Having worked for the BBC News Entertainment website for a decade, Darryl Chamberlain took voluntary redundancy and set up the widely successful 853 Blog. As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series he shares some of the secrets of his success.
1) Who where the people behind the blog, and what where their backgrounds?
853’s all mine. My background’s actually in showbiz news. I worked for the BBC News website’s entertainment desk for a decade in a variety of roles – mainly sub-editing and being the daily editor, but also reporting and feature writing.
I took voluntary redundancy and a career break in 2009 – standing in a council election in May 2010, and doing odd bits of freelance work. While standing in an election will probably leave me hopelessly biased in many eyes, it helped introduce me to local issues which simply weren’t being touched, and potential contacts of all political hues. After my glorious defeat, I realised I could do a bit more for my local area by sticking to what I was good at – finding things out and writing about them.
I have lived in the Greenwich area all my life, and it’s an under-reported patch, so here was my chance to do something about it. 853’s helped me keep my hand in the trade, too, which has been a nice spin-off.
More recently, I’ve set up a truly hyperlocal blog, the Charlton Champion , for the area where I live . I’m hoping to get more people involved in it, though, so it develops a different voice and its own distinctive identity. I’ve a few other people on board, but it’s very early days.
I’m also involved in a new project, The Scoop, about London news and politics.
2) When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
I’d blogged under a pseudonym on a couple of other sites for about five years – the usual “have a go at everyone/everything” stuff – before my impending redundancy convinced me I should try something under my own name.
I set 853 up in October 2008, using a basic WordPress template. Originally, it was going to be a showcase for my writing – I had all kinds of plans to go travelling. But the travel stuff only ended up being a small part of what the site became. Maybe I’ll pack my bags again one day and add a bit more travel.
3) What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
I’ve always thought a blog should tell you something you don’t know, instead of parroting the same old stuff. So I’ve always been in awe of Diamond Geezer , who’s looking at London’s lesser-known aspects for nearly nine years now.
Jason Cobb’s Onionbagblog was a huge influence – like me, he never set out to scrutinise his local council, but found himself doing it when nobody else was. I’m sure the leadership of Lambeth Council are breathing a sigh of relief now he’s chronicling life on the Essex coast instead.
Adam Bienkov has shown the benefits of persistence and building up good contacts in his chronicle of life at City Hall, while Brockley Central has become the model for just about anybody wanting to set up a hyperlocal blog.
My fellow Greenwich blogger The Greenwich Phantom has a distinctive take on local life which means we don’t tread on each other’s toes, Greenwich.co.uk has shown there is a demand for local news and information, while Transpontine is essential reading if you’re interested in south-east London’s music, culture and history. London SE1 is a fantastic news source which puts the big operators to shame, while Chislehurst News is a newcomer to the SE London scene which is well worth a look.
There’s a loose network of bloggers in south-east London and beyond which has been a great source of inspiration and support.
4) How did- and do you- see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
In south-east London, the hyperlocal blogs are partly filling a gap that’s come about because of market failure. The Greenwich area’s been largely abandoned by the big operators, leaving a couple of freesheets whose editorial is shared with neighbouring Lewisham.
The two boroughs are fairly similar socially but wildly different politically, despite both being Labour areas, and that’s where they hit problems. Combined, those freesheets are struggling to serve an area with the same population of Liverpool against a lack of interest from their proprietors – Tindle’s Mercury has great reporters but is horribly under-resourced and doesn’t even have a proper website, while Newsquest’s News Shopper is based far out in the suburbs and really doesn’t understand the area.
That said, I’d rather 853 complemented rather than competed with them – so when I deal with news I’m concentrating on council-related matters because that’s what’s getting neglected. But it still contains lots of opinion on other issues and anything else that takes my fancy.
5) What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
The turning point was going to a Greenwich Council meeting in July 2009 and watching a member of the public hectored by the mayor because he was having trouble asking a question about a housing development that affected him. It was horrifying to watch but here were no reporters there to see this – the entire meeting went unreported beyond my site.
Greenwich.co.uk’s Rob Powell asked me to cover a few meetings for him after this, and I’ve continued doing this on 853. A lot of the blog’s opinionated, but on council issues the facts usually speak for themselves.
More recently, revealing the closures of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and the council pulling its funding from fireworks on Blackheath – claiming cuts-induced poverty despite blowing £30,000 on a mayor-making ceremony have been important moments for the blog.
Following the ongoing story of the cuts is going to become more important as time goes on – 853 was the first place to report on the initial swathe of Greenwich’s cuts and the Charlton Champion’s revealed the threat to a local petting zoo.
Covering the problems of the Southeastern train company whose press office refuses to deal with blogs – has been a boost for traffic; again, it’s an issue that’s often poorly covered elsewhere.
My background on the BBC News website’s served me well – I get frustrated if I’m not first to a story!