In our latest interview with hyperlocal practitioners, Damian Radcliffe speaks to Mark Baynes from Love Wapping. A journalist, professional photographer and user experience designer; Mark explains how his mutual love of data and wildlife has manifested itself in this East London hyperlocal site.
Who are the people behind the blog?
Just me! Fortunately I have an odd mix of professional skills that are invaluable for hyperlocal work: photography, journalism, print production and web design and development.
Developing the tech structure (WordPress) of the site is not an issue for me so I can concentrate on the content, that is what matters.
I have been designing and building websites professionally for long enough to really appreciate the power of modern blogging platforms, I think a lot of people take this type of technology for granted. Until it stops working.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
I created Love Wapping just to cover some specific local issues that I had a view on and it has grown from there.
What’s In Wapping was and is the inspiration for Love Wapping but Vickie, like every hyperlocal creator, has to earn a living so doesn’t get much time to update her site. I need to earn a living too but often forget.
Wapping is a genuine community and people do keep an eye out for each other so all I do is reflect that. It’s identity stems from its docks history and the River Thames and an incredible heritage. It was once the trading center of the British Empire and still has a unique urban environment. I could spend all my time just blogging about Wapping’s long history.
The Romans and Vikings settled in Wapping and we are proud to be a hamlet of the Tower of London – how cool is it to have a globally recognised icon as your local fort?
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
Think the first post was in 2011. I just created a WP site and started blogging about things in Wapping that interested me and hoped other people would find them interesting too.
I lived in Bilbao for a year some time ago and blogged about my daily life in the Basque Country so learnt a lot from that experience.
Mark’s photo of a bull hooking the t-shirt of a “cuadrilla” with its horn as he runs.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
What’s in Wapping was the inspiration as I have mentioned as well as long standing hyperlocal site London SE1.
Paul is amazing at finding out all sorts of interesting things relating to planning issues in and around Wapping and Paul often helps me out on stories.
Open Corporates is an invaluable Open Data site for finding out all sorts of interesting information about organisations.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
I suppose I should be careful what I say here but the reality is that there is no traditional local press coverage of Wapping. Yes there are a couple of local newspapers that cover the East End but it’s rare to see local newspaper reporters out on the ground talking to people, they tend to be stuck in a desk in a remote office somewhere.
A lot of the stories in Love Wapping come from people I know personally who will stop me in the street and tell me about local issues that concern them or simply stories I know about and find out about. It’s not rocket science.
And Love Wapping doesn’t use press releases for easy copy.
Hyperlocal sites like Love Wapping are not replacements for traditional local news operations because you cannot replace something that does not exist.
In this country there is a massive information gap between issues covered by national news organisations and those addressed by hyperlocals.
It would be a mistake to try and emulate news sites owned by corporates that pretend to be hyperlocals, the best thing is just to get on with what you find of interest and what your community needs.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
Purely by chance Love Wapping became involved in the various odd political activities in Tower Hamlets politics. The ‘Greenbankgate’ story literally knocked on my door.
When this encounter and Love Wapping was brought up in a meeting of Tower Hamlets Council life went a little crazy for some time and running the site took over my life.
There is an ongoing investigation by the Metropolitan Police Service into various issues so I can’t say anymore than what is on the site.
What was interesting was that as a result of increased interest in the site it gave me a great insight into the diversity of people who use it, not just from Wapping or the East End but in other places too.
The ‘Wapping Mole’ was born out of Greenbankgate and Love Wapping has done more investigative stories since then, partly because they needed to be done and partly because no one else was covering them.
I am a big fan of the Open Data movement and the concept of Open Government in general and it is incredibly interesting to be on the front line of these movements.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
I rarely look at traffic figures unless the server slows to a crawl, usually because of a traffic spike.
I think it’s a mistake to get too interested in site metrics. The best SEO is to get good relevant content posted on a regular basis and the rest follows.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
Time. Or lack of it. I am self employed and painfully aware that whenever I am working on Love Wapping I am not earning money.
I am considering getting adverts on the site just out of interest, but I doubt revenue from these would even cover hosting costs.
The other challenge has been when, as with Greenbankgate, you become the story.
After I had blogged about this event the incident was the focus of a Tower Hamlets Council meeting. I was oblivious to this until I saw @lovewapping being mentioned a lot on Twitter. So I then blogged about a Love Wapping blog post being mentioned in a Council meeting and not for the last time either.
What story, feature or series are you most proud of?
I like to think the best thing about Love Wapping is the variety of content.
Recent posts have covered the upcoming result of the Department of Culture and Local Government (DCLG) audit of Tower Hamlets Council, Kingfishers in London (just a clip from BBC iPlayer but people love wildlife stories), an investigation into unusual payments to suppliers by Tower Hamlets Council, an idiot driving a car onto a bollard, a Chinese gourmet chef who lives in my block, a local planning meeting, Open House events in Wapping, felling of 12 trees on a main road, and a running photo story of five cygnets growing up in Wapping canal.
Plus Twitter activity of course.
Often site content evenly balances out between East End politics and urban wildlife, which is fine by me.
Close observation of the two has led me to the conclusion that the local wildlife is much better behaved than some local councillors – and of much more use to the community.
What are your plans for the future?
As with any hyperlocal site the main issue is having the time and funds to keep Love Wapping running. Neither are guaranteed.
Coverage of Tower Hamlets council meetings would be great to do as often they descend into farce which has to be seen to be believed, but these are more than adequately covered by Trial by Jeory so will leave him to it for the moment.
I would like to do more data journalism stories as I do data visualisation professionally. I have already done some data journalism for the site but due to its nature it chews up time.
Open Data has huge potential for hyperlocals and I would urge anyone involved in hyperlocal to get involved. There are lots of great data stories out there just waiting to be found.
I would also like to create more video content for Love Wapping. Different stories need different story telling techniques and often video is the only way to really get the issue across in an accessible way.
But to properly shoot and produce a two minute clip to a good professional standard is going to take a whole day.
Love Wapping has become a part of our community as much by accident as design but I am keen to use digital media for the benefit of others.
Someone once described Love Wapping as being the equivalent of an extra local councillor. I think that is rather over generous and we have two great real local councillors already, not sure that an unelected ‘digital councillor’ is the way forward for local democracy somehow. Or maybe I am wrong.
It would be good to do a paper version of the site as an experiment, probably in conjunction with another Wapping site maybe, because it is easy to forget that a huge number of people do not have access to the web.
These people are effectively isolated from any decent local news and their needs cannot be forgotten.