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July 25 2012

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

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

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

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

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

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

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

09:16

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.

 

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.

I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.

It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.

I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.

The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.

I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.

Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.

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

I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.

Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.

There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.

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

You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.

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

Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.

8.  What has been your biggest challenge to date?

Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.

One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.

Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.

Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.

The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.

Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.

February 15 2011

09:41

Hyperlocal Voices: Phyllis Stephen, Edinburgh Reporter

Edinburgh Reporter

Yessi Bello continues the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews, talking to the Edinburgh Reporter‘s Phyllis Stephen.

Who were the people behind the blog, and what where their backgrounds?

I am the person behind it. I had just graduated with a Masters in Journalism and needed to find an outlet for my work based here in Edinburgh. It seemed to me – particularly after attending the News Re:Wired conference in January 2010 – that hyperlocal is the new buzzword and that I could do it right here on my own doorstep.

I had loads of new multimedia skills desperately needing to be used and practiced. Prior to that I had been a solicitor for a number of years but took a career swerve in 2008 when I decided to go back to university. Same skills – different result!

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

I first set the blog up with WordPress in February 2010. It was hacked and then I started using Rapidweaver (Mac software). It took a while to realise that this was not the best platform (It was very cumbersome to add in articles and even Google Ads was nightmare).

I relaunched The Edinburgh Reporter properly with some professional technical help at the end of July 2010. We also have sites placed in Aberdeen, Dublin, Glasgow and London which we will grow given time.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I had read or visited a number of blogs, particularly The Lichfield Blog which always seems to be held up as the guru of hyperlocal in the UK. I really like SE1 and also Will Perrin’s King’s Cross blog.

The one which influenced me a lot, and I even got the book on it – was The Huffington Post. I don’t see why we can’t have something like that here – and I see no real barriers to our site becoming more like that given time and lots and lots of connections.

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

We cannot cover every story like a newspaper with a lot of staff. It is impossible. But I see us plugging a gap for local people to have access to news about Edinburgh in one place.

I think it is useful for Edinburgh residents to have one site to get news about their own city – even if that news is also elsewhere on the internet or in the newspapers. People have jobs and their own lives. They do not have all day to trawl the internet looking for stories about Edinburgh and that is where we come in. We do not see ourselves as competing with traditional news – we hope that we complement it.

But I do take the practice of journalism very seriously, and we try to get original quotes when we can. One of our best and most popular stories of recent days was the day I was out early taking photographs of a house which had caught fire in the early morning. I had the photos up before any newspaper site. Even the BBC just had one line by the time my article with quotes from firefighters and householders was published online.

It is simply easier on occasions to use press releases, particularly if time is pressing. It is the best way to get a wide spread of news out to our readers, and I have no real problem in using press releases to help do that, but I always edit them thoroughly before publishing.

We are very different from traditional news outlets in that our possibilities of using multimedia to tell the story are endless. Video, photographs and audio all add colour to the story itself.

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

Our traffic is increasing all the time in a straight line and this month, a mere six months into our new entity, we are approaching 10,000 visitors and more than twice that number of pageviews. We think that is rather good in the time allowed but we have no real way of knowing! Our Twitter presence is also effective and we have just under 1300 followers at today’s date.

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

I think the use of WordPress is now a monumental factor. We have several contributors who can log in remotely and thus my role as editor is developing naturally. Our articles will cover a wider spread with more contributors.

But I resist the temptation of calling us a blog. We aim to be a true hyperlocal website with static pages of information as well as news stories: one of our key pages and one which we work on continually is the Free Wifi page.

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.

December 14 2010

12:16

Hyperlocal voices: Brian Ward, Indolent Dandy (Fitzroy, Melbourne)

This latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews looks at a second Australian hyperlocal blogger: Brian Ward, who runs Fitzroyality, a blog covering Fitzroy in Melbourne – which he describes as “vehemently anti-commercial” – as well as a number of aggregator blogs around the city. He has successfully fought major publishers on inaccuracies and copyright, and the site has now broken 1.4m pageviews.

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

Fitzroyalty is entirely my work. I’ve been using computers since I was 12 and have been online since 1990, the year I started university. I have a PhD in literature and have worked as a writer and editor in print publishing. I now work only in electronic publishing and have expanded into social media marketing and managing online communities. I’m a cliched digital native.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

I wanted to do some writing online, and spent months examining the blogging phenomenon in 2005-2006. I wanted to understand the motivation to create free content, and to ensure I had the motivation to maintain my interest in my subject(s) and to keep publishing regularly.

I read a lot about the online content ecology, about search engine optimisation and audience engagement. I also have an IT background, so it was fun to learn more about managing servers, installing open source software and other tasks associated with electronic publishing, which was essential to being able to operate indpendently.

The theme took some time to discover. I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and moved to Melbourne 8 years ago. I was passionate about my new home in the bohemian centre of Melbourne, Fitzroy (the cultural equivalent of Hackney, Spitalfields or Shoreditch in London), and decided to write about it.

I was significantly influenced by a hyperlocal site for the nearby suburb of Abbotsford (http://abbotsfordblog.com/ – still online but defunct since 2008), which started about 3 months before I started Fitzroyalty. It was very important to have a theme I would not get bored with.

I was keenly unimpressed with the inane superficiality of the local (suburban) weekly newspapers (which tend to feature little local news and lots of syndicated content – they’re just vehicles for real estate advertising). I thought I could create something new that people would find useful and entertaining. Fitzroy is Melbourne’s oldest, smallest (about square 1km) and most densely populated (9000+) suburb. In 150 years it’s gone from industry to slum to gentrified urban cultural precinct. It has the critical mass of people and culture to enable an online local news publication to work.

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

I started Fitzroyalty in May 2006. After researching platforms I decided against a free hosted one like Blogger and opted instead to host my own WordPress installation because I wanted to be free and independent of potential censorship, interference or intellectual property disputes (some hosts make claims on the content you publish on their platforms).

I registered a domain, bought hosting, installed WordPress and started writing and publishing. I already knew HTML and learned some CSS and PHP so I could alter WordPress templates, and also some (very basic) SQL to administer the database underneath.

I made the theme or concept loose enough to give me some diversity, so the site is mostly about Fitzroy, its culture, people and politics, and also whatever else I am doing. I am partially a food blogger and review places outside Fitzroy. I also do something quite unusual in deliberately analysing and commenting on the Melbourne online publishing scene, critiquing the business models of commercial guide sites, local government, and local business sites and the ethics of the blogging scene.

I also publish a series of 10 hyperlocal sites that aggregate posts from hundreds of local bloggers about inner city suburbs. They feature thousands of posts about restaurants, art, theatre, music and culture.

I started these in 2009 and so they have been running for 18-24 months (I built them over a period of months). They function as interesting destinations in their own right for local audiences, but via syndication they also serve a powerful (white hat) SEO function for the contributors, which is the incentive to participate.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

The Abbotsford blog was my primary inspiration, as well as the emerging food blogging scene, which is particularly strong in Melbourne. I’ve also been influenced by my reading about the future of media and the rapid development of social media. Hyperlocal aggregators like Outside.In have influenced me a lot, to the extent that I built my own hyperlocal aggregators using WordPress and an RSS aggregating plugin.

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

I have a vigilante hatred of commercial media corporations and the anti-intellectual, lowest common denominator banal suburban celebrity culture they perpetuate, although I mostly admire government media corporations like the BBC and the Australian equivalent the ABC. I have little in common with any of them.

I deliberately have no business model and I’m vehemently anti-commercial. I publish free content as a hobby. I refuse advertising and all offers of free goods and services that businesses and public relations agencies send to food bloggers. I have no need to meet the needs of my audience because they don’t pay me. The only thing they give me is attention, and that I have to earn by being interesting.

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

I’m most proud of winning copyright disputes against corporate dinosaurs. News Ltd used a photo I supplied them in breach of our agreement, did not credit me and published a deliberate falsehood about me. I took them to the official body, the Australian Press Council, and won. They had to publish an apology and correction.

I also defeated the billionaire might of Formula One Management (FOM) in a dispute about ownership of video I shot at the Australian F1 GP. I forced them to concede that I understood the US DMCA better than them and my deleted videos were reinstated on Youtube.

I’ve helped break significant local news stories, such as about a telco’s lame viral marketing campaign. I also do regular name and shame posts about content thieves and PR agencies that breach privacy laws by sending me spam.

I’m willing to write about stories no one else wants to touch, such as government censorship forcing local pornography producers to leave Australia.

In 2009 I pursued an FOI request against the local government to release details of restaurant hygiene inspections (Victoria is far behind Sydney in NSW, London and other cities in transparency and disclosure in this issue). I failed to get all the data I wanted but I certainly exposed the local council to be blundering idiots (not that it’s difficult to do that).

In 2010 I had a big impact writing about the ethics of food bloggers accepting free goods.

As a former academic it is satisfying for me to know that my site is on the curriculum of one of Australia’s most prestigious universities (University of Melbourne) and I have been approached and interviewed by several journalism students from other universities.

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

I initially published stories whenever I could – 2 or 3 a week. Eventually I managed to have enough content to publish 1 a day, and then 2 a day, which I have managed to stick with for 2 years.

The regularity really drives traffic – publishing every day helped a lot, as did a lot of SEO I did in early 2009. In October 2008 the site received only 2,800 pageviews a month. By October 2010 it was over 120,000 pageviews a month (WordPress stats), with over 10,000 unique visitors by IP a month (Google Analytics stats). At December 2010 the site had received over 1,400,000 total pageviews.

My goal was to reach a significant percentage of the Fitzroy population, and I think I have achieved that; my readership is larger than Fitzroy’s population and it’s mostly from Melbourne.

According to Google Analytics, 82% of Fitzroyalty’s total (worldwide) traffic (based on the month of August 2010) is from Australia. The traffic from Melbourne is 79% of all Australian traffic and 65% of total traffic. It’s as local as it can possibly be measured. I believe in radical transparency and take the initiative to share information others hide for commercial reasons.

I am fascinated by the broader phenomenon of social media and I conduct deliberate experiments on my audience. I see my mission as not to please an audience and make them feel comfortable and good about themselves but to stir them into reflection and action, sometimes by making them uncomfortable. I’ve discovered you don’t have to be liked to be relevant and thus well read.

November 30 2010

11:33

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Jones, Saddleworth News

Hyperlocal voices: Saddleworth News

Richard Jones, an experienced broadcast journalist, set up Saddleworth News just nine months ago. He hoped to combine his journalistic ambitions with a demanding routine as a stay-at home-father whilst providing more online information about an area which he claims “was relatively under-served by the traditional media”. Although not an easy task, Jones has successfully used social media as well as local news stories in order to secure an expanding fan base. This post is part of the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews.

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

I set it up myself. I used to be a full-time professional journalist. I graduated from the Broadcast Journalism course in Leeds in 2002, then spent six years at Sky News working in TV and radio.

After we relocated to Manchester because of my wife’s career, I freelanced at various radio stations until we had our first child in September 2009 and I gave up work to become a stay-at-home dad.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

Lots of reasons really, but two main themes. I’ll admit the first was selfishness. I couldn’t really combine irregular hours as a radio journalist with being a full-time dad, but I knew that I wanted to return to full-time work one day, so I needed to do something to keep my hand in.

I was also worried about how I’d fill my days, even with a small baby to look after, so was keen to take on a project to help keep me occupied.

The other reasons were more altruistic. When we were thinking of moving to Saddleworth we realised that there wasn’t actually that much information about the place online. I also noticed that, for an area with such a distinctive character, it was relatively under-served by the traditional media. So I thought I could use my journalism skills to do something positive for the community we were about to move into.

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

We moved to Saddleworth in January 2010 and I started the blog the following month. It’s a self-hosted WordPress site.

I’ve written other blogs before (and continue to write about being a stay-at-home dad at www.likefatherlikedaughter.blogspot.com) using Blogger so I had some very basic experience of running a site and tinkering with HTML a little.

I knew in my head how I felt it should look, so it was just a case of picking a free WordPress theme and after an evening playing around I had it more or less as I wanted. I’ve been very impressed with how user-friendly and reliable WordPress is.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

The main one was Kate Feld’s Manchizzle [interviewed previously in the Hyperlocal Voices series]. When I lived in Manchester I used to go to her blog meet-ups, then got into going to the Social Media Cafe Manchester evenings. When I had the idea of doing a hyperlocal site I got lots of encouragement and ideas from people there.

I think the first hyperlocal site I saw was Linda Preston’s Darwen Reporter, now sadly no longer running. I definitely copied the blog format from her.

I wanted to get away from the typical information-heavy newspaper websites, partly because I think they’re often a bit confusing, but mostly because I didn’t want to feel under pressure to update it more than once a day.  And if you do one story a day on a blog, there’s always something new on top of the site to keep it fresh for regular readers.

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

The similarities are to do with the basic skills of journalism. I still research stories, make phone calls, do interviews, write copy, take pictures, nurture contacts, take editorial decisions, just as I did when I worked in a newsroom. Although I have to compress all that into an hour or two each day during my daughter’s lunchtime nap!

There are plenty of differences, but one main one is that I don’t have to run my story ideas by an editor. So instead of hearing excuses like “I’m interested in that” or “Nobody cares” or “We did that last week/month/year” I can just do whatever I like.

For example, during the election campaign I decided to interview all the candidates standing in the general and local elections, so I went and did it. A local newspaper journalist told me he’d suggested the same thing, but his editor had said there “wasn’t space” in the paper for it. That’s the kind of public service a site like mine can provide.

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

By far the biggest story of the year has been the local political situation. We had a bitterly-fought general election, a legal challenge, then the local MP Phil Woolas got found guilty of cheating and was thrown out of parliament.

I covered the campaign in much greater detail than anyone else at the time, and I’ve now built up a huge archive of articles about every aspect of the saga. It’s helped raise the profile and credibility of the site locally, and I’ve also given interviews and help to national journalists who have come to cover the story, which has hopefully given the site a bit of a wider reputation too.

The day of the Woolas verdict was the busiest ever for the site, with 1500 unique visits and a great amount of attention on Twitter. I have to take my daughter out with me on stories, and to their credit Oldham Council’s press team who were controlling the media let me into an ante-room so I could follow the verdict (I was doing Twitter updates with one hand, and trying to entertain her with a toy car in the other) and then into the news conference later.

I also had with me a crew of teenage media students from Oldham College who have been making some video reports for the site. I overheard someone say rather sniffily “Who are they covering it for, CBeebies?” but the fact people in this area are prepared to accept the site as legitimate journalism, no matter how unconventional some aspects of it are, I think says a lot about how far it’s come in such a short time.

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

I was amazed when the site got more than 6,000 unique visits in the first full month. It’s increased steadily since, and last month there were 12,000.

The Woolas verdict means there have already been more than that during November, so it’ll be another new record.

I haven’t spent anything on promotion apart from getting a few business cards printed, but Facebook has been a great way of growing awareness and building a regular audience. There are almost 700 fans on there now.

November 23 2010

10:03

Hyperlocal Voices: Cathy Watson, Uckfield News

Hyperlocal voices - Uckfield News

Cathy Watson, an experienced journalist, first set up the Uckfield News 3 and a half years ago to promote her PR business, which it has since outgrown. The site is “reactive”, says Cathy, both in the directions that it has grown, and in many of the stories that it covers: “Where I see people hunting for information, perhaps on Twitter or Facebook, about traffic hold ups or fires I make the calls to find and post answers but I don’t make the traditional daily calls.”

This is part of the ongoing Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews.

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

I set up the blog but my husband, Paul Watson, now helps with it. We are both journalists.

I have worked as reporter, news editor, sub-editor, deputy editor and acting editor moving, within one company, between the Bury Free Press, Newmarket Journal and Lynn News and Advertiser. After moving to Sussex I worked as a freelance for the Sussex Express.

Paul too worked in all jobs across the newsroom before becoming an editor. He edited free newspapers in King’s Lynn and Wisbech before moving to edit the Middy, (the Mid Sussex Times at Haywards Heath) and then the Sussex Express.

Most recently he has been looking at the future training of journalists in managing a project led by the National Council for the Training of Journalists supported by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, the Periodicals Training Council and the Society of Editors.

The project has included a survey of employers of journalists, relevant education providers and new entrants to the profession.

He continues to work as an editorial consultant for the NCTJ.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

I started a PR business, wanted to attract the attention of local businesses and thought it would help to have an Uckfield News page on my website. I updated it daily with nibs (news in brief).

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

I started the news page three-and-a-half years ago using the free Microsoft Office Live platform. After about 18 months I altered the focus of the site to Uckfield News and a year ago had a bespoke site built.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

None. I didn’t know people were setting up ‘hyperlocal’ sites. Everything I have done has been reactive, people liked the news so I added more of it, I tested a shopping feature and it led to the listings, the listings are now leading to more features and people who pay to list (so supporting the site) are, where possible, sources for stories.

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

Uckfield is on the edge of circulation areas of three paid-for newspapers. They cover the town well but can’t pick up the ‘nitty gritty’ because of commitments to other towns.

I’m particularly interested in planning applications, change within the town, shopping and business news. I concentrate on reporting facts, leaving people to add their views in the comment sections at the end of stories, and on Uckfield News Twitter and Facebook pages.

I also mix paid-for ad features in with the news.

Where I see people hunting for information, perhaps on Twitter or Facebook, about traffic hold ups or fires I make the calls to find and post answers but I don’t make the traditional daily calls and tend to avoid “shock, horror, probe”.

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

Adding shopping, business and history features. They are a good way of bringing people back to the site on a regular basis.

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

It doesn’t seem long since I was pleased to have four or five visitors a day! Growth has been slow but by the time we launched the new site a year ago we were getting about 1,000 unique visitors a month.

In our most recent peak we hit about 4,500 unique visitors, 9,000 visitors and 25,000 page views. The figures have settled again to about 3,000 unique visitors, 5,000 visits and 14,000 page views a month but the trend is upwards.

Paul and I have the desire to cover everything that moves because old habits die hard! But I am reining back because I don’t want to do this without advertising support. I have just had the site altered to accommodate advertising and hope to start building that side of the business.

November 20 2010

11:11

From journalist to blogger: the experience of The Lichfield Blog’s Ross Hawkes

Although I’ve already published an interview with The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John (as part of the Hyperlocal Voices series) I recently returned to ask the site’s editor, Ross Hawkes, about how his own approach as a professional journalist has been changed through running the site. I thought it worth publishing his response in full – here it is:

My background has been in regional journalism in Staffordshire and the West Midlands. I began at the Lichfield Post as a fresh-faced 16-year-old, so it’s quite ironic that I’ve pretty much gone full circle in the space of 12 or 13 years, yet have never been happier. I started off as a sports reporter, then branched out into page design, edited a weekly paper in Coventry before making the move to the dailies at the Birmingham Mail as a page planner and sub-editor. So I’ve had a fairly varied career even though it hasn’t taken me a million miles from my own doorstep. It also skilled me for The Lichfield Blog because I got to see some patch reporters in the greatest sense of the word – people who lived and breathed a community. My integration into the online landscape came after the opportunity arose to take on their web operation.

My time in this role saw me eventually become Senior Multimedia Editor for the Midlands. I’ve been lucky as a journalist in changing times – I’ve been able to spend time learning about the positives and negatives of online work, what works and what doesn’t etc, while many of my colleagues in the industry have had a timescale imposed on them.

But for a variety of reasons the chance to teach online journalism at Staffordshire University came up and here I am today. One of the things I’m keen to stress to students is that I’m not a geek (I leave that to Phil!) but a journalist who has found practical uses for technology etc. During my time at Trinity Mirror I saw plenty of great things, but in a busy newsroom only so much of it could really be of benefit. So that’s what I try to get across to my guys and girls here.

Anyway, back to journalism. Coming to Staffordshire I was really keen that I didn’t want to become rusty – but at the same time I didn’t want to burden myself with freelance concerns, especially in a market which didn’t offer many opportunities anyway. I was also mindful that there were plenty of out-of-work journalists who needed paid employment more than I did. So I decided that I’d write about what I know – basically, where I live. It astonished me to discover that for a city (albeit a small one) there was nowhere to get a regular taste of life here online. Even the newspapers were struggling to fill the void for anyone interested in ye olde city. Although the early versions of The Lichfield Blog were crap, with nothing more than me trying to provoke a response, I soon found that there was a desire for somewhere to discuss Lichfield. Crucially, there was an audience.

Admission time – I never got the value of Twitter as a full-time journalist. But in wanting to grow an audience for TLB I learned how to use it to my benefit. In effect it has been the driving force behind the site. It was at a Tweetup in the early days that I discovered the appetite for the site. It was also where I was able to hook up with my professional other-half – Phil. And herein lies the first journalistic lesson I picked up from The Lichfield Blog. I quickly acknowledged that I wasn’t an expert in everything and that other people held the key to the success of TLB. By working with people like Phil I’ve been able to pull ideas and take suggestions and feedback from a non-journalistic source. I suppose it was collaboration in its rawest form. And we’ve worked like that ever since. Phil has been invaluable and anyone thinking of going hyperlocal needs to find a Phil. With his expertise in the technical side of it, it has allowed me to concentrate on my strengths. So what did Phil get in return? Well, I recommended a good hairdresser once…

So what have I learned from my hyperlocal experience? The Lichfield Blog allows me to enjoy what I do. I’m my own boss, I can try random things, if it doesn’t work I don’t have a news editor kicking my backside. It’s allowed me to be experimental and enjoy the career I’ve got. I like to think I’ve gone back to the future in terms of how I operate. Yes, it’s a new platform and it’s new media, but the basic skills are more needed than ever. It’s about knowing your patch inside out, it’s about attending community meetings and knowing local decision-makers, it’s about getting away from deadline and target driven writing – it’s about being a journalist. I’ve always loved local journalism deep down, that ability to know what makes a community tick. The Lichfield Blog has allowed me to do that and more. It’s given me the opportunity to see that partnerships are the way forward. I’ve also re-evaluated what I think (and that’s the crucial bit – my thoughts) media should be doing. We try to combine news and info. We try and make advertising affordable to local businesses. We try to do exactly the sort of things local newspapers did once upon a time. It’s perhaps not the formula to get me rich, but I never got into journalism for the money, so why should I change that now?

November 18 2010

07:12

Hyperlocal voices: Love Levenshulme’s Tim Simmonds

Hyperlocal voices: Love Levenshulme

The latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series looks at love levenshulme. When its founder moved on the site was handed on to two other people - this year the blog won the Manchester Blog Award for ‘Blog of the Year’.

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

Lovelevenshulme was started by a gentlemen call Matt Clements who I have never met! He wanted to be positive about where he lived and so set up a blog.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

I was a reader of lovelevenshulme and liked the countercultural feel of being positive about a locality. I suppose I thought it was different from the standard moany English mentality.

Matt Clements wrote one day that he was moving out of the area and wanted someone else to take it over. So myself and Helen Power offered to talk it over.

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

We took over the blog and decided to carry on with his positive take. We looked around our area and decided to write about the things we love. This can range from kebab houses, poetry nights, film clubs and cafes. We also try and promote any local event or group.

We use Blogger because it is simple and easy.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Levenshulme Daily PhotographInside the M60Manchester MuleManchizzleFat RolandSounds Good to me Too

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

I don’t see us a news operation. We are very biased in our love of Levenshulme and have decided that we won’t write about things that aren’t positive. There is enough of that in the blogosphere already.

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

We won blog of the year at Manchester Blog Award 2010. I think that helped us to realize that being hyperlocal and positive is actually quite unusual and powerful.

Linking properly with a Twitter feed and a Facebook fan page have helped us develop the community side of the blog.

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

Our traffic has only been tracked properly since August 1st 2010. We have seen our numbers double every month so far. I think we may now be at (or near) our peak (roughly 1500 hits a month)

How did you find taking on a blog that was already running?

Easy to be honest. The guy who set it up didn’t want to do it anymore and was happy for us to take it in whatever direction we wanted. In fact, he has emailed us since and been very complimentary indeed.

I guess the only problem we have is finding the information or local events but as the blog’s profile has grown people have been sending stuff through to us.

November 15 2010

08:30

Hyperlocal Voices: Hedon Blog (Ray Duffill)

Hyperlocal voices: Hedon Blog

The Hedon Blog covers communities in Hedon, East Yorkshire. Established by Ray Duffill at the beginning of last year, he has since gone on to launch the HU12 site as well. This post is part on the ongoing Hyperlocal Voices series.

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

I set the Hedon Blog up after being made redundant from a career in Community Development.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The Hedon Blog was set up as a hobby to keep my ‘hand-in’ with new social media tools I’d discovered on the web whilst working in my previous job as a Community Development Manager in Blackpool.

Specifically, I wanted to find out if Hedon had any community and voluntary groups operating in the area. On the surface it seemed that very little community activity was going on in the town. That was my initial impression and a view shared by neighbours and relatives who had lived in the area much longer.

The process of setting up the blog and nurturing its development has enabled me to re-discover my home town. Hedon is no longer just the place I live – it’s a place I’m proud of and love!

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

I set up the blog on WordPress.com. It took me two minutes to set up and think of the highly original “Hedon Blog” title.

The first post was written in February 2009. I pressed ‘publish’ and thought “What next?”. I had no plan and no real objectives or goals to aim towards. This is not a model to follow!

Using my legs, eyes and ears I explored and unearthed the ‘undiscovered country’ of a small but thriving community infrastructure in the town. I reported back on my findings on the blog. And, as the ‘word-of-mouth’ spread, then people began sending me in notices of community events and other activities in the town.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Whilst working in Blackpool I had found about Nick Booth‘s (Podnosh) ‘Social Media Surgeries‘ taking place in Birmingham. Inspired by those, I made an early commitment that I would only use social-media tools that were free, easy to use and share, and that could be easily taught to others.

The internet should be about liberating community news and information. I abide by these ideas with the Hedon Blog. Any community can do what I do – you don’t need shed-loads of dosh in order to obtain an effective online voice. Having financial backing and a friendly geek obviously helps – but they are not essential.

The next major influence was Talk About Local and its first ‘un-conference’ in Stoke. From being an isolated individual I was suddenly part of a major phenomenon that involved people from across the country and the world. We even had a name for what we were doing – hyperlocal!

Adam Westbrook has been the other major influence on the blog’s development. I heard him speak and was inspired by his views on the future of journalism.

Locally, in Hull, digital developer Jon Moss has helped through setting up Hull Digital. Individuals met through this network have offered me enormous encouragement and support.

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

I obtained Adam Westbrook’s e-book on Newsgathering for Hyperlocal Websites and now run the site as a news gathering operation.

Learning from some of the journalistic methods described in that publication has enabled me to put the blog on a professional footing and achieve a credibility in the eyes of public and private sector organisations (as well as voluntary and community groups) who now regularly supply me with press releases and other material.

In this sense I have ‘borrowed’ from the traditional media those things that can help me promote, inform and help build communities in my town.

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

The Hedon Blog now sits as part of a wider website family under the www.hu12.net banner. This means I can concentrate community news via the Hedon Blog but now have an outlet for more contentious and controversial material – and a means to obtain some advertising income.

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

I have grown a local audience largely by word of mouth. In my fist month of operation I got 213 visits (WordPress stats) but get those figures and more every day now with occasional daily spikes of over 500 – 800 visits.

I never approached this from a business or journalist point of view – but rather as a civic duty or community activity. The downside of this approach is the obvious: a lack of income to re-invest in the project and to pay for its main motivating force: Me!

This activity has brought me great pleasure but has been draining on time and personal resources.

November 10 2010

08:36

Hyperlocal voices: Mike Rawlins, Pits N Pots (Stoke)

The Hyperlocal Voices series continues with a look at Pits n Pots, a site with its own Wikipedia entry. The site – set up in frustration at the lack of an opeb public forum in the local media – is frequently given as an example of the best of hyperlocal blogging.

Who were the people behind the blog?

Tony Walley & Mike Rawlins, we don’t have interesting ‘job’ titles, we are simply Mike & Tony.

Tony Walley is a company director & broadcaster. Tony has run a successful aluminium stockholding firm in Staffordshire for around 20 years and is politically active. He has worked as a local radio broadcaster mainly covering sport, off and on for around 10 years.

Mike Rawlins is a serial web meddler who had been working in Transport & Logistics for around 18 years. He decided to leave the rat race and to live the dream of being a photographer and a full time serial web meddler 2008.

We have 3 other casual writers who cover various subjects for us.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The coverage of local politics in the local media at the time was poor to say the least. Commenting on anything that was published in the local media was subject to a policy of censorship rather than moderation. Tony decided that there needed to be a forum where people could discuss local politics in an adult manner without being censored.

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

Tony Walley and I founded the site in September 2008.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Pits n Pots was one of the first sites in the political scrutiny forum so it is difficult to name other sites as being influencers.

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

We like to think we have the same ethos as traditional news operations, wanting to provide news and views to interested parties, but without the need to sex up or sensationalise stories.

We don’t carry any significant advertising and don’t need to sell papers.

We research and write our articles because we feel there is a gap in the market.

How are we different? We run very light and are able to react to stories very quickly where the local press can only really publish once a day even on their website. We are able to be far more experimental with new platforms and technologies than the traditional media.

How are we the same? – We are the same in so far as we have a desire to put news in to the public domain.

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

The article about the Polish Spitfire being used by the BNP was quite a big one that made all the national press.

Our coverage of the EDL rally in Stoke-on-Trent was another key moment. This was the first time we really worked closely with the police. Our YouTube channel was the second most viewed news channel for 2 days after the rally.

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

Depending on the stories on the day we can get anywhere between 3000 & 5000 unique visitors each day.

November 02 2010

07:15

Hyperlocal voices: Daniel Ionescu, The Lincolnite

hyperlocal voices - The Lincolnite

The latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series looks at new hyperlocal blog The Lincolnite, launched by recent Lincoln University graduates, who also managed to secure funding for their venture.

Who were the people behind The Lincolnite, and what were their backgrounds?

The people behind The Lincolnite are Daniel Ionescu (Managing Editor), Elizabeth Fish (Associate Editor), and Chris Brandrick (Senior Editor). Daniel and Elizabeth are journalism graduates from the University of Lincoln, while Chris is a Web Technology graduate from the same institution.

Besides our journalism and web technology training, all of us are also freelance writers for several publications, and have run the award-winning student newspaper at the University of Lincoln for two years.

We also have several contributors and freelancers on board.

What made you decide to set up The Lincolnite?

The idea was something I had at the back of my mind for a couple of years. I believe hyperlocal can be one of the strengths of small independent media outlets, and Lincoln was missing such a publication.

The small city (approx. 100,000 people) is served by county-wide media (one newspaper and two radio stations), yet no dedicated local news source existed. So The Lincolnite came to fill a gap in the market in the city — a news website dedicated to covering only Lincoln.

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

The site was set up in May 2010 using open-source and freely-available tools. The Lincolnite is powered by a self-hosted WordPress installation, with an in-house customised theme.

With the help of a grant from Enterprise@Lincoln we also rented office space in the city centre, where we are now based. Since then, we have been reporting daily, and now we clock at over 400 stories.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

We tried to steer clear of any particular influences in terms of image and content. Generally, we aim for a clear, easy to use interface, and to become the one-stop destination for the people of Lincoln.

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

We are different to traditional news operations in several ways. We publish as we get stories ready, throughout the day, so there’s no batch of stories going up in the morning to sit there until the next day.

Because we are not forced to fill in a certain amount of space per day, our daily story count can vary from 3 to 8 stories per day, depending on events.

For many follow-up stories, we update the original story, rather than add a couple of new lines and then recap what happened.

The updated story usually gets republicised on our social media channels, or the time stamp gets updated, with clear indication of older developments. This way, no details get left out of the picture, and readers can easily follow the developments throughout the story.

However, in many ways our news gathering process is quite traditional. We use an editorial calendar of events, liaise with police, fire services, and local government, go to press calls, and investigate all sort of leads we get tipped on from readers. But because of our publishing medium, we are able to put stories out faster than most traditional media outlets.

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

One of the main views we took from the start is that in most cases the he said/she said style of reporting is not suitable for us, unless the story actually needs it.

We aim to compress all the essential information (such as council meetings), and keep things relevant, without putting too much spin on it. Our reporting is as objective as possible, and the lead writers do not write opinion pieces.

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

Our traffic on average is 10,000 (unique) visitors every month for the past three months, which is over our initial expectations. The best thing is, that the numbers are steadily going even higher every month, as more and more people hear of us.

October 27 2010

11:10

Hyperlocal voices: Will Perrin, Kings Cross Environment

hyperlocal blogger Will Perrin

Will Perrin has spoken widely about his experiences with www.kingscrossenvironment.com, a site he set up four years ago “as a desperate measure to help with local civic activism”. In the latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series, he explains how news comes far down their list of priorities, and the importance of real world networks.

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

I set it up solo in 2006, local campaigner Stephan joined late in 2006 and Sophie shortly thereafter. The three of us write regularly – me a civil servant for most of my time on the site, Sophie an actor, Stephan a retired media executive.

We had all been active in our communities for many years on a range of issues with very different perspectives. There are four or five others who contribute occasionally and a network of 20 or more folk who send us stuff for the site.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The site was simply a tool to help co-ordinate civic action on the ground. The site was set up in 2006 as a desperate measure to help with local civic activism.

I was totally overwhelmed with reports, documents, minutes of meetings and was generating a lot of photos of broken things on the street. The council had just created a new resident-led committee for me and the burden was going to increase. Also I kept bumping into loads of other people who were active in the community but no one knew what the others were doing. I knew that the internet was a good way of organising information but wasn’t sure how to do it.

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

The first post was in July 2006. I used the blogging platform Typepad because it is simple and cheap. I’ve stuck with it because I am lazy and any time spent fetishising about the layout is time taken from dealing with local issues.

I quickly introduced Feedburner-driven email subscriptions – many people prefer email.

When I set the site up I was a Senior Civil Servant in the Cabinet Office. When you do a job like that you are supposed to be incognito. I had strong support from my immediate civil service and political management but the propriety and ethics people were never very comfortable with me publishing.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

None really at the time – there were hardly any active community sites with a campaigning thrust that you could find through Google. There were many static earlier-internet sites for reference but not frequently updated.

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

The site is about civic action, a critical part of which is information and communication. If you can’t communicate what needs to be done you can’t get it done. ‘News’ per se comes some way down the list. We often don’t cover ‘news’ say about train problems at the station because it doesn’t really affect the neighbourhood.

For the sake of comparison with traditional news, Kings Cross Environment is more granular and relevant to local people, with no commercial pressures. It would make no economic sense for a traditional news organisation to cover the issues we do.

We make no pretence to be impartial in the often bogus way news journalists do – we are pro-community. But we do try to be accurate and give balance.

We also generate a lot of original content where one of our extended network stumbles across something and it ends up on the site.

We happily coexist with the local papers, such as the Islington Gazette.

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

The site helps us get stuff done in the community. Most community action in an area undergoing regeneration is an information game. The web helps us play that game very well, often better than the council and companies. We fought a major planning battle with Network Rail that gained £1million in local improvements through Section106, took on Cemex, one of the world’s biggest concrete companies and got them to restructure a local plant.

We help keep people informed and simplify their route to action on dozens of local planning and licensing issues from land banking to pubs to sex shops.

We also find anecdotally that by making an issue public while in correspondence with local public agencies it miraculously gets solved quicker.

In order to do that we are non-partisan, polite, fair and avoid religion.

I don’t edit posts pre-publication, people just follow a general tone. We set a firm tone on comments to avoid partisan nonsense and the comments follow this tone.

When we make mistakes and are inadvertently partisan our readers weigh in and correct us, firmly. Since the first few posts, our local councillor has commented regularly (when in and out of power) in a helpful supportive ‘I’ll get that fixed’ sort of way and occasionally other local politicians weigh in, again in a non partisan way.

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

I publish a report on traffic about once a year. We get up to 200 uniques and 250 odd emails readers a day. We seem to be at the top of a classic ess-curve.

My interest is in reaching people who are active locally rather than trying to grow and audience for advertising say.

We don’t run the site for comments as such – there are about 1400 comments on 1100 posts. This reflects our use of a blog platform to publish stuff, rather than interest in running a blog or forum per se.

Anything else you feel hasn’t been covered?

Sites work best if they have a concrete purpose and build upon existing real world networks. If i had run the site as a ‘news’ operation or a social media plaything then I don’t think it would have worked.

Having multiple authors with different perspectives and backgrounds has been invaluable not least to cover each others busy spells.

We were a very early adopter of YouTube in 2006. I used video a few times when it added value to tackling a local issue such as noise pollution where it is a godsend for prima facie evidence gathering. But even with the latest tools, the time and equipment overhead of making and uploading a short video clip remains too high for regular use.

We were early into Facebook too with a group ‘I love kings cross’ with over 200 members but the limitations of Facebook meant it didn’t add much value. I will revisit Facebook now the new location-based features are around.

The site has become a remarkable local archive in a way I didn’t expect at all – we are now the definitive source of information on long running local issues. This makes the community stronger and reverses the traditional monopoly on information held by the public sector. The site is archived at the British Library.

October 26 2010

07:19

Hyperlocal voices: the Worst of Perth

Having already interviewed hyperlocal bloggers in the US and the Netherlands, this week’s Hyperlocal Voices profiles an Australian blogger: The Worst of Perth. Launched 3 years ago to criticise a local newspaper, the blog is approaching a million views this year and has the an impact on the local political scene.

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

Just me. I have a background in stand-up comedy and photography amongst many things, with a bit of dabbling in graphic design and art too.

I used to work for quite a while in video production, (as well as a few occasions as best boy/lighting assistant in a tax write-off kung fu/zombie movie or two). I currently work for Curtin University and am also a student of Mandarin.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

Heh. Well, amusingly from an online journalism point of view, my very first motivation was to label a senior print journo “Australia’s worst journalist”!

Perth has a single daily newspaper, The West Australian, (circ I think about 250 000 daily) which has in many people’s opinion not been best served by being the monopoly daily provider. The paper and its journalists used to be a frequent target of TWOP, but not so much anymore.

The reason for this is at the heart of what’s happening to journalism around the world. Because The West was the only daily paper, in pre-news blog times, people used to be passionate about its faults.

Now no-one really cares how bad it is, because they can get their real news elsewhere. The paper hasn’t got any better, in fact it’s consistently worse, but the difference now is that nobody really cares that much.

The Worst of Perth is totally different in focus these days, much more about design, public art, and the built environment but some time before starting, I had a particularly bellicose email from a former editor of the paper which included both the phrases “head up your arse” and “ivory tower” over a letter to the editor they wouldn’t print. So you might call the original motivation vengeance, but I was also sick of the only forum you could criticise the paper being their own letters page. Hasn’t blogging changed all that!

The blog claims to be “A showcase of the worst examples of architecture, design, culture and humanity in Perth Western Australia”, but it is often more of a celebration of the city more than anything else, albeit a highly satirical celebration.

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

September 2007. I didn’t know anything about platforms, and I chose WordPress group hosted almost at random, which was both good and bad.

I love that it’s free and they handle all the technicals, but I would like more control over design.

Also, I didn’t know you couldn’t have advertising on WP group hosted. I have had a few offers of sponsorship which I can’t take up because of this, although ads are not really that important to me.

Every time I am just about to decide to switch to self hosted WordPress, I hear someone’s horror story about upgrades and tech problems.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Well, to be honest, I didn’t really read that many before I started. I used to read Crikey, Australia’s major independent online news and some of the political blogs, but that’s all.

Now I read a lot of “future of news” stuff, such as your blog and a lot of design too. new shelton wet/dry (http://www.newshelton.com/wet/dry) has been my favourite site for a long time, and I have been really enjoying The Orwell Diaries lately.

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

Well as I say, originally it was a reaction to a flabby, lazy print outlet, but now the only intersection will be events, where The Worst of Perth is more likely to deal with the ephemera.

Look, The West like most other papers is crammed full of opinion these days, so the difference is less than it should be. I’m never going to do hard news, but hey, neither are they most of the time. It’s just that on The Worst of Perth, I will be funnier than them, and the commenters have an enormous freedom of expression which doesn’t happen in the paper.

I occasionally look through the paper’s and other news sites’ online comment threads and they are most often filled with hatemongering morons. My comment threads are often wild, with libel the only no-no, but even then it is overwhelmingly civilised and amusing.

The demographic is what I really like. Everyone from architects and designers around the world to schoolkids. I was recently very pleased to find that Kieran Long, Architecture critic for the Evening Standard in The UK is a fan.

When something ostensibly hyperlocal can interest a global audience, then I think I’m doing something right.

Expats are an important part of the audience too, and I think that servicing the expat need for home news is an important role that the local blogs can fill far better than the big operators, even if your expat is just in the next city.

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

I decided early on to (almost) never use non original photos and never to aggregate.

The blog is being archived as a historical document by the national/state library. Because I insist on original photos, this has meant an archive of photos of the city’s ephemera already in the thousands.

Part of the job of the hyperlocal is not just about the present, but also of recording or even forming a different local history than would otherwise be saved – don’t you think?

I receive sometimes dozens of photos a day, many specifically taken for the site, of things that would otherwise be forgotten or not recorded. Will someone in the future want to see what Perth’s worst car or letterbox was? Seems likely they will.

An important part of the role of The Worst of Perth is that it is recording things that have disappeared from the city, whether that is a heritage building being demolished or the city’s worst garden wall going.

There are so many different aspects, and I feel that most local focused blogs could value-add a lot more than they do.

The Worst of Perth does all the following: recording ephemera and lost sites for posterity, media criticism, public art/architecture/built environment forums, battling wits with other commenters, straight out satire, notification of events, etc.

A major key moment was when The Worst of Perth started to make a physical difference to the city. Regularly, posts featuring some risible piece of art, culture, planning or neglect can effect a removal of the object within days, even hours.

This can be as trivial as a misspelt sign, but has even gone as far as The Lord Mayor closing one of the main city streets to have a rotting public sculpture removed at vast expense after having seen it featured on the blog and being horrified.

I also run a Twitter feed of “fake news” on the site, @theworstofperth . I initially started the twitter account for TWOP specifically to link back to blog posts. I almost immediately decided to choose a different tack and created an all original satirical news feed not connected with the blog posts at all.

I get more people following the profile link in Twitter back to the blog than I ever got from post linking.

Twitter is another area where hyperlocal blogs could often do more. I never retweet and seldom tweet promote posts, but that is maybe an extreme stance. My advice to hyperlocal blogs would be to forget about promoting every post on Twitter unless the twitterstream can stand on its own. Use it to add a dimension. Create a # for drinkers at the local or people on public transport or what the local graffiti is saying and put that up.

If the stream can stand alone, then throw in the latest post link too. Twitter as an original content medium has huge potential that has not really been tapped by many.

The Worst of Perth has started to become part of the local politics, and I think this will increase. A candidate standing for local council saw a post criticising him, and jumped in taking on (and sometimes besting) many people in the massive 500 plus comments thread.

The way he did it was an interesting example of how it should be handled. Instead of getting angry, he used humour and openness to all but win over a fairly tough crowd.

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

The traffic has been rising steadily for the last 3 years and is still going up. Of the straight WordPress hit stats, it should go close to a million views this year, which is not bad for a design/art/culture blog from a small city.

There are a lot of return viewers, as the comment threads are often highly amusing, and there are a lot of people lurking on the sidelines watching on if there’s a post that runs.

October 20 2010

07:07

Hyperlocal voices: James Rudd, Towcester News

Hyperlocal voices: Towcester News

James Rudd launched his website covering “Towcester and the villages of NN12” after conducting research for a newspaper group. “Their mentality was one of territory and regions,” he explains, and they didn’t listen to his suggestion of a hyperlocal focus – so he went ahead and launched it independently. This is the latest in a series of interviews with hyperlocal publishers.

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

I originally worked in the family business of free distribution newspapers in the late 70s early 80s (after that years in the media side of the pre press world mostly working on magazines and catalogues), so the concept was quite clear in my mind.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

I did some research for a newspaper group on the internet and discovered that their mentality was one of territory and regions. This, however, only suited national and large local companies for advertising. I suggested that they produce hyperlocal websites providing advertising opportunities and content in smaller areas.

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

The newspaper group didn’t listen, my wife happened on the AboutMyArea.co.uk franchise whilst with our toddler, I thought that would sort out my needs and bought the franchise. I did this at the end of February 2007.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I only came across other bloggers really when I came across Twitter, two years ago. Certainly Christian Payne (Documentally) and Rick Waghorn‘s blog Out With A Bang.

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

I compete on every level with the local newspapers – or attempt to, both on news and of course for advertising.

One has given up and gone away, the other is half-hearted and dependent on dwindling sales and the property section.

Effectively I have become the news organisation for the area, primarily through engaging, but also by being positive about the area, trying to avoid too much bad press and publishing daily throughout the day.

I now supply images to the local daily paper. I also find the BBC, Anglia, local and national newspapers, some press agencies looking at my site most days.

Many local stories have broken with me and then been picked up, usually a week or so afterwards by other organisations.

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

All the content comes to me, I only edit it really.

Certainly when the local councils, and major organisations started to take it seriously was important.

The first key moment was when people started to want to be regular correspondents and send me weekly information.

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

My business model is content, visitors, content, visitor, then advertising.

I now get around 23,000 visits a week – hits probably 5 times that. Traffic seems to be continuing to grow but I think it will level off soon – which is fine.

What else has been important in the development of the blog?

It is very important to engage properly with the local community, that takes time, probably a couple of years.

I get a high rate of renewal for advertising which means that it works and is a business, my aim is to be the local news organisation that local people can look too and trust – I am very close to doing that now.

October 18 2010

07:30

Hyperlocal voices: Bart Brouwers, Telegraaf hyperlocal project, Netherlands

Bart Brouwers has been overseeing the establishment of a whole group of hyperlocal sites in the Netherlands with the Telegraaf Media Group. As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series, he explains the background to the project and what they’ve learned so far. Two presentations on the project can be seen embedded above.

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

About a year ago, I came up with the plan for a hyperlocal, hyperpersonal news and data network covering all of the Netherlands. My dream was to give every single Dutchman (we have 16 million & counting…) his own platform for local relevance.

I wanted to roll it out myself and in order to get it financed I made contact with the board of directors of the Telegraaf Media Groep. I already worked for them (as the editor-in-chief of national free newspaper Sp!ts and before that as the editor-in-chief of regional newspaper Dagblad De Limburger), so it felt kind of natural to tell and ask them before I would pitch my idea somewhere else.

What I didn’t know is that TMG was already working on a hyperlocal platform, so after a few talks we decided to combine both plans. So instead of quitting TMG and starting my own company, I’m still an employee.

What made you decide to set up the blogs?

I was convinced local relevance would/will be a strong force in media. The combination of local business and local information (news, data) could easily become the trigger for a fine enterprise.

It would be journalistic, and would at the same time concentrate on helping the local businesses and local governments find their exact audience.

Of course the problems newspapers have encountered the last couple of years helped build my ideas. Newspapers are powerful media, but they are also very inflexible: production and distribution don’t seem to fit in modern times anymore.

But that doesn’t mean necessarily that people have lost interest in (local) news. On the contrary, the internet has made it a lot easier to be informed and indeed, we are seeing a lot of traffic on news-sites and newsblogs.

Finally I was convinced that journalism itself would have to change. Old fashioned legacy newspaper journalism still has its value, but journalists will have to “open up” themselves: learn from the experiences from blogging and – most important – replace the old role as a messenger for a new one as an intermediate: break down the castle and and build a market place. Go look for the symbiosis between the professional (who still has the skills and the experience) and the amateur (who has the knowledge and could want to share it).

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

We are running several pilots momentarily, one of which has the shape of a blog. One acts more as a classic news site and one is a combination of both. We are piloting an aggregation model, a community model and a commercial model.

Apart from that we are building (not yet piloting though) mobile platforms with totally different functionality and usability.

The lessons we learn from the pilots will lead to the choice of the direction and a national rollout starting early 2011.

And as I stated above, the ultimate dream is to set up a different platform (web, mobile, whatever) for every single citizen.

With the help of technique I still hope that I will reach that goal, although I realise that it is a rather ambitious one. (on the other hand, you don’t have to actually build 16 million platforms to be able to offer a different platform for every citizen…)

The first months of this year have been filled with preparations on four levels: IT, content, business and marketing. We formed four research teams (one for each level) and from the results of those teams I wrote a business plan for the pilots. They started last august.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Most influential to me is Erwin Blom (http://erwinblom.nl, @erwblo), a Dutch blogger who has convinced me that not only the old business model of legacy media companies – based on print – is breaking down (anyone could see that), but also the way journalists act within it. He has been blogging for years about the way citizens act on what used to be the journalist’s pitches. Blom’s blog can easily be compared to blogs by people like Dave Winer, Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen. I’m not exaggerating!

Next to the ones mentioned: journalism.co.uk, niemanlab, readwriteweb, those sort of media related blogs. Not very surprising, I guess…

Of course I have been monitoring all sorts of hyperlocal websites, all over the world. All of them seem to have something special that makes it different from the rest. Most attention has gone to the much discussed American platforms like Outside.in, Patch and Everyblock. And yes, you can see elements of them in my own work.

But also English and French exemples have been helpful. One of my main lesson: don’t try to invent every wheel by yourself.

By the way, starting my own blog (dodebomen.nl) helped a lot in organising my views and thoughts.

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

Interesting question, because we are coping with it every day within the legacy media company I am working for. I am very traditional where I see the role of a professional in the selection, the filtering and the creation of quality content. I am also traditional in my ambition to tell stories that are not only interesting to read but also get as close as they can get to something you could call the truth.

But I am far from traditional when I look at the possibilities of mixing journalism with commercial activities. I am very opposed to the Chinese wall between editorial and commercial departments. These people should not only see eachother and talk to eachother, they should actually make their plans together.

One bottom line stays the same though: your audience has to be able to trust you. You should never write that a certain product is good when it is not.

I am also far from traditional when I stress the importance of finding a symbiosis with the audience. The skills of the professional combined with the knowledge of the citizen make a great basis to start from. It’s up to the professional to find this knowledge and – in most cases – curate it, but it is also a duty for this journalist to let himself be overruled by people who know better. Which isn’t easy for a traditional journalist.

And of course, it’s hardly traditional to say that journalists should get much more entrepreneurial than they have been for the last 50 years or so.

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

These moments have yet to come. I want to find out from the pilots what the ideal balance will be between news, data, utility, UGC, commercial info, etc.

Also I want to find out if it works best to publish in a traditional news-style or if a bloggers style would do better.

In fact, I want to accept the situation where one place will be treated in one way and another place in another way. It will all depend on the needs of a specific region, but also on the abilities and the strengths of the blogger/journalist/communitymanager/etc who is working on it.

Editorially and commercially this platform will be as flexible and multisided as possible.

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

Of course, as I only just started the pilots, I don’t have a lot of data yet. And as far as unique visitors are concerned, they are not very stable. One pilot has a range between 2,000 and 86,000 unique visitors per week (no data yet for one full month), another one (small village) has somewhere between 500 and 2,000. The other two are in between.

October 15 2010

13:38

Hyperlocal voices: Warren Free, Tamworth Blog

Hyperlocal blog: Tamworth Blog

In the latest in the hyperlocal voices series, Tamworth Blog‘s Warren Free talks about how the same frustration with lack of timely local coverage – and the example set by the nearby Lichfield Blog – led him to start publishing last year.

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

I started up the blog after seeing what was happening around the Midlands, primarily in Lichfield and saw the concept would give us something in Tamworth where we could communicate the news as it happened. At the time I was working from home, so in Tamworth the majority of the time.

My background though isn’t one which is littered with journalism experience. My only brush with journalism was during my GCSE’s where I studied Media Studies: we took part in a national newspaper competition, where we came in the top 20. That’s kind of where I left it, until Tamworth Blog was set up in 2009.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

I saw what was happening in Lichfield and suffered the same frustration: local news in Tamworth wasn’t accessible unless you purchased the weekly newspaper. Great if you wanted to find out what happened on Saturday a week later. So I endeavoured to try to provide this service to people in Tamworth.

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

The first story was published on WordPress on March 2009. We moved to our own hosted box in May 2009, giving us a lot more control on the content and what we could do with it. It started off as just me, but over time more people have offered to write articles for the blog.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

The big influence was Lichfield Blog. I have known Philip John now for what seems like a lifetime (sorry Phil), after working with him in the past. He assisted with the initial frustrations I had with getting started. He pointed me in the direction of other like minded people across the region including the guys at Pits n Pots and Digbeth is Good. I’ve tried to keep Tamworth Blog unique though, just using ideas and putting our own unique spin on it.

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

I like to think we can work alongside the traditional news operation, we both provide services to different demographics in my opinion.

I think a lot of people who read the newspapers are people like my parents who like have paper. Whereas I think the younger generation – and by that I mean anyone from early teens up – if they have an interest in their local area or want to know what happened on their road, will pump it into Google and want to get the information from the web and will never go to a shop for that. I think it’s a generation thing.

We both ultimately do the same thing: report on the news – we just make it available as it happens and don’t do it for advertising revenues, which I think many of the publications are driven by.

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

We average 2,000 unique hits a week. This depends though on what happens in Tamworth. Strangely this weekend saw a spike because of police cordoning off one of the major roads for forensic investigation, which saw some 4,000 unique hits over the first few days this week. Whilst this isn’t great traffic, it is growing month on month.

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

Probably the most pivotal moment was being invited to the Operation Nemesis raids in Tamworth just before Christmas. We were invited with the traditional media (both paper and TV) to go out on the dawn raids and report on them.

Normally this is something we would get information on from the police later on. Being there and seeing it happen enabled us to report on it properly. Again, until we published this, there was no information on what happened on the streets of Tamworth that morning. That week we saw record hits, simply to find out as much information as possible.

We were also invited to cover the General Election results, live from the count, enabling us to get the news out for people to follow live or wake up too. We had followers through the night and beat the big boys (BBC, ITV and Sky) to getting the announcement out. Thanks to Rawlett High School and the council for giving us access to that.

The biggest hurdle I have found is convincing people of the value of the news on the web. Once this has been overcome, you can quite easily be swamped with news, some of it that isn’t that useful, but wouldn’t have a place on the web if it wasn’t for the blog. You can have it take over your life – finding the balance is key.

October 06 2010

07:26

Hyperlocal voices: Adirondack Almanack / John Warren

hyperlocal voices - Adirondack Almanack, John Warren

Following a nomination via the Online Journalism Blog Facebook group, this Hyperlocal Voices looks at a US blog: the Adirondack Almanack, which covers the rural Adirondack region of upstate New York.

Launched in 2005 out of frustration with the lack of coverage from the mainstream media, the site now boasts 20 contributors, “mostly veteran local writers, journalists, and editors and includes media professionals from local radio, magazines, and newspapers,” says founder John Warren. Here’s the full interview with John:

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The Adirondacks is home to the largest park and the largest state-level protected area in the contiguous United States (it’s also the largest National Historic Landmark). The park is over 6 million acres in size (that makes it bigger than Vermont, or Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined).

However, about half the land is publicly owned and the rest privately owned, including several villages. That mix of public and private land makes the Park a unique area and fodder for some heated discussions over sustainable development, wilderness, environmental and outdoor recreation issues. I felt strongly that local news media was not fully representing the variety of perspectives on these important issues – many of which are important in other parts of the country as well.

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

The blog was started in 2005 by myself using the Blogger platform.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

I like to think that we’re leading the pack locally. I got into blogging because a saw a need for an Adirondacks-wide news and information source that wasn’t tied to the old political allegiances. I think the site draws perhaps most from the Indy Media sites of the early 2000s when small groups of people were coming together to make their own media from an alternative point of view. The Adirondacks has too small a population and is too widely scattered to have its own independent media center. Online, Adirondack Almanack is the next best thing.

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

The site is run by a mixed bag of folks including a large number of professional writers, journalists, editors and publishers so we have one foot in old school journalism and one foot in the new media commons. Our contributors tend to have their own styles and they were asked to contribute because their styles complement each other and help set the over tone and style of the Almanack. That said, they have different approaches to what they’re doing – some follow strict journalistic practice, others are more column-like and personal. We try to abide by standard journalism ethics.

In a sense we’re a local news operation, but our local area is enormous (about the size of Vermont) and less densely populated. We’re the only online news source for the whole Adirondack region. Several daily papers mostly ring the region, but aside from the local NPR network North Country Public Radio, we’re the only daily outlet actually covering the whole area.

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

The addition of new contributors during the beginning of 2009. Adding additional contributors widened the appeal, helped legitimatize the efforts, and drew new readers.

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

We currently get 30,000 unique visitors a month. The Adirondack region is home to 120,000 full time residents; that number swells to about 1.2 million in the summer.

October 05 2010

11:00

Hyperlocal voices: Jon Clarke (Beckenham.us)

hyperlocal site Beckenhamtown.us

Jon Clarke launched the UK hyperlocal site Beckenham.us 2 years ago using the social network builder Ning. He sees the site as differing from traditional publishers in offering everyone a free voice, as well as providing a space to play out local debates around issues such as academy schools and parking zones. Here’s the interview in full:

Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?

Me, and no one else, I’ve been in digital media at various ad agencies for over 10 years and therefore am au fait with lots of the ways to create and promote a website.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The main reason was that I thought Beckenham was not well served with a ‘live’ and ‘community’ based website, there just weren’t any for what is quite a neighbourly area for neighbours to talk and share local things.

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

The site was set up in August 2008. I’m not a programmer or web designer so I used the Ning.com community website platform that allows one to cut and paste and move various features around to make a good community site. I then used my knowledge to bring in lots of dynamic content, widgets and RSS feeds to pad out the site and bring it alive.

I wanted to use a co.uk address but it was gone so I plumped instead for a .US address. I thought it best represented who the website was for and about – all of US in Beckenham Town.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Well I had created www.mediastarz.co.uk, an advertising community website, first, so I was able to bring in ideas from that, but lately HarringayOnline.com has been a lot of help.

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

My site is independent, it’s owned by me, but its content is the community’s, they create the news, what matters to them they talk about.

More importantly, it opens up the town on the Internet to locals and with the added Twitter feed I run constantly it gives everyone a chance to know what’s going on, have their say and have a voice.

I mix in traditional news coverage on the website and Twitter feed and even sometimes via a satellite page of the site on Facebook. I reach out to locals wherever they are.

So all in all I’m a one stop shop for all reported local media and I hope users would see that and visit the site more because of it. But where I’m still different is that anyone posting has a free voice. It’s not like writing to a local paper only to find your voice, your letter, dismissed to the bin and not published. Local views are all worthy of publishing, that’s what makes a good community.

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

Three major moments have been the initial need for locals to know about a Council-proposed Car Parking Zone, that started great debate and at least put across on the site the free access of information which the council did not do.

Secondly, the heavy snow days and disruption to transport had me updating Twitter and the website with school closures and train delays – this brought in 100s of views those days.

Finally the recent debacle of council versus community over academy schools in the borough has brought a huge attention and audience to the website where locals are able to play out the debate and even local councilors have engaged.

The more the site gets local issues out in the open the better.

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

The website has grown to 332 members, but daily unique users range from 200-300 a day and lately this has meant around 8000-9000 users over a month. That works out as 35-40k page views, with lots coming into the site via Google searches, Twitter and Facebook and this is only the top of the iceberg as the website is probably only known well around 12 roads in the town. I have yet to doordrop with postcards many many others.

Twitter followers are 850+ and this grows weekly too, even though the followers ebb and flow over the month as I’d expect.

I think the biggest conundrum I have is how to add more key elements to the site and make the best architecture and then the time to make all the action points I’ve scoped out work. I always want locals to know it’s easy to use and they should enjoy coming back to it and able to use it and share it with their friends and families. It’s getting there slowly, but as I know so well the digital landscape changes constantly and I’m updating as fast as I can to keep it the best it can be.

I even just created a mobile page at http://m.wbx.me/beckenham, so iPhone users can have quick updates covering site, Twitter and Facebook all in one place. But, that’s a work in progress and might yet get better still.

September 27 2010

07:34

Hyperlocal Voices: Julia Larden (Acocks Green Focus Group)

Hyperlocal voices - Acocks Green Focus Group blog

Today’s Hyperlocal Voices interview is with Julia Larden, chair of the Acocks Green Focus Group blog, which campaigns to make Acocks Green a “better place to live, work and shop”. The group was established in 2004 and the blog followed in 2007. “We are less likely to get confused or get our facts slightly muddled” than professional journalists, says Julia. Here’s the full interview:

Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?

That’s a bit complicated. Originally the blog was set up, more as a straight website, by a member who has long since left the area. It was not working very well at that time, and the ex-member was also asking for quite a lot of money to carry it on. I don’t think the member had any particular background in IT – he was in education, although he has set up a few small websites of his own. I had done some work for it, written some materials and supplied some photographs. My son, who runs a small software company, agreed to take the whole thing into his care for a bit.

Things lay dormant and then, when my son had time he simply picked the content up and plonked the whole thing into a WordPress blog – one of the slightly posher ones that you have to pay a bit for, but he has some sort of contract and can get quite a few of these blogs, so the group just pays him a very nominal sum each year.

It then sat there for a bit longer with not very much happening except the occasional comment, and then several members pointed out that it was a valuable resource which we were not using properly.

One of the members had web experience (running his own online teaching company) and started to make it into a far more interesting blog, asking for more materials, creating new pages and adding in bits and pieces and an opinion survey of the area – as a launch gimmick. (We have kept that – it still gets a lot of interest – more since I shifted it to another page, for some reason.)

Eventually she didn’t have much time. At my son’s urging I nervously started to do tiny bits and pieces and then realized that WordPress is really, really simple. It’s ‘blogging by numbers’, as far as I can see. Now I enjoy it and do all of it. I have zero I.T. background. Again, my own background is education. Mainly I teach English Literature and Film Studies to adults.

I did sort of come into it with a background of amateur P.R. I suppose – have been doing press releases on and off for 30 years, mainly, previously, for the local CND group (and am launching a brand new CND group blog, properly, very shortly.) and, from time to time, to promote courses I am teaching – I still do that sometimes. Up until recently local papers generally used my press releases. In these times that is getting harder …

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Nobody really – this was a couple of years ago and there wasn’t exactly a lot out there re: local blogs. (There is more on our blog that got ‘lost’ – we had one major crash last year.)

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

We are the same in that we put the news, and our opinions out there. We are different because we can do more.

We are less likely to get confused or get our facts slightly muddled (Not knocking local journos, we know some great ones, but they don’t always live round the corner, and have other stories to cover!)

We can give more. We can put in as many links as we like – both down the side, and in posts, without cluttering things up. The sidebar links are a way of giving some idea who we like and/or work with, as well. (Two Lib-Dems but we have no political affiliations, incidentally.)

We can have big permanent collections of photos and other data on other pages than the main blog page – a ‘library’ in fact. We can put in whole documents, like local plans, which we often do, and set it up so things can be blown up large on screen. In fact we seem to be better than the local council at present, at providing this kind of facility!

We also have ‘quick response’ – a threatened local building of merit for example, can be on the blog the same day as we find out about it. We can help get the word out fast.

We also have a talk back facility, of course. We hope we don’t lose our local press though – they can still cover a lot of households quickly – and help point people to us, as well.

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

Blimey – probably each time someone took the blog over it was a ‘key moment’. Otherwise, I think it has just kind of developed gradually.

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

I just go by the posts that get the most attention. Those that give details of plans tend to get a lot of hits (which is satisfying), as do the latest posts. We get a huge amount of stuff about the old Swan centre at Yardley, which worries me, because we are only peripheral to that, and I think Yardley urgently needs its own blog.

We get quite a few people asking for ‘Acocks Green MP’ – no such person of course, but the constituency MP is John Hemming and there is a link to his blog from our site, so, hopefully, people looking for ‘Acocks Green MP’ find their way to that – quite a few people do click on the Hemming blog. Do they sometimes really want a councillor, though, I wonder?

We also get a remarkable amount of people asking about the re-design at Kensington and miscellaneous enquiries, e.g. about bus routes, which suggest to me that there needs to be a general info website for every area, whilst we are a specialist site, focusing on the group work of campaigning on fixed features in the area (and some we would like to be unfixed)

Anything else you feel has been important in the development of the blog that hasn’t been covered?

Oh – photography. My partner does most of the photographs. He used to do them for press releases too, although we do fewer of those these days (just not getting so much stuff into the papers, so the blog is more important). We tend to work as a team. He’s won a mention on the Birmingham Post & Mail Flickr competition a couple of times now, and I think he is quite good. I think good photos help.

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