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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.

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.

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