This latest in the Hyperlocal Voices series of interviews looks at a second Australian hyperlocal blogger: Brian Ward, who runs Fitzroyality, a blog covering Fitzroy in Melbourne – which he describes as “vehemently anti-commercial” – as well as a number of aggregator blogs around the city. He has successfully fought major publishers on inaccuracies and copyright, and the site has now broken 1.4m pageviews.
Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds?
Fitzroyalty is entirely my work. I’ve been using computers since I was 12 and have been online since 1990, the year I started university. I have a PhD in literature and have worked as a writer and editor in print publishing. I now work only in electronic publishing and have expanded into social media marketing and managing online communities. I’m a cliched digital native.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
I wanted to do some writing online, and spent months examining the blogging phenomenon in 2005-2006. I wanted to understand the motivation to create free content, and to ensure I had the motivation to maintain my interest in my subject(s) and to keep publishing regularly.
I read a lot about the online content ecology, about search engine optimisation and audience engagement. I also have an IT background, so it was fun to learn more about managing servers, installing open source software and other tasks associated with electronic publishing, which was essential to being able to operate indpendently.
The theme took some time to discover. I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and moved to Melbourne 8 years ago. I was passionate about my new home in the bohemian centre of Melbourne, Fitzroy (the cultural equivalent of Hackney, Spitalfields or Shoreditch in London), and decided to write about it.
I was significantly influenced by a hyperlocal site for the nearby suburb of Abbotsford (http://abbotsfordblog.com/ – still online but defunct since 2008), which started about 3 months before I started Fitzroyalty. It was very important to have a theme I would not get bored with.
I was keenly unimpressed with the inane superficiality of the local (suburban) weekly newspapers (which tend to feature little local news and lots of syndicated content – they’re just vehicles for real estate advertising). I thought I could create something new that people would find useful and entertaining. Fitzroy is Melbourne’s oldest, smallest (about square 1km) and most densely populated (9000+) suburb. In 150 years it’s gone from industry to slum to gentrified urban cultural precinct. It has the critical mass of people and culture to enable an online local news publication to work.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
I started Fitzroyalty in May 2006. After researching platforms I decided against a free hosted one like Blogger and opted instead to host my own WordPress installation because I wanted to be free and independent of potential censorship, interference or intellectual property disputes (some hosts make claims on the content you publish on their platforms).
I registered a domain, bought hosting, installed WordPress and started writing and publishing. I already knew HTML and learned some CSS and PHP so I could alter WordPress templates, and also some (very basic) SQL to administer the database underneath.
I made the theme or concept loose enough to give me some diversity, so the site is mostly about Fitzroy, its culture, people and politics, and also whatever else I am doing. I am partially a food blogger and review places outside Fitzroy. I also do something quite unusual in deliberately analysing and commenting on the Melbourne online publishing scene, critiquing the business models of commercial guide sites, local government, and local business sites and the ethics of the blogging scene.
I also publish a series of 10 hyperlocal sites that aggregate posts from hundreds of local bloggers about inner city suburbs. They feature thousands of posts about restaurants, art, theatre, music and culture.
I started these in 2009 and so they have been running for 18-24 months (I built them over a period of months). They function as interesting destinations in their own right for local audiences, but via syndication they also serve a powerful (white hat) SEO function for the contributors, which is the incentive to participate.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
The Abbotsford blog was my primary inspiration, as well as the emerging food blogging scene, which is particularly strong in Melbourne. I’ve also been influenced by my reading about the future of media and the rapid development of social media. Hyperlocal aggregators like Outside.In have influenced me a lot, to the extent that I built my own hyperlocal aggregators using WordPress and an RSS aggregating plugin.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
I have a vigilante hatred of commercial media corporations and the anti-intellectual, lowest common denominator banal suburban celebrity culture they perpetuate, although I mostly admire government media corporations like the BBC and the Australian equivalent the ABC. I have little in common with any of them.
I deliberately have no business model and I’m vehemently anti-commercial. I publish free content as a hobby. I refuse advertising and all offers of free goods and services that businesses and public relations agencies send to food bloggers. I have no need to meet the needs of my audience because they don’t pay me. The only thing they give me is attention, and that I have to earn by being interesting.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
I’m most proud of winning copyright disputes against corporate dinosaurs. News Ltd used a photo I supplied them in breach of our agreement, did not credit me and published a deliberate falsehood about me. I took them to the official body, the Australian Press Council, and won. They had to publish an apology and correction.
I also defeated the billionaire might of Formula One Management (FOM) in a dispute about ownership of video I shot at the Australian F1 GP. I forced them to concede that I understood the US DMCA better than them and my deleted videos were reinstated on Youtube.
I’ve helped break significant local news stories, such as about a telco’s lame viral marketing campaign. I also do regular name and shame posts about content thieves and PR agencies that breach privacy laws by sending me spam.
I’m willing to write about stories no one else wants to touch, such as government censorship forcing local pornography producers to leave Australia.
In 2009 I pursued an FOI request against the local government to release details of restaurant hygiene inspections (Victoria is far behind Sydney in NSW, London and other cities in transparency and disclosure in this issue). I failed to get all the data I wanted but I certainly exposed the local council to be blundering idiots (not that it’s difficult to do that).
In 2010 I had a big impact writing about the ethics of food bloggers accepting free goods.
As a former academic it is satisfying for me to know that my site is on the curriculum of one of Australia’s most prestigious universities (University of Melbourne) and I have been approached and interviewed by several journalism students from other universities.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
I initially published stories whenever I could – 2 or 3 a week. Eventually I managed to have enough content to publish 1 a day, and then 2 a day, which I have managed to stick with for 2 years.
The regularity really drives traffic – publishing every day helped a lot, as did a lot of SEO I did in early 2009. In October 2008 the site received only 2,800 pageviews a month. By October 2010 it was over 120,000 pageviews a month (WordPress stats), with over 10,000 unique visitors by IP a month (Google Analytics stats). At December 2010 the site had received over 1,400,000 total pageviews.
My goal was to reach a significant percentage of the Fitzroy population, and I think I have achieved that; my readership is larger than Fitzroy’s population and it’s mostly from Melbourne.
According to Google Analytics, 82% of Fitzroyalty’s total (worldwide) traffic (based on the month of August 2010) is from Australia. The traffic from Melbourne is 79% of all Australian traffic and 65% of total traffic. It’s as local as it can possibly be measured. I believe in radical transparency and take the initiative to share information others hide for commercial reasons.
I am fascinated by the broader phenomenon of social media and I conduct deliberate experiments on my audience. I see my mission as not to please an audience and make them feel comfortable and good about themselves but to stir them into reflection and action, sometimes by making them uncomfortable. I’ve discovered you don’t have to be liked to be relevant and thus well read.