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January 03 2011

08:00

Hyperlocal voices: James Hatts, SE1

This week’s Hyperlocal Voices interview looks at the long-running SE1 website, which boasts half a million visits every month. Despite being over 12 years old, the site remains at the cutting edge of online journalism, being among the first experimenters with the Google Maps API and Audioboo.

Who were the people behind the site, and what were their backgrounds?

The London SE1 website is a family-run enterprise. My father, Leigh Hatts, has a background in outdoors, arts and religious affairs journalism. I was still studying for A-levels when we started the website back in 1998. I went on to study History and Spanish at Royal Holloway, University of London, and continued to run the SE1 website even whilst living and studying in Madrid.

What made you decide to set up the site?

My father was editing a monthly what’s on guide for the City of London (ie the Square Mile) with an emphasis on things that City workers could do in their lunch hour such as attending free lectures and concerts. The publication was funded by the City of London Corporation and in later years by the Diocese of London because many of these events and activities happened in the City churches.

Our own neighbourhood – across the Thames from the City – was undergoing a big change. Huge new developments such as Tate Modern and the London Eye were being planned and built. There was lots of new cultural and community activity in the area, but no-one was gathering information about all of the opportunities available to local residents, workers and visitors in a single place.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a community newspaper called ‘SE1′ but that had died out, and our neighbourhood was just a small part of the coverage areas of the established local papers (South London Press and Southwark News).

We saw that there was a need for high quality local news and information and decided that together we could produce something worthwhile.

When did you set up the site and how did you go about it?

We launched an ad-funded monthly printed what’s on guide called ‘in SE1′ in May 1998. At the same time we launched a website which soon grew into a product that was distinct from (but complementary to) the printed publication.

The earliest version of the site was hosted on free web space from Tripod (a Geocities rival) and was very basic.

By the end of 1998 we had registered the london-se1.co.uk domain and the site as it is today began to evolve.

In 2001 we moved from flat HTML files to a news CMS called WMNews. We still use a much-customised version. The current incarnation of our forum dates from a similar time, and our events database was developed in 2006.

What other websites influenced you?

When we started there weren’t many local news and community websites.

chiswickw4.com started at about the same time as we did and I’ve always admired it. There used to be a great site for the Paddington area called Newspad (run by Brian Jenner) which was another example of a good hyperlocal site before the term was coined.

More recently I’ve enjoyed following the development at some of the local news and listings sites in the USA, like Pegasus News and Edhat.

I also admire Ventnor Blog for the way it keeps local authorities on their toes.

How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

I think we have quite old-fashioned news values – we place a strong emphasis on local government coverage and the importance of local democracy. That means a lot of evenings sitting in long meetings at Southwark and Lambeth town halls.

Quite often the main difference is simply speed of delivery – why should people wait a week for something to appear in a local paper when we can publish within hours or minutes?

We are able to be much more responsive to changes in technology than traditional news operations – we were one of the first news sites in the UK to integrate the Google Maps API into our content management system, and one of the earliest users of Audioboo.

What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

It’s very difficult to pinpoint ‘key moments’. I think our success has more to do with quiet persistence and consistency of coverage than any particular breakthrough. Our 12-year track record gives us an advantage over the local papers because their reporters covering our patch rarely last more than a year or two before moving on, so they’re constantly starting again from a clean slate in terms of contacts and background knowledge.

There are also several long-running stories that we’ve followed doggedly for a long time – for example the stop-start saga of the regeneration of the Elephant & Castle area, and various major developments along the riverside.

Twitter has changed things a lot for us, both in terms of newsgathering, and being able to share small bits of information quickly that wouldn’t merit writing a longer article.

Some of the key moments in our 12-year history have been as much about technical achievement as editorial.

In 2006 I developed our CMS for events listings. Since then we have carried details of more than 10,000 local events from jumble sales to public meetings and exhibitions of fine art. As well as powering a large part of the website, this system can also output InDesign tagged text ready to be imported straight onto the pages of our printed publication. How many publications have such an integrated online and print workflow?

What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

The site consistently gets more than 500,000 page views a month.

We have a weekly email newsletter which has 7,200 subscribers, and we have about 7,500 followers on Twitter.

For us the big growth in traffic came four or five years ago. Since then there have been steady, unspectacular year-on-year increases in visitor numbers.

May 17 2010

10:13

Developers and journalists forging common ground

Back in April 2009 I listened as a group of bloggers at the G20 protests in London sent in reports using the new Audioboo iPhone application. The rules of the game are clearly changing fast, I thought.

The application allows users to record and upload high-quality sound files in an instant. In the same way that a photo of a plane floating in the Hudson river circumvented traditional channels and made its way around the world online, journalists (including Guardian staff) and bloggers on the ground were able to instantly upload reports on the unfolding activity with the immediacy and colour of front-line reports. I happened to be home ill that day and listened to the action with fascination. Then a contact from ABC News in the States contacted me via Twitter asking me if I knew any of the reporting bloggers and to pass on the direct number of the ABC newsroom. It was quick, energised and direct, and I was immediately hooked.

On the surface, the domain of the journalist and the developer seem poles apart. Journalists trace and shape stories, uncover information, and on a good day bring hidden truths to light. Developers build tools, marshal data and on a good day make the impossible possible. But a convergence is taking place that will ultimately rewrite the rulebook for both camps. Journalists have long been sifting and filtering forbidding mountains of data, looking for a story in the noise. Now they are going further, familiarising themselves with the tools to cohere and present this data, adapting to remain relevant in the new digital space. Developers in turn are doing far more than pushing data around. With rich social media tools and networks available to all, they are starting to report, telling stories with code and changing the way people in the online world relate, work and communicate. It’s a vast social experiment taking place in the production environment of the real world.

Back in March of this year, a small group of developers and journalists met in a pub in Islington to explore this overlap between coding and journalism in an intensely pragmatic fashion – the former teaching the latter the rudiments of web programming over a few beers. Ruby In The Pub was born.

A few days before, I overheard an online conversation between Joanna Geary of the Times and self-proclaimed ‘relapsed blogger’ James Ball. They were discussing the possibility of starting a regular event to get developers and journalists together. They touted Ruby as a possible language and with a speed typical of events incubated in social media circles the venue was sourced and the date decided.

As a Ruby developer (with the penchant for the odd beer) I immediately decided to attend and offer whatever support I could. The first event was warm and freestyle in nature, and the second drew a significantly larger group to the Shooting Star in Spitalfields, including the lead developer of the New York Times. One whole side of the pub was taken over by laptops and energised conversation. Due to the spotty wifi, I hardly managed any teaching at all, but became engaged in a wider discussion around journalism, the digital arena, and the changing media landscape.

Like that difficult third album, the next meet-up will probably define the future of this freestyle session. Ideas will gain traction, people will gravitate to familiar faces or pick up on projects that have been discussed. Karen Barber of Audioboo will be in attendance and has already taken up my offer of help on a project she has been kicking around for a while. We’ll get a drink, sit down, and start building it, responding to feedback from newbies and experienced hackers as we do so. Along the way, the communication channels between both sides will be strengthened and clarified and, what with all the activity on Twitter around the event, feelers of energy will spread out and spark up satellite meetings.

In fact, this has already happened. Paul Bradshaw, a journalist who teaches the MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham University, has already activated the wonderfully-named Ruby Tuesday up North and hopefully we’ll see a lot more. In a series of regular posts I will attempt to cover the process as it unfolds, as well as looking at the wider interface between word and code.

There’s no end to this journey, it’s a vibrant buzz of collaboration and exploration. Why not join us?

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December 10 2009

08:24
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