Hyperlocal Voices: Robin Byles (Sheffieldblog.com and Crosspool.info)

Hyperlocal voices: Sheffield blog

Here’s another hyperlocal voice: Robin Byles set up Sheffieldblog in 2008 when he returned to the city after working for the BBC. The site focuses on “The kind of stuff that may get featured as an aside in the local papers, but actually people are quite interested in and in the context of online, works really well.” More recently he’s also been involved in Crosspool.info. Here’s the full interview:

Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?

I set the blog up on my own. I studied Media and Communications at UCE [now Birmingham City University], moved to London where I worked at the BBC for 8 years as a web editor and have now moved back north where I’m a digital editor for the University of Sheffield.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

A mixture of things really. I had seen one or two local blogs and knew that there wasn’t a major one covering my home town of Sheffield, so quite fancied setting something up.

I think living away from the area had given me a yearning for local news but not just the traditional stuff that I could read in the local paper or local news website.

I was also interested in the stories that people were talking about that didn’t always make the normal news outlets. This interesting stuff was out there on the internet and I liked the idea of being able to collate all this content and promote it from one place – a non-automated aggregator, I suppose.

I’m very fond of my home city and the pending move back home seemed like a good excuse to get something up and running.

I was also on the lookout for jobs at the time and knew that the more varied stuff that my CV had on it – in particular a place where I could do a bit of writing – the more it would help me find work. So part of the motivation was also a professional one.

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

It was set up in March 2008 using an off-the-shelf WordPress.com theme. It has been customised with a few widgets and a header image but it is nothing that most other web-literate people couldn’t do.

The Twitter account (@sheffieldblog) followed in October 2008. As well as access to a computer, having an iPhone has been really handy to keep updating stories when on the move, in particular using photo-blogging services like Twitpic.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Createdinbirmingham.com was one that I followed so I guess that was an influence – and my blog certainly took a steer from it in terms of a bit of a bias towards the arts and creative content.

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

As long as Sheffield blog is a one-person operation run in my spare time, there is no way that it can compete with traditional news setups in terms of resources, breadth or depth of coverage. Twitter lets me give occasional breaking news a mention, but having a full time job means I can only really do updates during the day over lunch.

Because of this, I tend not to blog about straight news stories that people could have picked up in the traditional media. Instead I might try to focus on something a bit more quirky or feature-based that has caught my eye on Twitter, on the internet, while walking round town or something I have picked up or through friends. The kind of stuff that you might mention to your mate over a pint and may get featured as an aside in the local papers, but actually people are quite interested in and in the context of online, works really well.

There have been one or two times where I have posted about something and a couple of days later it has popped up in the Star or Sheffield Telegraph. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have had the story without my blog, but it is satisfying to at least know that people may have seen it on my blog first. It also shows that journalists are using the internet/forums/blogs/RSS feeds to hunt out stories.

Newspaper websites have usually only promoted their own content whereas I’m also always on the lookout for mentions of Sheffield in the media in articles, blog posts, videos or TV shows that people may find interesting.

Although Sheffield blog doesn’t really lead on campaigns like some blogs and newspapers, I do take the opportunity to try to promote local worthy local causes that may not have such a voice in the local media e.g. smaller campaigns, grassroots initiatives.

As the blog’s popularity has grown this has become harder as I get regular requests from businesses, organisations, charities etc. to plug events and I have to be careful it doesn’t just turn into a route for promotion with no editorial integrity.

The local media has caught up and are now plugging their content on Twitter, but as far as I can see they are all automated feeds. Everything I tweet is put together myself and I think people appreciate a human filter sifting what goes out.

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

In terms of popularity and statistics, big events in the city have driven interest in the blog, e.g. the demolition of the cooling towers and the Tramlines music festival.

Having the Twitter account during the floods of June 2009 meant I could retweet flood news from the hundreds of followers around the city and help people get home safely.

Having 2,800+ Twitter followers means I can point people to my content and other content really quickly and this promotion can continue as people retweet items of interest. It can also be a source for stories as I monitor the people I follow and mentions of Sheffield.

The blog also includes a directory for Sheffield organisations and businesses on Twitter.

On the down side, because tweeting is so quick and easy, it has made writing blog posts much harder so you have to stay disciplined. The blog is also now on Facebook.

From the start, RSS feeds as a source of information have been really important. My feed reader is signed up to every single Sheffield/South Yorkshire blog and website that I can find and also includes various news alerts. These have always been a good source for stuff to blog about and point people to. I’m always keen to promote content from other Sheffield-based blogs that have sprung up over the last few months and see these as a rich source of quality content.

I think getting a balance between plugging the blog’s own content via Twitter and also pointing people to other interesting Sheffield content is really important. I estimate that less than 1 in 10 tweets point to my blog so I don’t think that is a bad ratio.

In terms of content the blog is definitely steered by the things I am interested in, e.g. digital, creative industries, music, development, regeneration, architecture, food and drink.

The blog continues to grow with numbers of page views and Twitter followers. I’ve previously put out feelers to see if anyone else would like to write posts but didn’t have much response and of course there is an administrative overhead in doing this so I’d need to think carefully about what extra time I could devote to this before it properly taking the next step up.

I like the way that anyone could set up a similar blog in half an hour using free platforms like WordPress and Twitter to publish their content. Technology isn’t much of a barrier any more; the most important things you need are passion for the subject area and the motivation to stay committed to posting regularly.

Full disclosure: I teach at Birmingham City University, formerly UCE, where Robin studied (although I didn’t know he studied there when I approached him).


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