The Story Behind: The Portobello Reporter

THIS month, a free, quarterly newspaper serving the Edinburgh coastal suburb of Portobello is celebrating its 35th birthday, as noted, here, on

Run by volunteers, one of its more recent recruits, Karen Combe, answers the questions about The Portobello Reporter…

What exactly was the brief?

I’ve only been with the paper for eight years, so I’m still ‘a newbie'; but I’m very aware of the Reporter’s history, especially as we are celebrating our 35th anniversary. Quite a feat for a community paper put together on a shoe string.

It was established in 1980 to report on local people, news and events and to record Portobello’s history and is entirely run by volunteers.

We are not a community group or a charity, but operate as a company limited by guarantee. I’m one of five company directors running the paper.

We don’t receive any funding or grants, except for one Lottery grant used to buy some software.

But not relying on grants and subsidies has been the paper’s strength. As well as being financially independent, we are not affiliated to any authorities – commercial, religious or otherwise – and strive to report without bias about local issues.

Local businesses buy advertising space which covers the cost of every issue which we distribute free to over 12, 000 homes in the area.

We are a not-for-profit organisation and are careful to break even and have been known to reduce advert prices to make sure we don’t accumulate any profit!

The model works very well, as sometimes we don’t have room to accommodate all the businesses that would like to advertise with us.

And we make sure our editorial content is as free from promotional intent as possible – to be absolutely fair to businesses paying for adverts.

Sometimes, this causes an issue, as where do you draw the line? Can you review a book but not a restaurant but we try our best to stick to the principles of the paper’s constitution.

The history pages are an intrinsic part of the paper and are written by local historian, Dr Margaret Munro.

Margaret carries out a huge amount of research for her stories and often gets feedback from readers, particularly when she features old, black and white photographs.

Readers write in, identifying the people in the photos.

The paper is archived in the National Library of Scotland; to me it has a valuable role in adding to Scotland’s historical discourse.

What first struck you about the job?

I started to volunteer with the paper while I was studying journalism, part-time, at Edinburgh College and wanted to put into practice what I was learning.

It was completely different from my job in palliative care.

I didn’t know what to expect when I first went along to [one of the other volunteers,] Brenda’s house and was allocated a seat at her dining room table.

But I was impressed with the professional way the paper is put together.

And what Brenda Molony doesn’t know about grammar and punctuation isn’t worth knowing; so we are in safe hands.

Describe the process from conception to completion.

The Reporter is published quarterly and we start working on it around six weeks before our final publication deadline, holding weekly editorial meetings.

It used to be published monthly years ago, but changed to quarterly to make it more manageable.

Of course, it’s frustrating when good stories come up in the months in-between.

But, often, we follow a story and report the latest news on it for our current publication, especially stories like the campaign to save the baths, or the controversial plans for the new high school.

At the moment, Peter Ross’s kitchen table is our office and that’s where much of our work takes place.

Using a page-by-page framework, we work through stories systematically – editing and subbing contributions as we go.

News is constantly coming in from our regular contributors, local organisations, individuals, the City of Edinburgh Council and local councillors – so there is always plenty of content to work with.

One of our regular features is the Porty Profile, and, over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interview some interesting local people – including the crime writer, Allan Guthrie; Sheila Begbie, when she was head of women’s football in Scotland; and former athletics internationalist and 1977 Scottish Sportswoman of the Year, Liz Sutherland. It’s a popular a feature and one of the jobs I enjoy most.

There is usually a panic about what to put on the front page and whether we have enough stories, but something always comes up and we always get the paper finished.

At our final meeting, we get our red pens out and meticulously edit the proofs and pick up anything we have missed.

It’s sent off to be printed in Dunoon and is distributed by a local company and a few copies get posted off to readers overseas.

Pantone numbers, fonts, use of space, kit, etc?

The Reporter has been designed on Adobe InDesign for over ten years by Peter, who, as well as being a reporter and director, puts his ‘photographer and designer hat’ on to look after the design side of things.

Before InDesign, our printers did all the layout, typesetting and design, which made the process rather cumbersome for us and we had less control over how things looked. Now, we have much more control and can make last-minute changes, if needed. Overall, a much more flexible and better way of working.

The design we use is pretty traditional: Times New Roman for most of the body text, Gentium on page seven and, for the history page, we use Palatino. The headers are in Fontin Sans, apart from the history page, where we use Plantagenet Cherokee – which suits the history subject matter.

A big challenge has always been to avoid the paper looking too crammed because we have so much to fit in from all our community contributors and, unlike most papers, we don’t use a lot of photos.

For our online version, we can use colour photos and have included red in the title banner with splashes of red on other pages. We also make sure that all the email addresses, Facebook and Twitter references and web addresses are hyperlinked.

Although we prefer to get our adverts as print ready artwork, we do often end up doing the design for some of our advertisers which is included in our very reasonable advertising rates.

What most excited you about the project and what pleases you the most about the finished article?

It’s always good to see the finished article, especially when it is dropped through my letterbox. I read it from cover to cover because all the stories seem different when they are laid out in neat columns. I don’t always read my own column, Mum on the Run, and sometimes I hide it from my children, just in case.

When The Reporter was first published, the team had to crawl about on the floor pasting typed-up columns and photos on to sheets before it went to the printer.

I’m glad we have come a bit further than that.

We are purely a print publication and don’t have a website or a social media platforms because it would take too much time and might jeopardise the print side, it’s about sustainability and keeping the paper going.

However, The Reporter is published for us on Portobello Online which is a great way of making it accessible to our overseas readers and anybody who doesn’t get it delivered.

Any particular inspirations from your past that have shaped you and your work? 

The founders of the paper are still a big influence on how the paper operates today.

Their ethos and focus on community and creating a platform for people to share news and views in the 80s remains our focus.

Like the founders, we always make sure that all the articles published are as accurate and fact-checked as possible.

We rely on our contributors to tell us their news – groups such as Amnesty, Rowporty, the cycling club Portovelo and the community council – and we also try and find stories that might not appear elsewhere.

Sometimes, our best stories are the ones that come up when we have been chatting about something that’s happened locally and somebody says, “That would make a good story”.

Now and then, our stories are published elsewhere; quotes and all, and then we know we’ve been on the right track.

Been impressed recently by someone else’s work?

When any of us are away, and we see a community newspaper, we always get one and have good look at what people are doing.

It’s great to see that local news is still in demand and if I need an electrician or a joiner, The Reporter is the first place I look.