Jon Bounds surely has the claim to the most memorable title of a hyperlocal blog. Birmingham: It’s Not Shit (“Mildly sarcastic since 2002”) is a legend of the local and national blogging scene in which Jon has been a pioneer. In the latest of my ‘Hyperlocal Voices’ series, he describes the history of the site:
Who were the people behind BiNS, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?
There was, and to a large extent still is, just me Jon Bounds. Although I’ve now got a couple of ‘columnists’ and feel that there are people around that I can call on to let me have a break.
I’ve an odd background of a Degree in Computer Science and a postgrad (CIty & Guilds) qualification in Journalism (and a brief, not entirely successful time as a freelancer on very poor music publications), but it was really working on internet design books in the late 90s that made me think about “the web” as a method of sharing.
As a kid I’d run fanzines (computer games and later football), but there were real creatives getting to grips with the web at that time and that was exciting.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
The blog part of the site came a couple of years after the site itself — which was originally a much flatter website with funny articles/video and a forum. The idea behind the site came as a direct reaction to the terribly drab view of the city that Marketing Birmingham/the Council put forward for the European City of Culture bid in 2002 — and the fact that all of the local media went unquestioningly with it.
Birmingham wasn’t – and still isn’t – a city of loft living and canalside bars, yet “organisations” only seemed comfortable with that little bit of it. To cover the bits of Brum that real people recognise and care about is still the main thrust of the site.
The forum was the real heart of the site, it was a great source of inspiration and support — but it waned after the switch to more in-depth blogging: people migrated to commenting instead. The community still exists, it’s just spread more widely — across people’s own sites, Twitter etc.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
The first pass was hand-written by me in PHP — it was an easy way to add new content to the site, and be more flexible about what that was (with the link log/blog I could justify covering smaller and more time dependant things).
I later expanded it to a separate blog with Blogger, but that wasn’t very connected — so I quickly moved over to a self-hosted WordPress install so I could integrate the whole site.
For content, it started mainly giving links and information about local events — stuff which wasn’t and still to a certain extent isn’t easy to find in one place. It came from me searching the web and the media by hand. There wasn’t an attempt to do “news” as you’d conventionally see it.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
There were very few blogs around when I started, at least none that were covering local areas that I’d seen — it was mostly inspired by the attitudes and community around Popbitch.com and b3ta.com. They handle community and real events in a very grown-up way — trusting people to contribute, self police and comment without hyperbole on news events and history.
For all that the communities are built around the creation and consumption of seemingly trivial they are fantastic sources of information. Popbitch was the only site still working on 11/09/01 and the people there handled the unfolding story in a genuine way — something that mainstream media just didn’t do.
When transitioning to a more standard blog format, Pete Ashton’s series of posts on Birmingham were useful (sorry best link is http://peteashton.com/page/2/?s=%22brum+blog%22) as something contemporaneous — Diamond Geezer (despite being about #thatlondon) was and is somewhat of an influence too.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation? How are you different and how are you the same?
I didn’t see any relation to trad news when BiNS started. We got a little bit of coverage (some patronising, some ‘shock horror’) when the site first started and then were roundly ignored for a good few years (except when the Sunday Mercury would dip in to the forums every so often for some filler).
There was originally no attempt to cover the same things — the site was a reaction against how the city was being shown. There was deliberately uncensored commenting (bar removal of libel/racism – of which there was very little) and a tendency to cover the more esoteric of Birmingham’s charms.
While I’d like to think that that’s how BiNS still operates, it has moved slightly towards news coverage – particularly in attempting to hold an eyeglass to the operations of the larger orgs that run the city. It’s also had a bit of a campaigning zeal to point out any churnalism or obviously uncritical reporting of (council especially) activity. There is a lot of this in Brum still.
What BiNS doesn’t try to do is to cover the same stuff that people will see in the trad news media — that would stretch resources and dilute the voice — when facts are there it’ll just link.
There has been a movement towards BiNS’s style by some of the proper outlets (including them asking me to contribute) – BBC Midlands Today’s coverage of the “Wolverhampton Ring Road Tramp” seemed to me to be something that they really wouldn’t have done when Birmingham: It’s Not Shit started – it tried to be sentimental and have an arched eyebrow about a story that it probably wouldn’t have touched years before. I’m not saying BiNS was responsible, but the way people could converse on the net has changed the media.
I think there are certain journalistic standards (although not the same often-false idea of neutrality) that the site shares with trad media – and some where I (unbowing to commercial or sales pressures) am free to have higher standards.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
Interestingly, I feel it’s what I could leave out as other blogs and sites started up in Birmingham — the success of Created in Birmingham of rounding up (in a fairly uncritical manner) a lot of the creative stuff going on in the city meant that BiNS could concentrate on what it does best rather than trying to cover everything. The more blogs, the more linking there has been to replace what would otherwise be dry stuff as I don’t know enough about it — people with more knowledge and interest do it better.
My leaving the BBC, years ago now, gave me more freedom to comment on things — but it sort of coincided with the mainstreaming of the blog (a little after came the Birmingham Post putting me at number 14 in their Power 50 list).
Certainly being known personally (and knowing, to an extent) the people that I was covering made some posts more circumspect — and some items not covered at all. This could well be an inevitable problem for the more successful local blogs.
That said, knowing that some people in authority are irritated by it gives some reason behind some of the more campaigning coverage.
Anything else you feel has been important in the development of the blog that hasn’t been covered?
That I’m not a journalist, nor have aspirations to be one gives the site freedom — that it doesn’t solicit adverts (the few on the site are unpaid favours to friends) gives it a strength. A strength to not cover things that aren’t interesting, and to be seen as independent.
The name of the site was critical in both positioning it and getting attention in the early days, and while it no doubt hampers it at some junctions (it rarely gets a link from the press, for example) it sort of keeps it on track — there’s no point in going ‘mainstream’ with “shit” in the URL. It’s also a template for the sort of humour that I’d hope is still part of it.