Richard Jones, an experienced broadcast journalist, set up Saddleworth News just nine months ago. He hoped to combine his journalistic ambitions with a demanding routine as a stay-at home-father whilst providing more online information about an area which he claims “was relatively under-served by the traditional media”. Although not an easy task, Jones has successfully used social media as well as local news stories in order to secure an expanding fan base. This post is part of the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews.
Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds?
I set it up myself. I used to be a full-time professional journalist. I graduated from the Broadcast Journalism course in Leeds in 2002, then spent six years at Sky News working in TV and radio.
After we relocated to Manchester because of my wife’s career, I freelanced at various radio stations until we had our first child in September 2009 and I gave up work to become a stay-at-home dad.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
Lots of reasons really, but two main themes. I’ll admit the first was selfishness. I couldn’t really combine irregular hours as a radio journalist with being a full-time dad, but I knew that I wanted to return to full-time work one day, so I needed to do something to keep my hand in.
I was also worried about how I’d fill my days, even with a small baby to look after, so was keen to take on a project to help keep me occupied.
The other reasons were more altruistic. When we were thinking of moving to Saddleworth we realised that there wasn’t actually that much information about the place online. I also noticed that, for an area with such a distinctive character, it was relatively under-served by the traditional media. So I thought I could use my journalism skills to do something positive for the community we were about to move into.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
We moved to Saddleworth in January 2010 and I started the blog the following month. It’s a self-hosted WordPress site.
I’ve written other blogs before (and continue to write about being a stay-at-home dad at www.likefatherlikedaughter.blogspot.com) using Blogger so I had some very basic experience of running a site and tinkering with HTML a little.
I knew in my head how I felt it should look, so it was just a case of picking a free WordPress theme and after an evening playing around I had it more or less as I wanted. I’ve been very impressed with how user-friendly and reliable WordPress is.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
The main one was Kate Feld’s Manchizzle [interviewed previously in the Hyperlocal Voices series]. When I lived in Manchester I used to go to her blog meet-ups, then got into going to the Social Media Cafe Manchester evenings. When I had the idea of doing a hyperlocal site I got lots of encouragement and ideas from people there.
I think the first hyperlocal site I saw was Linda Preston’s Darwen Reporter, now sadly no longer running. I definitely copied the blog format from her.
I wanted to get away from the typical information-heavy newspaper websites, partly because I think they’re often a bit confusing, but mostly because I didn’t want to feel under pressure to update it more than once a day. And if you do one story a day on a blog, there’s always something new on top of the site to keep it fresh for regular readers.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
The similarities are to do with the basic skills of journalism. I still research stories, make phone calls, do interviews, write copy, take pictures, nurture contacts, take editorial decisions, just as I did when I worked in a newsroom. Although I have to compress all that into an hour or two each day during my daughter’s lunchtime nap!
There are plenty of differences, but one main one is that I don’t have to run my story ideas by an editor. So instead of hearing excuses like “I’m interested in that” or “Nobody cares” or “We did that last week/month/year” I can just do whatever I like.
For example, during the election campaign I decided to interview all the candidates standing in the general and local elections, so I went and did it. A local newspaper journalist told me he’d suggested the same thing, but his editor had said there “wasn’t space” in the paper for it. That’s the kind of public service a site like mine can provide.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
By far the biggest story of the year has been the local political situation. We had a bitterly-fought general election, a legal challenge, then the local MP Phil Woolas got found guilty of cheating and was thrown out of parliament.
I covered the campaign in much greater detail than anyone else at the time, and I’ve now built up a huge archive of articles about every aspect of the saga. It’s helped raise the profile and credibility of the site locally, and I’ve also given interviews and help to national journalists who have come to cover the story, which has hopefully given the site a bit of a wider reputation too.
The day of the Woolas verdict was the busiest ever for the site, with 1500 unique visits and a great amount of attention on Twitter. I have to take my daughter out with me on stories, and to their credit Oldham Council’s press team who were controlling the media let me into an ante-room so I could follow the verdict (I was doing Twitter updates with one hand, and trying to entertain her with a toy car in the other) and then into the news conference later.
I also had with me a crew of teenage media students from Oldham College who have been making some video reports for the site. I overheard someone say rather sniffily “Who are they covering it for, CBeebies?” but the fact people in this area are prepared to accept the site as legitimate journalism, no matter how unconventional some aspects of it are, I think says a lot about how far it’s come in such a short time.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
I was amazed when the site got more than 6,000 unique visits in the first full month. It’s increased steadily since, and last month there were 12,000.
The Woolas verdict means there have already been more than that during November, so it’ll be another new record.
I haven’t spent anything on promotion apart from getting a few business cards printed, but Facebook has been a great way of growing awareness and building a regular audience. There are almost 700 fans on there now.