As part of the Hyperlocal Voices series, Yessi Bello speaks to Jason Cobb, publisher of Wivenhoe’s Onionbagblog, which has moved with its author from town to town, and from covering local sport to an increasingly civic focus, including coverage of council meetings. Cobb describes attending his first Full Council meeting as “almost on par with this despair of watching sub-standard non-league football.” He now also publishes The Wivenhoe Forum.
Who are the people behind the blog?
My blog is essentially my own personal online home, where I can create and dump any digital content that comes my way.
My day job involves managing online communities, as well as producing online content for local schools. Sitting somewhere in-between is my blog, hopefully as a platform for local co-operation and engagement.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
I started blogging in 2003 using Blogger. It was the online equivalent of the old punk rallying call of here’s a chord, here’s another one – now go and start a band. Starting a blog was as simple as setting up an account with Blogger.
I’ve since moved platforms to a WordPress self-hosted site, which offers more flexibility and control over the design. But ultimately it really is still all about the content.
I’ve changed direction, if not focus, in the eight years that I have been blogging. This shift more or less reflects my own offline lifestyle changes from sport, to local community issues, and then my current lifestyle change having moved out of South London to the North Essex estuary wilds. Essentially I blog about what I see around me.
In Lambeth I witnessed an incredibly poor level of local accountability when it came to local council matters. The press gallery for Full Council meetings was often empty, with local journos guilty of being caught asleep on the job.
Through blogging and tweeting about some of the political twaddle that was taking place, I was able to engage the local community in how petty local politics can often appear from the outside.
It is great to now see many similar local blogs carrying on this level of political accountability, as well as the traditional media taking to tweeting from within the Town Hall.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
The mighty Urban 75 has always been an inspiration in terms of community passion, and what is possible to achieve collectively online.
The South East 853 blog often overlaps with similar local authority themes that I addressed in Lambeth.
Lurking About SE11 was an online neighbourhood friend, although we only ever met once by accident, despite constant accusations that we were in league together.
memespring is doing some very interesting work with data journalism in South London.
Since my move out towards North Essex, Keep Colchester Cool and the online/offline creative hub at 15 Queen Street have both offered much support and many opportunities for collaboration.
There is a tangible sense that Colchester is going through a period of positive creative growth. It is no coincidence that this move coincides with the emergence of the Cultural Quarter in the town.
By continuing to blog about hyperlocal matters in my new home of Wivenhoe, I have been able to connect with others members in the community and share ideas as to what direction our estuary town is hopefully taking.
How do you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
The distinction is often one that is made by the traditional news media, and not by bloggers who are simply going about their business. We are all observers and reporters of events that happen around us. Traditional media may make money out of this process, but that is the only difference.
I personally operate best in a news patch that I know inside out. Size is all-important here – I have little interest in what is happening in a one mile radius outside of where I live and work: that is for others to look into.
Traditional media spreads itself thin by the very nature of being tied down to a financial model of covering a greater footprint.
Having moved into a new town, I am slowly, slowly finding my feet, and finding out more about the social history. Being active online in the area is a great opportunity to go about learning more about the sense of history in the place I now call home.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
Covering local sport was a large part of my old blog. I then began to ask more questions about how local decisions were made, and why this supposedly democratic process was often leading towards a shambles of democracy in the local town hall.
Attending my first Full Council meeting was something of a key moment, and one that was almost on par with this despair of watching sub-standard non-league football.
This has led to breaking new stories such as the Lambeth Councillor who attended only 50% of meetings yet still claimed his full allowance ; the local journo who received a police caution for the common assault of a cabinet member and the allegation that the Leader of Lambeth Council ordered an apolitical officer to hack into the email account of a fellow Councillor.
Sadly the downside to this local level of journalism is that you don’t exactly make yourself popular with the local politicians that you are holding to account. I felt some sense of justice when a Lambeth Councillor who left a completely random comment with racist connotations on my blog, was then ordered by the Council to participate in social media training.
Moving forward and I have recently set up a hyperlocal forum for the community where I now live. The Wivenhoe Forum is growing organically, and it has been great to see how locals are joining the online community and starting conversations about how we can make out town an even greater place to live and work.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
To my great surprise my traffic levels have doubled since my blog took a more rural direction along with my house move.
I prefer the more qualitative approach to measurement than quantitative. Many new opportunities come my way via my blog. I am able to make offline connections in the local community, something that a daily data report of unique users is unable to compare with.
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Just read your Guardian article from 2010 about Lambeth. Do you know about the sell off of housing co-ops? http://www.lambethunitedhousingco-op.org.uk
Get in touch if you would like to know more.