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?