Hyperlocal Voices: Simon Pipe, St Helena Online

After a short summer break, our Hyperlocal Voices series returns.  In this issue we visit the tiny island South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. Perhaps best known for being the home of an exiled Napoleon, it is frequently described as one of the world’s most isolated islands. At just 10 x 5 miles, and with a population of 4,255 people, Simon Pipe’s St Helena Online, offered Damian Radcliffe an insight into a very different type of hyperlocal site.

1.  Who were the people behind the blog?

Hands-on, it’s just me. There’s a wide network of island watchers and Saints (St Helenians) who feed me stories and pictures: they’re on the island and in the Caribbean, California, Germany, and Swindon. A teacher on St Helena offered to set up the domain name, for free; Johnny Clingham, a Saint in Wiltshire who runs the St Helena Community website, is moving the site to a non-Wordpress host, and we help each other editorially. Most of this “team” are people I have never met, or even spoken to on the phone – too expensive.

2.  What made you decide to set up the blog?

I left the BBC, stressed out, to get an MA. Our tutor got us to set up WordPress blogs and start writing, about anything. It was fun, but became pointless. But I knew about St Helena, one of the most remote islands in the world: I first went with my doctor wife in the 1990s, and we returned for a month in 2009. I had a strong sense that stories weren’t getting out, and Saints knew too little about affairs on their own island. I’m a big fan of their media – two newspapers and two radio stations, serving 4,000 people and a diaspora of maybe 10,000 – but they have no conventionally trained journalists. St Helena Online was just waiting for me to start it.

3.  When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

I’d written a couple of features, and thought I might as well re-post them on a dedicated blog. I called it The Island That Was Eaten By Goats, which shows my lack of planning (historically, goats ravaged the island). For three months, I did nothing more. Then in January 2012, I just started writing. It simply morphed into a news website: fairly conventional except for the quirk of my being 5,000 miles away.

4.  What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Before I started preparing for my MA, I’d not really woken up to blogs. I’ve since been inspired by sites such as My Muswell, which grew out of the London riots. I’d worked on the BBC News website in the early days, and adopted the bits of BBC practice that suited me. A pot of interest is that I’ve contacted media academics around the world, and it appears St Helena Online is unique in the way it provides a remotely-run news service for a far-distant, extremely isolated island. The nearest comparison is the Tristan da Cunha site, which is run from Somerset. It’s fascinating.

5.  What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

In March 2012, the island government, arguably with good intentions, put up money to start a rival to the existing St Helena Independent, and allowed it to compete for advertising. The Indy lost its government revenue – including payments for press releases to be published – and promptly closed. A rescue package was put together, and St Helena Online was part of it: I’d supply stories, in return for exposure and promotion, which has worked.

The newspaper now has a front page strap line, “in partnership with St Helena Online”, though it took me several weeks to spot it. It’s meant my stories can be read by Saints who couldn’t afford see them online. When I started, full web access cost £120 a month on St Helena, where a typical salary is under £5,000 a year. That partnership has driven the direction of the site.

The Indy’s editor tells me I have played a vital role in sustaining independent media on the island. It’s a complex situation, though. The other key point came when I switched to Birmingham City University in order to keep the site going as my final MA project: there’s been more focus as a result.

6.  How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

My print partnership means a lot of my material has a traditional flavour, which has helped give the site credibility, I think. I’ve felt a strong obligation to run stories to meet the paper’s deadlines – I actually have a press day. That’s been a burden, but sometimes it’s useful to say I write for the paper – I don’t sound like a hobbyist. My copy also runs on the Indy’s sister radio station.

7.  What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

My first big hits came in April, when St Helena’s cricketers sailed to South Africa to take part in their first-ever international tournament. In effect, they’re a village cricket team, but they beat Morocco, Mali, Gambia and Cameroon. There was massive pride. I managed scrape enough material to write some stirring reports, and the hits shot up: 599 on the best day.

They rose again when a ship docked at the island for the first time in 500 years, bringing a construction plant for the island’s first airport. The rate’s climbed steadily: 85,000 in eight months, including nearly 8,000 in a day after I covered the annual gathering of St Helenians in the UK.

I use Facebook to promote and find stories. The Saints have grown up in such isolation – 1,100 miles from anywhere – that the Friends network is unusually strong and it operates as an alternative news network.

8.  What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

Communication is hard. I can’t afford to phone the island, and emails don’t always produce the information I need. Skype isn’t allowed, though some use it.

I also had a big problem when The Independent (the London one) quoted me saying something disparaging about Saints. I appeared to have insulted the entire population. Fortunately, people guessed I didn’t mean what I appeared to have said. I asked the new paper not to repeat the quote; instead, it ran a splash under the headline, “First Attempt The Censor The Sentinel“. There’s a history of suppression, so I understood how it happened and there’s no ill feeling.

The toughest challenge has been that St Helena Government doesn’t release council agendas and reports, or minutes. Executive Council meetings are mostly behind closed doors and reported by His Excellency The Governor, without quite telling us what we need to know. The island government is spending about £20 million of British and European aid every year, with little public scrutiny.

Eventually, we launched the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign, and I’ve got Tom Watson MP interested in it. The press office will go to some effort for me on stories when it can, but I was told that because St Helena Online is only a website, it “might have to disappoint.” And it does, often.

9.  What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

The Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, met Saints in Swindon (aka Swindolena, because so many Saints live there), and I got 15 minutes of his time, on the basis that I was also interviewing him for the island media. I pressed him on transparency and got strong stuff. Saint FM played the interview several times over the following week, in response to requests.

There are also two powerful podcasts about the excavation of more than 300 slave graves: the island was a liberation depot when the Royal Navy was hunting down slave running ships after Abolition.

Mainly, though, I’m proud of the fantastic range of stories on the site. An airport is under construction and is transforming the island in myriad ways: there can’t be 47 square miles of rural Britain that are anywhere near as fascinating. My subjects even include the world’s oldest known living creature. He’s a tortoise, called Jonathan, and his survival is a wonder.

10.  What are your plans for the future?

The site can never make sensible money – competing with the island media for income would be unthinkable – but it throws up great, saleable material. I’m also planning an ebook. Can I keep it going? The challenge would be to stop. Short term plans also including taking up an invitation to coffee at the Foreign and Commonweath Office…

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