Today’s Hyperlocal Voices interview is with Julia Larden, chair of the Acocks Green Focus Group blog, which campaigns to make Acocks Green a “better place to live, work and shop”. The group was established in 2004 and the blog followed in 2007. “We are less likely to get confused or get our facts slightly muddled” than professional journalists, says Julia. Here’s the full interview:
Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?
That’s a bit complicated. Originally the blog was set up, more as a straight website, by a member who has long since left the area. It was not working very well at that time, and the ex-member was also asking for quite a lot of money to carry it on. I don’t think the member had any particular background in IT – he was in education, although he has set up a few small websites of his own. I had done some work for it, written some materials and supplied some photographs. My son, who runs a small software company, agreed to take the whole thing into his care for a bit.
Things lay dormant and then, when my son had time he simply picked the content up and plonked the whole thing into a WordPress blog – one of the slightly posher ones that you have to pay a bit for, but he has some sort of contract and can get quite a few of these blogs, so the group just pays him a very nominal sum each year.
It then sat there for a bit longer with not very much happening except the occasional comment, and then several members pointed out that it was a valuable resource which we were not using properly.
One of the members had web experience (running her own online teaching company) and started to make it into a far more interesting blog, asking for more materials, creating new pages and adding in bits and pieces and an opinion survey of the area – as a launch gimmick. (We have kept that – it still gets a lot of interest – more since I shifted it to another page, for some reason.)
Eventually she didn’t have much time. At my son’s urging I nervously started to do tiny bits and pieces and then realized that WordPress is really, really simple. It’s ‘blogging by numbers’, as far as I can see. Now I enjoy it and do all of it. I have zero I.T. background. Again, my own background is education. Mainly I teach English Literature and Film Studies to adults.
I did sort of come into it with a background of amateur P.R. I suppose – have been doing press releases on and off for 30 years, mainly, previously, for the local CND group (and am launching a brand new CND group blog, properly, very shortly.) and, from time to time, to promote courses I am teaching – I still do that sometimes. Up until recently local papers generally used my press releases. In these times that is getting harder …
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
Nobody really – this was a couple of years ago and there wasn’t exactly a lot out there re: local blogs. (There is more on our blog that got ‘lost’ – we had one major crash last year.)
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
We are the same in that we put the news, and our opinions out there. We are different because we can do more.
We are less likely to get confused or get our facts slightly muddled (Not knocking local journos, we know some great ones, but they don’t always live round the corner, and have other stories to cover!)
We can give more. We can put in as many links as we like – both down the side, and in posts, without cluttering things up. The sidebar links are a way of giving some idea who we like and/or work with, as well. (Two Lib-Dems but we have no political affiliations, incidentally.)
We can have big permanent collections of photos and other data on other pages than the main blog page – a ‘library’ in fact. We can put in whole documents, like local plans, which we often do, and set it up so things can be blown up large on screen. In fact we seem to be better than the local council at present, at providing this kind of facility!
We also have ‘quick response’ – a threatened local building of merit for example, can be on the blog the same day as we find out about it. We can help get the word out fast.
We also have a talk back facility, of course. We hope we don’t lose our local press though – they can still cover a lot of households quickly – and help point people to us, as well.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
Blimey – probably each time someone took the blog over it was a ‘key moment’. Otherwise, I think it has just kind of developed gradually.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
I just go by the posts that get the most attention. Those that give details of plans tend to get a lot of hits (which is satisfying), as do the latest posts. We get a huge amount of stuff about the old Swan centre at Yardley, which worries me, because we are only peripheral to that, and I think Yardley urgently needs its own blog.
We get quite a few people asking for ‘Acocks Green MP’ – no such person of course, but the constituency MP is John Hemming and there is a link to his blog from our site, so, hopefully, people looking for ‘Acocks Green MP’ find their way to that – quite a few people do click on the Hemming blog. Do they sometimes really want a councillor, though, I wonder?
We also get a remarkable amount of people asking about the re-design at Kensington and miscellaneous enquiries, e.g. about bus routes, which suggest to me that there needs to be a general info website for every area, whilst we are a specialist site, focusing on the group work of campaigning on fixed features in the area (and some we would like to be unfixed)
Anything else you feel has been important in the development of the blog that hasn’t been covered?
Oh – photography. My partner does most of the photographs. He used to do them for press releases too, although we do fewer of those these days (just not getting so much stuff into the papers, so the blog is more important). We tend to work as a team. He’s won a mention on the Birmingham Post & Mail Flickr competition a couple of times now, and I think he is quite good. I think good photos help.