Keeping it local – putting a sharper focus on the communities we live in and love
It’s more than two years since Stuart Baillie founded local news website, Hastings In Focus, as an antidote to a local press that he saw was becoming ever less engaged with the community it was supposed to serve.
A 40 year veteran of the industry, Stuart has watched despondently as large national publishing houses have taken the LOCAL out of local newspapers.
“The big boys went on unprecedented spending sprees, buying up lots of small, independent publishers for absurd amounts of – borrowed – money,” he explains.
At that time, print advertising revenues were very strong. However, by the mid-2000s the wheels started to come off and the cuts began. Fewer reporters meant a greater reliance on centralised copy to fill all those pages.
For Stuart, who has always loved local newspapers, this was a depressing reality.
“I trained at a paper where the editor – and owner – was the third generation of his family to hold that position,” he says. “He was totally committed to the community his paper served and recognised that if the community didn’t thrive then nor would his business. The prosperity of his area truly mattered to him.”
It’s a passion that Stuart shares – and one that led him to launch Hastings in Focus.
“I’d moaned and groaned about what I saw as the ills of the local press, so decided to do something about it and show them how I thought it should be done,” he says.
It has proved to be a very wise decision. At a time when local newspapers are struggling to retain readers, the website has amassed a loyal – and vocal – following.
Last month alone, the site reached 17,000 people – 17 per cent of the town’s population. These figures have been achieved organically with no marketing budget.
“I’ve rediscovered my love of being a reporter again,” he says. “I’ve realised it’s what I was good at and what I enjoyed before that issue of building a career got in the way.”
Until now, Hastings in Focus has been a hobby, as Stuart’s other business interests have allowed him the time and space to work on stories of importance to the town.
However, this is about to change. He has decided to turn this project into the responsible local business it was, perhaps, always destined to become.
This summer, he will team up with former national newspaper journalist, Rob Griffin, who started his career on the Hastings and Bexhill Observers back in the mid-1990s.
The two men share the same values about the important role a thriving local press has to play in the life of a community – and are dedicated to showcasing what our towns have to offer.
Joining Hastings In Focus will be three other fiercely local websites: Bexhill In Focus, Battle in Focus, and Eastbourne In Focus. Together, they will have a potential audience of more than 250,000 people.
Over the coming weeks and months ,you’ll be hearing more about the ‘In Focus’ titles and the opportunities they will provide for local businesses to form partnerships.
“This isn’t about just old fashioned advertising, it’s about genuine partnerships that work for the towns,” explains Stuart. “We want to find the good news, the positive stories, to talk up our area, and make people feel proud of where they live. We want to become part of the very fabric of East Sussex because we love this county.”
From the editorial departments of local newspapers Stuart became one of the commercial managers for what was then known as Scottish and Universal Newspapers, in Dumfries and Galloway.
He ran his own Public Relations agency for seven years and spent time developing and launching new publications.
Following a move south in 2001, he became editor of Dog World, a national newspaper for the dog showing community. He went on to become a director and then led a management buyout in 2007.
“By 2017, it was clear that the print publishing business was on life support, with sales and advertising revenues having suffered sustained falls and revenues generated by digital audiences not as robust as we’d seen in years before,” he explains. “Sustaining a print business was just no longer viable and we closed the title down.”
However, this led to the launch of Hastings in Focus and an exciting new future.
He started out as a reporter on the Hastings Observer – his hometown paper – in the mid 1990s, as well as contributing to sister titles covering Bexhill, Battle and Rye.
He then become group news editor at the Eastbourne Herald & Gazette series, before going on to work for the Yorkshire Post, Sunday Business, The Guardian and the Sunday Express. He went freelance in 2002.
His work has appeared in the Sunday Telegraph, Mail on Sunday, Daily Express, Daily Star Sunday, and The Independent, as well as consumer magazines, trade titles, and websites.
His Bexhill-based company, Senlac Communications, also provides editorial services to businesses, public relations firms, graphic designers, and publishing houses.