For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.
The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years.
1. Who were the people behind the blog?
People tend to be a bit surprised when I reveal that it’s only me behind Caerphilly Observer. We do have guest bloggers (local politicians and business leaders) and we have some sports reports sent in from local teams, but apart from that I do most of the editorial on the site and our weekly newsletter.
2. What made you decide to set up the blog?
Believe it or not, I originally set up Caerphilly Observer while I was living in Brighton – some 200 miles away from the area.
I was working for daily newspaper The Argus at the time as a reporter and simply wanted to keep up with what was going on back home. I also wanted to improve my digital skills and thought setting up a news website would kill two birds with one stone.
It has always been a dream of mine to own a newspaper and I thought that if the website took off with the readers, then maybe one day I could do it as a full-time job. I never thought that would become a reality until it happened in August 2011.
3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
With the intention of this maybe becoming a business one day, I purposely set about choosing a name with a “newspaper” feel. If the website was to be taken seriously then it needed to have a strong brand. After several alternatives, Caerphilly Observer was finally chosen by my wife.
I registered the domain name and went about setting-up a self-hosted WordPress site. With next to no technical knowledge of DNS, PHP, Apache and loads of other things that sounded like they were from Star Trek, I ploughed on.
The learning curve has been steep – especially with implementing a custom WordPress theme – but the knowledge gained has been immensely valuable.
I’m very much a hands-on learning person, so I know a lot of it has stuck and it won’t be forgotten.
4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
I drew a lot of inspiration from several news websites, in not what to do, and loads of other blogs in what to do correctly.
Lichfield Live (Or Lichfield Blog as it was then called) was a big inspiration as was Bristol 24/7.
5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
I definitely see Caerphilly Observer as part of the local media and I’m very pleased to say the community we cover also sees us in the same light.
Quite often people mistake us for a newspaper and think we’re bigger and more established than we actually are – not a bad thing. Obviously, I can’t cover everything and there have been court cases I would have loved to have covered but couldn’t. I used to beat myself up about not being everywhere but more recently I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s me against the big media trying to create something sustainable.
There are other aspects of the site that equally need taking care of such as business admin and the small matter of selling advertising to fund what I do.
6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
You know you’re being taken seriously when people contact you to complain. I won’t go into specifics but during last year’s Welsh Assembly elections we were threatened with legal action. We eventually sorted it out without the need for solicitors but it did go to show that we had arrived. If we were irrelevant then I wouldn’t have had that phone call.
7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
Our monthly average over the last six months (Jan 2012 to June 2012) is 37,000 page impressions and 13,340 unique visitors. That’s roughly double to what we did in the first half of 2011.
8. What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Creating revenue is an absolute huge challenge and fundamental to the sustainable future of Caerphilly Observer.
One of our selling points is that we’re local and independent, but if we’re not getting the numbers for local businesses to themselves get business, they’re not going to advertise and we’re not going to make any money.
Paid-for editorial spots and display advertising make up the bulk of my income, but I still do freelance copywriting and journalism to create my wage. It’s nowhere near where it was when I was working for a big media company but the difference is I’m doing what I think serves our readers and advertisers the best. There is also an unrivalled sense of job satisfaction.
Many in hyperlocal circles and the wider media industry state that creating a paying website is impossible – I love proving them wrong.
9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of?
Without doubt it was our liveblog during the local election count in May this year. It was a fantastic night grabbing interviews and updating the website and we had a record number of visitors and page views for a single day.
The reaction from and interaction with our readers was what kept me going into the small hours.
10. What are your plans for the future?
To keep growing. I want to have at least one other member of staff and an office in Caerphilly town centre, but that will take a lot of hard work and dedication.
Most of all, I want Caerphilly Observer to be the primary source for local news in the area and have the mind and market share in the local community that traditional media has.
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