Thirteen Lessons I’ve Learned From Running A Hyperlocal Site

I set up Saddleworth News in February 2010.

I thought it would be a good way to keep myself involved in journalism while I stayed at home as a full-time dad to my young daughter, and I hoped it would become a source of information which would be read and valued by people in the local community. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to say whether the site achieved the latter, but I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it.

I’m now in the process of handing control of the site to digital journalism students at University Campus Oldham, part of the University of Huddersfield, which has put me in a reflective mood about the past couple of years. I’ve learned a lot about journalism, the internet, social media, and much else besides.

So I thought I’d share some of those lessons in a blogpost. Before I forget them all.

1. We need to lower our threshold of what we think news is

An old quote from an old American newspaper editor has it that “News is anything which makes a reader go ‘gee whiz!'” While it’s unlikely that anyone has actually said ‘gee whiz’ for several decades, even if they did I’m certain it would rarely be in response to a story about a missing cat. Which I suppose is why you don’t often see missing cat reports in the media.

But for every snarky journalist who mocks the idea of running an appeal for information on Tiddles from Tiddletown, there’ll be other people in that specific locality who are genuinely interested. And that is what makes it news.

Jasper the cat was found after an appeal on Saddleworth News. So there.

2. It’s not worth trying to be comprehensive

If you’re running a hyperlocal site, the chances are it’s not your full-time job. So you won’t have loads of spare time to devote to it. Trying to make it to every council meeting, every football match and every coffee morning is a sure way to tire yourself out, and make you quickly resent what should be an enjoyable thing to do.

If you can’t make a local event because you had something else on, be honest with your readers and say so. Maybe one will be able to supply you with pictures or a report, or you could link to coverage elsewhere online. Focus on doing what you’re able to do and do it well, rather than trying to take on the impossible.

3. Don’t cover the same things the local paper does, unless you can do it better

An easy trap to fall into would be to see a story about your area in a newspaper, and quickly rush around trying to speak to the people quoted in the article so you can put together your own version of it.

This would be pointless. Instead, find a distinctive angle for a piece of your own and link to the original story (always give credit where it’s due). Or, even better, spend the time researching and writing an article on something local that’s not being covered by any other media. That’s the sort of content which will get people to visit your website first.

4. Running a one-sentence quote is a waste of everybody’s time

Take a look at a newspaper article. Any one will do. See those quotes at the end? All those single sentences from councillor so-and-so and spokesman rent-a-gob? Must have taken a bit of time for the reporter to get, but they’re not exactly adding much to the story are they?

Newspaper stories traditionally feature quotes at the end so they can be easily cut down by sub-editors to fit into whatever space is available. It’s a tradition which doesn’t have to apply online. On the internet, you’ve got as much space as you want. So if you interview someone, do them and your readers the courtesy of quoting them properly. Besides, if you’ve gathered the material, you may as well run as much of it as you can.

Journalists getting ready to take down lengthy quotes which will later be cut out by a sub-editor.

5. There’s lots of information out there already

It used to be that you’d have to go to a council office or a library to have a look at, say, the minutes of a meeting or the documents relating to a planning application. But now lots of this official information is freely available online.

Searching through pages of apparently dull scrutiny committee reports can yield wonderful nuggets of information. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a table showing that just one person had turned up to three public meetings as part of a consultation on £2.6m cuts to council children’s services. A bit of patience often leads to a great story.

6. Politics isn’t boring

A lot of people in the media are fond of saying that politics is boring, that nobody really cares. But these people are wrong. It’s not politics that’s boring, it’s them.

If you can’t find at least three stories worth writing from a council meeting of just about any description, then you’re not looking hard enough. Even if your local councillors give the impression of being boring, they spend large amounts of time talking about issues and making decisions that affect everyone who lives in your area. Try writing about it, and see the reaction you get.

7. Serious reporting leads to serious access

I wondered when I started Saddleworth News about whether I’d be taken seriously by people in authority, especially as I had to take a baby around with me every time I went out to cover a story. I shouldn’t have worried.

The council media team let me and junior into press conferences. I interviewed David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband with her sat on my knee. If you cover issues in a responsible way, you’ll get respect and access to the powerful in return. Regardless of how unusual your personal circumstances might be.

Clegg was forced to defend the controversial rusk tax.

8. You can cover the same story as many times as you like

Editors have lots of excuses that they give to reporters when they don’t want them to cover a particular story. They include ‘I’m bored of that’ and ‘We did that last week/month/year, find something else.’

You don’t have to run your story ideas past an editor. If there’s a small development in an ongoing issue in your area, go ahead and write another article about it. Then another. And another, all the while linking back to your previous coverage. Soon, you’ll have built up a huge archive of material on the topic, adding a context and depth to your reporting that a newspaper can’t hope to match.

9. You don’t need to wait until Thursday to publish the local sport

When I was a wee lad I used to play football for my school team. I would look forward to Thursday’s evening paper, because that was when the column about the previous weekend’s school football was published. It was pretty exciting to have a reporter actually pontificating in print about the way my team had played, even if it was just for a few sentences.

Minor sport often turns up in newspapers in the middle of the week because on Mondays and Fridays the pages are full of the goings-on at the biggest local teams. But you can publish the results as soon as you get them. Clubs, perhaps overlooked by the football-obsessed media, will often be delighted to supply match reports, help you get interviews and all sorts besides. The people who play for those teams will find your coverage just as thrilling as I did back in the day.

10. Twitter is useful, but your readers are on Facebook instead

Look, Twitter! Isn’t it exciting? All those fashionable people on there, retweeting each other. All those other people, talking about Justin Bieber. Ooh, shiny! Not like Facebook, which even your uncle is on nowadays, and you couldn’t reject his friend request because that would be rude, and now you can’t post any photos of anything good. Boring old Facebook.

I found Twitter useful for creating a community of people from the local area who are internet-savvy and keen to help, supplying story ideas and tip-offs about things to investigate. But in terms of clickthroughs to Saddleworth News, the numbers from Facebook have always been far higher. Ordinary people are on Facebook. And your readers are, mostly, ordinary people. In a good way.

Roadworks. A classic hyperlocal concern.

11. It helps to be able to stand up for yourself

When you start publishing material about anything, especially if you’ve set yourself up as a local news source, you’ve got to expect a bit of conflict sooner or later. Whether it’s with someone you’ve written about, or a newspaper which has pinched one of your stories.

Be sure of yourself legally. If you’ve got doubts about something, ask a sympathetic journalist or lawyer for advice (Twitter can be useful for this, too). But if you’re certain you’re in the right, be prepared to get stroppy with whoever you’re in dispute with. If they’re trying it on, they’ll soon back down.

12. Try to avoid seeing councillors in the pub

Journalists and their sources have always got together to talk about things, often over a few drinks. They probably always will. Sometimes they help each other, sometimes they fall out. It’s the way things work.

But the equation changes a bit when you’re reporting on a small community in which you also live. It can be embarrassing to say the least if you’ve written something critical about councillor so-and-so, and then you bump into him in your local on Friday night. And again at the shops on Saturday. My advice isn’t to avoid being critical if you feel it’s necessary, but to stop yourself getting too friendly in the first place.

13. It’s not about the money

I’d describe this as the $64,000 question facing journalism, if I thought anyone was capable of bringing in that kind of cash. Maybe it should be the $6.40 question, which is at least enough to get a couple of pints in. Well, some rancid domestic lager anyway. If you want to make money, become a plumber or something.

I was able to cover my costs on Saddleworth News by selling some ads, a skill that didn’t come very easily to me. You might find selling easier, and good luck to you if you can make a few quid out of your site. But if all you want to do is use your skills to help your local community, then tools like the WordPress on which I’m writing this have made that easier and cheaper than ever. Whichever approach you take, it’s unlikely you’ll be drinking too much hyperlocal-funded bubbly anytime soon.

19 responses to “Thirteen Lessons I’ve Learned From Running A Hyperlocal Site

  1. Great Blog, thanks Richard a lot of useful and interesting stuff in there.

    Regs
    Gill

  2. Thank you for these thoughts, Richard. Extremely useful to me! Too often valuable lessons are lost because people don’t share their experiences.

    … although – even if perhaps naively – I’m hoping to sample at least ‘some’ hyperlocal-funded rancid lager (even if not bubbly!) during the course of my activities! 🙂

  3. Hi Richard – really looking forward to reading more about your learnings with Saddleworth News. Re no. 10 – Are readers posting your stories on their facebook page and that leads to their friends clicking through to Saddleworth News? Forgive my ignorance! 🙂
    John

  4. I did a version of this regarding the experience of creating a hyperlocal site for me area (Cannock) – http://www.ianmellett.co.uk/2011/08/starting-out-in-hyperlocal-a-rough-guide-to-connectcannock/

    Yours is a little more succinct I think though!

  5. Thanks all for the kind words and comments so far.

    John – How it works is that I post the stories, then everyone who has ‘liked’ Saddleworth News sees it pop up in their news feed for them to click on.

  6. Excellent views Richard and a great insight into how you created a successful brand for Saddleworth. I’m sure there are many people mulling over your words and waiting for more.

  7. Valid and interesting thanks mate. From an ex journalist running a hyperlocal site in Wolves – or trying to – in my spare time! Great blog.

  8. A truly excellent read Mr Jones. You should consider lecturing the students you are handing over Saddleworth News to. A credit to your community and profession.

  9. Thanks for getting back to basics. Even if it is about money, your points are worth thinking about and acting on it when venturing into hyperlocal.

  10. From the other side of the Atlantic (and then some) – excellently written. We DO make our living (supporting the two of us, our teenage son, and paying all living and business expenses including paid freelance writers/photographers) through the ads we sell on our site. It can be done. But I had to quit my old-journalism (TV) job to do it.
    Your point #7 is particularly noteworthy. When we started, we were anonymous for two years. We had politicians and police talking to us DESPITE the anonymity – because we did serious, responsible, accurate reporting. They had no idea who we were. And by the way, we took our kid everywhere for a while too – he was only 11 when this really took off – now he’s 15 and can take care of himself, but once in a while we hand him the still camera and say “You HAVE TO come to this ribboncutting, you take the photos, we shoot the video.” Good luck in your next endeavor – Tracy at West Seattle (WA, US) Blog

  11. Pingback: 13 Lessons I’ve Learned From Running a Hyperlocal Site « BlogLocal

  12. Thank you all for some more kind comments.

    James – I will be giving a couple of guest lectures at UCO and Huddersfield this term as it happens, although I’m doing more teaching at Leeds.

    Tracy – Great to hear of your success and interesting to notice the parallels between us! Had I been a few years younger and without a family I think I would have taken the plunge and made Saddleworth News my full-time job, but as it’s turned out I’ve been offered opportunities to do teaching and would like to explore that further. It was circumstances that allowed me to set up the site in the first place and it’s circumstances that have encouraged me to hand it on now. Perhaps that’s another lesson of hyperlocal, although I think the 13 above are enough to be going on with!

  13. Awesome post. From one publisher to another, you nailed it.

  14. Thanks for the tips. I’m a general blogger at http://1×57.com and I like to cover the local news from wherever I am (even if traveling). I’m finding most of what you say to be true.

    Though, I have never tried the repeated stories on an issue. Sounds like a good idea and I will try it.

  15. Adding to my comment above guys, if you haven’t already, it’s worth adding http://www.fixmystreet.com to the community section of your sites and blogs. We’ve just done the same at http://www.tettenhall.co.uk to good effect. It’s what we’re about!

  16. Thanks for this very useful advice. I started three weeks ago with West Bridgford Wire; it’s something I always wanted to do and due to being “between jobs” (as a senior manager in an unrelated industry) at least I had some time. It’s been a case of finding out myself what people wanted, in my case it was local “national” stories like Olympic Torch route nearby, crime alerts and planning etc (roadworks as you say
    had people asking me to find out when they’d
    finish). In 3 weeks I’m at 11 FB Page likes, 200 twitter followers, 9 blog subscribers – I thought nobody would come so I’m pleased. How did you get such a huge ratio of readers via social media? Like you say it all started with twitter
    referrals but now twice the amount from FB.
    Views (though WordPress.com so no real
    analytics) are 100-260/day probably 30 people regularly I think. Another question…should I move to self-hosted .org for control & ads or is there a tipping point of visits/hits before considering that?
    Thanks again for a great resource

  17. Hi Pat, thanks for the comment and good luck with the site, it looks great, lots of useful information on there already for your community.

    To answer your questions, I didn’t do anything specific to gain readers from social media. All I did was, whenever I published a new story, I posted the link on FB and Twitter. Simply by doing that I found the audience grew over time. On your other point, there wasn’t a particular tipping point for me to switch, as I started the site as a self-hosted WP so I could have the cleaner domain name and more control over the layout, so I’d recommend you do that. You’ll have to pay a bit of money for hosting, but nothing a couple of small ads shouldn’t cover!

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  19. Pingback: What I learned from running a hyperlocal website | Nick Bason

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