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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.

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