By Eliza Goetze and Declan Gooch
The power of newspapers can influence people to reach into their pockets, and, as the NSW regional daily The Northern Star showed in the case of 18-year-old Jackson Byrnes, make a life-saving difference.
Jackson was in desperate need of surgery to remove a brain tumour but required $80,000 for the operation – a substantial amount for a small Northern Rivers community.
When The Northern Star – a paper with a daily readership of around 44,000 – was approached to assist, it detailed Jackson’s plight and backed a crowd-funding campaign to raise the money, running stories through multiple editions and online.
Editor David Kirkpatrick said the story of the teenager from Casino touched his readership.
“Here’s a kid who was normally very healthy, very active in the prime of his life. He had a job, girlfriend, everything going for him,” Mr Kirkpatrick said. “His mother noticed he has a limp one day, takes him in, they discover that he’s got a massive tumour that’s been growing for some time. Basically a lot of doctors just said you can have chemo or radiation but there’s nothing much we can do for him.” A costly operation was needed.
A front page in the newspaper on Friday, April 17, featured a 200 point headline, “Fight of his life”, with a picture of Jackson and an inside story with his mother and girlfriend. Online, the article included a link to the crowdfunding page in the story. On the Saturday, the names of every person who had so far donated were splashed across page 1.
The day the paper published Jackson’s story, the crowdfunding campaign had raised $2500. By 11.30 that night when the piece had gone online and on the Star’s Facebook and Twitter pages, the total had risen to $25,000, and by Monday morning they had reached their target of $80,000. Jackson successfully underwent surgery last week.
As one of the largest employers in the Northern Rivers area, The Northern Star tapped into its own workforce as well. “We got our staff to share the link on all their Twitter and Facebook accounts,” Mr Kirkpatrick said. “Many of the staff from the paper donated as well and it just started to really snowball, basically.”
While a few businesses stepped in with $1000, most of the donations were small but many, ranging from $10 to $200. “Most people just contributed what they could.”
Federal Member for Page, Keith Hogan, attested to the phenomenal response to the paper’s campaign.
“Our community has a long history of rallying around those in need,” Mr Hogan said.
“I give credit to The Northern Star for the campaign’s success as they were the first media outlet to publish the story that resonated strongly within our community.”
Importantly, the paper didn’t drop the story after the first article, he said. Instead it gave regular updates, both in print and online, that allowed readers to become involved in the story.
“The Northern Star is an integral part of our community. It is first and foremost a community paper. It has a long and proud history and I treasure the role it plays. Over the Northern Star’s long history, the paper has run numerous campaigns.
“I believe this one worked because there was something concrete its readers and our community could do to help this young local man.”
Mr Kirkpatrick was staggered with the generosity of the community. “It did and didn’t surprise me in a way,” he said. “I think we just needed to reach out.
“I never thought that we weren’t going to get there, I just knew that we had to tell the story. There’s a little piece of everyone in that telling of that tale.”
The story also galvanised the newsroom. “When you have an incredible story like this to tell it’s an enormous privilege in a way,” Mr Kirkpatrick said. “Our challenge really was to get it to as many people as we possibly could. The story then got picked up by the Gold Coast Bulletin and the Daily Mail. It hastened people’s opening of their hearts and their wallets to the whole thing.”
As well as following the story until the target was reached, Northern Star journalists kept on the case during Jackson’s journey to Sydney for the surgery, and welcomed him back the following Saturday.
“In a town like Casino, where everyone knows everyone, the Star is like a member of the family,” Mr Kirkpatrick says. “Sometimes we’re loved, sometimes we’re loathed but we’re pretty happy to be a part of this family.”
Mr Kirkpatrick said being part of the campaign for Jackson was an incredible experience .“It’s not very often that you get to be involved in a campaign, in your professional life, where you’ve helped to potentially save a life.”
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