Yessi Bello continues the Hyperlocal Voices series with an interview with JesmondLocal‘s Ian Wylie, who decided to dabble in local journalism after taking voluntary redundancy from a national newspaper. Still viewed as a “pro-bono”, ” good thing to do” Jesmond Local has now become an integral part of the Jesmond Community.
1)Who were the people behind the blog, and what where their backgrounds?
After 15 years working for The Guardian as a reporter, features writer and finally section editor, I took voluntary redundancy in 2009, and began thinking about what I would do with the next chapter of my career. I’d been involved mostly in national newspaper and magazine journalism, so local journalism was something I hadn’t dabbled in before.
The concept of “hyperlocal” fascinated me as an area for me to explore and an opportunity for me also to “give something back”. I discovered that Newcastle University lecturer David Baines had a research interest in the subject. We met to discuss and he suggested I offer some of his students the chance to launch a hyperlocal website, which we did almost exactly a year ago.
I view Jesmond Local, at the moment, as a “pro-bono” “good thing to do”. I don’t make any money from it (yet) and have to juggle the time I spend on it with my freelance writing for the Financial Times, Guardian, easyJet, Monocle and Management Today.
2) When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
My background is newspapers, so I approached it from the viewpoint of, if I was one of the local newspaper pioneers transported into the future to 2010, what would I do? How would I best serve the interests of a small community like Jesmond (population 10,000). And since my background is news, I felt that news had to be at the core of what we do. That “news” would provide the “stickiness” that kept readers coming back.
I found a relevant WordPress theme called “The Local” and starting by posting straightforward 200-word news stories. As time has gone on we’ve expanded our news story-telling into slideshows, video, podcasts, live blogs etc. We’ve added a local events diary, a discussion forum and, of course, a Facebook fan page and Twitter service.
3) What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
I had a look at all the usual UK hyperlocal sites that get a lot of press, and also at some in the US and Europe (I liked the idea of the cafe-newsroom approach at Nasa Adresa… before it shut).
But to be honest I haven’t taken too much notice of what other people have done because a) hyperlocals tend to be made in the likeness of their creators and b) the reasons a hyperlocal succeeds or fails depend to a large degree on the nature of the community they serve. No two journalists and no two communities are alike!
4) How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
I don’t see JesmondLocal as running in competition with the local, traditional news outlets. It serves as an accompaniment. If I thought we were giving Jesmond people something they could already get elsewhere then, believe me, I wouldn’t be doing this!
I think we’re the same in the sense that (I hope) we have the same commitment to good, principled news values. But whereas I think traditional news organisations see hyperlocal as a sticking plaster for their commercial woes, I hope hyperlocal sites like JesmondLocal are about creating and strengthening community in places like Jesmond. There’s lots going on already in Jesmond, but the community needs to know about it if those events, clubs and activities are going to flourish and succeed.
A steady flow of information about what’s going on/available in the community might also encourage and inspire other people to get involved and/or create their own community projects. So it’s about sustaining communities.
And I think we’re also different in the way we aim to sustain local journalism. I’m acutely aware that young, aspiring journalists don’t have the same opportunities for on-the-job training that I did 20 years ago. So by taking on 20 or so student volunteers each academic year, JesmondLocal tries to help would-be journalists learn and refine their skills at a local level.
I’m also excited about helping other people in the Jesmond community do the same thing – and pass on to them the important skills of news-gathering, reporting, writing, producing etc.
My next challenges are two-fold: I need to make it financially sustainable, which means getting local businesses to pay for advertising and other services, and explore possible funding options.
And secondly, I want to get the community more involved in generating and creating the content. I feel the balance is a little too “top down” at the moment, rather than coming from the local people for whom the site has been created.
5) What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
So far the key developments editorially have been our media sponsorship of the local community festival, which introduced us to the people who run all the different community groups in Jesmond; the May local elections, during which we ran our own live-blogged hustings, which introduced us to the political movers and shakers of Jesmond; an ongoing “local heroes” project which is helping us become more confident in our film-making skills; and our breaking of small, but locally significant stories, such as the arrival of a new Waitrose in Jesmond.
From my traditional, newspaper background I’m also beginning to understand how news can be communicated in many different ways. For example, some days our news-reporting is all done in tweets.
6) What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
To be honest, I don’t look at our Google Analytics too often, but daily uniques range from 50 to 300. We tend to get the biggest spike when I send out an email newsletter. I’ve discovered (to my cost) that offline advertising is very ineffective.