Will Perrin has spoken widely about his experiences with www.kingscrossenvironment.com, a site he set up four years ago “as a desperate measure to help with local civic activism”. In the latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series, he explains how news comes far down their list of priorities, and the importance of real world networks.
Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds?
I set it up solo in 2006, local campaigner Stephan joined late in 2006 and Sophie shortly thereafter. The three of us write regularly – me a civil servant for most of my time on the site, Sophie an actor, Stephan a retired media executive.
We had all been active in our communities for many years on a range of issues with very different perspectives. There are four or five others who contribute occasionally and a network of 20 or more folk who send us stuff for the site.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
The site was simply a tool to help co-ordinate civic action on the ground. The site was set up in 2006 as a desperate measure to help with local civic activism.
I was totally overwhelmed with reports, documents, minutes of meetings and was generating a lot of photos of broken things on the street. The council had just created a new resident-led committee for me and the burden was going to increase. Also I kept bumping into loads of other people who were active in the community but no one knew what the others were doing. I knew that the internet was a good way of organising information but wasn’t sure how to do it.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
The first post was in July 2006. I used the blogging platform Typepad because it is simple and cheap. I’ve stuck with it because I am lazy and any time spent fetishising about the layout is time taken from dealing with local issues.
I quickly introduced Feedburner-driven email subscriptions – many people prefer email.
When I set the site up I was a Senior Civil Servant in the Cabinet Office. When you do a job like that you are supposed to be incognito. I had strong support from my immediate civil service and political management but the propriety and ethics people were never very comfortable with me publishing.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
None really at the time – there were hardly any active community sites with a campaigning thrust that you could find through Google. There were many static earlier-internet sites for reference but not frequently updated.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
The site is about civic action, a critical part of which is information and communication. If you can’t communicate what needs to be done you can’t get it done. ‘News’ per se comes some way down the list. We often don’t cover ‘news’ say about train problems at the station because it doesn’t really affect the neighbourhood.
For the sake of comparison with traditional news, Kings Cross Environment is more granular and relevant to local people, with no commercial pressures. It would make no economic sense for a traditional news organisation to cover the issues we do.
We make no pretence to be impartial in the often bogus way news journalists do – we are pro-community. But we do try to be accurate and give balance.
We also generate a lot of original content where one of our extended network stumbles across something and it ends up on the site.
We happily coexist with the local papers, such as the Islington Gazette.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
The site helps us get stuff done in the community. Most community action in an area undergoing regeneration is an information game. The web helps us play that game very well, often better than the council and companies. We fought a major planning battle with Network Rail that gained £1million in local improvements through Section106, took on Cemex, one of the world’s biggest concrete companies and got them to restructure a local plant.
We also find anecdotally that by making an issue public while in correspondence with local public agencies it miraculously gets solved quicker.
In order to do that we are non-partisan, polite, fair and avoid religion.
I don’t edit posts pre-publication, people just follow a general tone. We set a firm tone on comments to avoid partisan nonsense and the comments follow this tone.
When we make mistakes and are inadvertently partisan our readers weigh in and correct us, firmly. Since the first few posts, our local councillor has commented regularly (when in and out of power) in a helpful supportive ‘I’ll get that fixed’ sort of way and occasionally other local politicians weigh in, again in a non partisan way.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
I publish a report on traffic about once a year. We get up to 200 uniques and 250 odd emails readers a day. We seem to be at the top of a classic ess-curve.
My interest is in reaching people who are active locally rather than trying to grow and audience for advertising say.
We don’t run the site for comments as such – there are about 1400 comments on 1100 posts. This reflects our use of a blog platform to publish stuff, rather than interest in running a blog or forum per se.
Anything else you feel hasn’t been covered?
Sites work best if they have a concrete purpose and build upon existing real world networks. If i had run the site as a ‘news’ operation or a social media plaything then I don’t think it would have worked.
Having multiple authors with different perspectives and backgrounds has been invaluable not least to cover each others busy spells.
We were a very early adopter of YouTube in 2006. I used video a few times when it added value to tackling a local issue such as noise pollution where it is a godsend for prima facie evidence gathering. But even with the latest tools, the time and equipment overhead of making and uploading a short video clip remains too high for regular use.
We were early into Facebook too with a group ‘I love kings cross’ with over 200 members but the limitations of Facebook meant it didn’t add much value. I will revisit Facebook now the new location-based features are around.
The site has become a remarkable local archive in a way I didn’t expect at all – we are now the definitive source of information on long running local issues. This makes the community stronger and reverses the traditional monopoly on information held by the public sector. The site is archived at the British Library.