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.
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.
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.
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.
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.