It’s been a little while since we had a new entry in our Hyperlocal Voices series (where we interview hyperlocal practitioners about their experiences). To kick off our efforts for 2014, Damian Radcliffe touches base with Jamie Summerfield, to talk about A Little Bit of Stone, a community news website for Stone in Staffordshire.
Who were the people behind the blog?
I set up A Little Bit of Stone in August 2010 and was joined a month later by Jon Cook.
We quickly set up a partnership, me doing editorial and Jon looking after web and technical matters.
Over the last three-and-a-half years, a number of other people have come on board. We now have a team, including myself and Jon, of nine, as well as a host of other contributors.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
I had left local newspaper journalism in 2008 for a public sector PR role, so I was looking to do something ‘journalistic’ in my spare time.
I’d moved to Stone in 2002 and just loved the town, so I knew a local news site for the area was what I wanted to do.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
I set up A Little Bit of Stone in August 2010 as a really simple WordPress site.
Jon implemented something a lot better in September 2010, which we’re still using today, although we have a brand new website launching soon.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
There were a number of community sites in Staffordshire that really did inspire me – Lichfield Blog, as it was back then, was a major inspiration, as was Pits n Pots in Stoke-on-Trent (sadly no more) and My Tunstall (still going very strong).
Obviously, since setting up the site, I’ve discovered many more wonderful examples all over the country, but when I started, I was very much inspired by sites more local to me.
How do you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
Because of my background and training in regional newspapers, much of what I’ve done on A Little Bit of Stone has had a traditional newspaper feel to it, although I’ve covered lots of things that the traditional media haven’t.
My approach to hyperlocal has changed over the years, however, as I’ve tried to shake off this traditional media approach. It’s still there – and I still do lots of straight reporting – but the site (and myself) have changed a lot over the last three years.
We try to provide a platform for different voices; we do different things now.
Additionally, the demands of a 24/7 social media-driven news operation are intense and difficult to sustain voluntarily.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
We’ve been involved in campaigning on some local issues, which demonstrated the importance of fighting for the local community.
We’re not afraid to cover controversial issues and to provide a platform for different viewpoints – something we shied away from, I think, for a while.
For a while, it was just me posting stories to the site. The involvement of other writers (and photographers) has improved the site no end.
Snowy Stone from the air. Picture by Paul Moloney.
We run a lot of guest posts, giving someone the platform to talk about their charity/issue/event etc and features that are timeless.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
Today we regularly get over 10,000 unique visitors to the site each month, sometimes many more. The number of visitors has grown pretty steadily over the years.
What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?
I think our biggest challenge is sustainability. Although we do make some income from advertising on the site, this covers hosting, equipment and other costs.
Trying to generate revenue to build the site and cement what we’re doing – which has tremendous social and community benefits – is difficult.
I’m currently, at the time of writing, having a bit of a break from the Little Bit of Stone front line. I was, simply, exhausted after three-and-a-half years of doing the site on top of a full-time job and my family.
Jon is running the site brilliantly without me, with our volunteers, but it would be great to get to the position where the site generates enough income to allow me to work on it, paid, for a day or two a week.
What story, feature or series are you most proud of?
Flooding in Stone: Stone was hit by major flooding in 2013. At one stage, a major A road through the town was closed for days.
Traffic to the site was huge (over 21,000 unique visitors in the month it happened) and hundreds of new social media connections, especially on Facebook.
We crowdsourced a photo gallery of the flooding, people sent in videos of what they thought was causing it (there was bad flooding in 2012 too), we did a Cover It Live live blog to keep people up to date.
Westbridge Park debate: A real controversial issue in the town was Stafford Borough Council’s plans to mark an area of green space in the town, Westbridge Park, for mixed-use development.
This was incredibly divisive, with lots of people passionately opposed, and many fighting for it.
We covered the issue extensively, reporting on public meetings and Local Plan examinations (and recording meetings in full for the site). We invited lots of different people from different sides of the debate to contribute guest blog posts.
Hundreds of comments were made on the site, and thousands on our social media channels. It got heated, we were threatened with legal action sadly, but I’m really proud that we stuck to our guns and provided a platform for local people to debate the issue.
At the time of writing, the whole sage has yet to be resolved…
Our Facebook page: I always say that the Little Bit of Stone website is only the tip of the iceberg.
There is so much activity, so much information and discussion on our Facebook page that never actually makes the site. There are almost 5,000 people who like the page, the huge majority living in the town (which has a population of about 13,000). I’m constantly amazed at what goes on there – if anything happens in the town, someone knows about it.
I remember, a few months ago, approaching a roundabout on the A34 in Stone and a car came whizzing round it followed by three police cars. They disappeared on to an industrial estate.
About five minutes later I pulled over to put something on Twitter and Facebook about it. Four people already had.
It’s always like that. The site couldn’t exist without our amazing volunteers, but it also couldn’t do what it does without the thousands of people who are actively involved with us too.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re developing a new website which will be able to accommodate much more of what we want to do with A Little Bit of Stone.
We want to continue to build and develop the fantastic team of volunteers we have, who we love very much!
There are lots of ideas in the pipeline, including setting up as a social enterprise and a print edition of A Little Bit of Stone.