For the latest in our series of interviews with hyperlocal publishers we head North to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, where online journalist Jenny Shepherd talks to Damian Radcliffe about the Upper Calder Valley Plain Speaker.
Formerly the “Changing More Than Lightbulbs” website, Jenny explains the collaborative journey that the site went on to go live – with input and encouragement coming from a range of sources; how she derived inspiration from a combination of boredom and The Archers; and their current campaign efforts to help Save Calderdale Royal Hospital.
Who were the people behind the blog?
At first the DCarb Upper Calder Valley group at Hebden Bridge Alternative Technology Centre were behind the blog. I also met UnLtd at a Screen Yorkshire digital workshop, who strongly encouraged me to set it up. And UnLtd then provided a Millenium Award as start-up funding.
Along the way, the Todmorden-based writer and community website guru Alan McDonald offered his practical support and we were away. Later we set up a steering group with the addition of Halifax-based journalist Mark Metcalf.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
One driving reason was that I was literally bored to tears at work. I never understood before that that expression was more than a metaphor. But then I found my tears dripping onto my keyboard as I wrote more turgid drivel for money.
So I clearly had to find something more interesting to write. And the subject that presented itself was local news about climate change mitigation.
This was because I was volunteering at the Hebden Bridge Alternative Technology Centre, as secretary for DCarb Upper Calder Valley – an umbrella group for local organisations working to reduce carbon emissions in various ways.
The group clearly needed a way to communicate with the local public and so the idea for Plain Speaker was born. Except in that first incarnation, it was called Energy Royd (Royd being a Yorkshire place name word meaning settlement).
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
It took ages to set up the blog. I think I got the idea (when weeping into my keyboard at work) in 2010. It was the end of 2011 before the website went live.
I went about it by talking with people – at first with the DCarb group, and UnLtd. And then at a public meeting where DCarb was doing a presentation, which is where I met Alan McDonald and he offered help with the technical side of setting up the website.
Once he’d set up the website, and given me a bit of help in how to use it, I just starting writing and reporting on local low carbon news.
I also did a month of user testing, sitting one afternoon a week in a local cafe with wifi, with an open invitation to anyone who wanted to user test it to come in, have a coffee and let me watch them use the website and then talk to me about their experience.
Photo: Save Calderdale Royal Hospital campaigners’ message to Calderdale Council Adults Health & Social Care Scrutiny Panel, Halifax Town Hall
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
I don’t think I really had much of a clue about anything digital at that stage.
I really meant to use the website to set up an online soap which would have been kind of like the Archers, but in online video rather than radio, and an everyday story of low-carbon-living folk. And I wanted it to be interactive and multiplatform – a bit like Kate Modern.
I got a Skillset Bursary to study Postgraduate Professional Media Practice – Developing Multiplatform Ideas at University College Falmouth. It was taught by a BBC multiplatform producer and was really interesting.
I still want to do an online soap, but now with a wider story theme. And it would be more like a sitcom than a soap, as a result of my experiences reporting on local news for Plain Speaker.
But that just shows that life happens while you’re busy making other plans…
How do you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
Local papers here are owned by Johnson Press and are more or less in meltdown.
I see myself as researching stories in ways that they don’t have time to do. I think I have a good relationship with local papers – they do quick news in ways that I find hard to do, while I do slower more investigative reporting that pulls up a lot of unknown facts into the public domain.
I am also more of a campaigning news reporter – I think my practice is quite different from theirs in that respect.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
There have been three key moments I think. One was when I went on the Media and Digital Enterprise workshop at UCLan and felt I really had to raise my game.
The next was when I realised I really did need some kind of plan and received consultancy support from the Make Your Local News Work initiative.
That was when we set up a steering group and developed a bit of a vague business plan (which, over a year later, we still haven’t done anything about but it’s in the back of my mind and is like having a compass to look at in the trackless wastes).
In other words, it helps orientate me to where I know Plain Speaker should be heading.
We are finally about to make the first big change, which is to upgrade the format so the website actually looks like a news magazine and is easier for readers to navigate and to change the url to ucvplainspeaker instead of the old www.energyroyd.org.uk.
The third was when I started the campaigning Save Calderdale Royal Hospital thread.
— Jenny Shepherd (@lastbid) August 23, 2014
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
I seem to stay around 2,000 unique users/month although there have been giddy months when it’s gone up to 3,000.
Mostly readers are in the North, mostly in the UK, but it depends on the stories.
For example an article about a local councillor’s work on the Green Economy group of Leeds City Region could be about the fact that Drax Power Station now receives renewable subsidies for burning biomass instead of coal, despite the fact that biomass is dirtier than coal in carbon emission terms and also is responsible for the destruction of forests in the southern USA. So then Plain Speaker might pick up quite a few readers in Carolina.
Very small local stories get the biggest traffic.
For instance recently I posted this report (#Calderdale Councillor may have to climb protected Mytholmroyd trees to stop them being felled) and in one afternoon and evening it got over 1,600 unique visits.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
I think just keeping on. And having a councillor swear down the phone at me. And then cut in and interrogate me aggressively when I was talking to another councillor in the Town Hall.
What story, feature or series are you most proud of?
I think the series I am most proud of is the ongoing campaign to Save Calderdale Royal Hospital.
Photo: Save Our A&E float at Halifax Gala
What are your plans for the future?
To do what we said we’d do as a result of the consultancy support from Make Your Local News Work. To Save Calderdale Royal Hospital and stop the NHS cuts and sell offs.