journalism also means we’re less likely to make mistakes. We’re constantly mindful of the Impress Code because we’re taking our time, and I think it’s our slow approach that allows us to gain the trust of readers.

Journalism, and journalists are the least trusted profession in the country. We score worse ratings than politicians and those are the people we’re holding to account half the time. I think by taking our time and making sure we’re getting it right, and, when we don’t, admitting our mistakes, throwing our hands up and saying ‘we’re human, but this is the process we have in place to sort this out’. I think that helps create trust and transparency between the journalist and the reader.

Soon after being set up, you joined Impress. Why did you seek out independent press regulation and Impress membership?

It’s essential. There are other codes and other ways to self-regulate the press and media. But nothing is as robust as Impress. It enables ethical journalism and an accountable media.

It has undoubtedly been a whirlwind first six months of operation for you. But what is the most valuable lesson you have learned in that time?

I don’t think we were ready for launch. We could have spent ages preparing for it and I think the last few months have been a steep learning curve. However, saying that, we did plan this first year to be a time of experimentation and working out what the community wanted, perhaps breaking things along the way and then learning from those mistakes. I feel like we’ve done that well and built a solid foundation for the next year.

Finally, you are at the start of your journey as a publication, but what is the next big goal for Great Central Gazette?

We’re launching a print edition next year, and every time I tell someone that they look confused, and they often say something like, “print is dead”. But I think in a time when people are facing information overload, and like I said, deserting news, I think sometimes the past has the answers we’re looking for.

Rhys is a seasoned journalist, writer, and media consultant. He organises The Gazette’s editorial coverage and daily operations.