02 June 2020

'Stories of innovation, science, and the human spirit'

UEA graduate James Longhurst and his business partner Trina Everall were part of the team behind launching Guardian Students and Guardian University awards. In recent weeks they've returned to the sector to launch Viral Stories, an online collection of the stories emerging from the higher education sector during the recent crisis. 

social media concept

James writes about the inspiration behind the project and how the pandemic has increased the public's appetite for quality storytelling. 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic there was a lot of uncertainty as to how the media businesses and marketing teams that make up our client base would respond. As in any of the recent economic crises – be it recessions or uncertainty caused by Brexit – it’s the marketing and advertising budgets that are often the first to go. 

As the pandemic took hold we were naturally worried about the future. But we were keen to try and find ways to positively contribute to the higher education sector. I’ve always known that UK universities have been a rich source of amazing stories, from the latest research findings, individual student experiences, to university staff and students collaborating with local businesses and communities. And so, within a couple of weeks, motivated by all the positive stories we were seeing from universities - not least UEA - we realised that the best way we could do that would be to build a platform that collated and promoted those stories to as wide an audience as we could reach.

We started sourcing as many stories as possible from UK universities: 

Stories about students joining the NHS frontline. Stories about staff and academics using chemistry labs to make hand sanitiser. Stories about the innovation, research, and modelling that was helping inform the global response. And how academic experts are helping with home schooling and mental health support. 

At the moment, it's unclear how the pandemic will affect many industries, and media and publishing are no different. In recent weeks we've seen the closure of the UK arms of Buzzfeed and Quartz, as more traditional publishers are tightening their belts. But we hope that whatever happens there will be scope for expert voices and good news stories to cut through. The pandemic has shown how critical that is. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how and why universities are crucial to our economy and society. They won’t just be the source of a potential vaccine and new tests, they will also be vital in tackling the psychological, economic, and educational fallout from the pandemic. And it is clear that it is not just us that believe this. Traffic on our site is growing daily, and interest in higher education stories has increased across the board (traffic to the Guardian’s HE content, for example, has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic). Academics and their institutions are becoming household names again. The general public are getting to grips with concepts like R numbers, disciplines like epidemiology, and the realisation that we may not have had enough of experts after all.

We hope that ViralStories.co.uk can quickly move from being a place where we are publishing daily COVID-19 stories and news articles to a useful archive for the sector. In the meantime, we’re proud to be a place where we can highlight some of the great stories of innovation, groundbreaking science, and the human spirit.