This week’s Hyperlocal Voices interview looks at the long-running SE1 website, which boasts half a million visits every month. Despite being over 12 years old, the site remains at the cutting edge of online journalism, being among the first experimenters with the Google Maps API and Audioboo.
Who were the people behind the site, and what were their backgrounds?
The London SE1 website is a family-run enterprise. My father, Leigh Hatts, has a background in outdoors, arts and religious affairs journalism. I was still studying for A-levels when we started the website back in 1998. I went on to study History and Spanish at Royal Holloway, University of London, and continued to run the SE1 website even whilst living and studying in Madrid.
What made you decide to set up the site?
My father was editing a monthly what’s on guide for the City of London (ie the Square Mile) with an emphasis on things that City workers could do in their lunch hour such as attending free lectures and concerts. The publication was funded by the City of London Corporation and in later years by the Diocese of London because many of these events and activities happened in the City churches.
Our own neighbourhood – across the Thames from the City – was undergoing a big change. Huge new developments such as Tate Modern and the London Eye were being planned and built. There was lots of new cultural and community activity in the area, but no-one was gathering information about all of the opportunities available to local residents, workers and visitors in a single place.
In the 1970s and 1980s there was a community newspaper called ‘SE1’ but that had died out, and our neighbourhood was just a small part of the coverage areas of the established local papers (South London Press and Southwark News).
We saw that there was a need for high quality local news and information and decided that together we could produce something worthwhile.
When did you set up the site and how did you go about it?
We launched an ad-funded monthly printed what’s on guide called ‘in SE1’ in May 1998. At the same time we launched a website which soon grew into a product that was distinct from (but complementary to) the printed publication.
The earliest version of the site was hosted on free web space from Tripod (a Geocities rival) and was very basic.
By the end of 1998 we had registered the london-se1.co.uk domain and the site as it is today began to evolve.
In 2001 we moved from flat HTML files to a news CMS called WMNews. We still use a much-customised version. The current incarnation of our forum dates from a similar time, and our events database was developed in 2006.
What other websites influenced you?
When we started there weren’t many local news and community websites.
chiswickw4.com started at about the same time as we did and I’ve always admired it. There used to be a great site for the Paddington area called Newspad (run by Brian Jenner) which was another example of a good hyperlocal site before the term was coined.
More recently I’ve enjoyed following the development at some of the local news and listings sites in the USA, like Pegasus News and Edhat.
I also admire Ventnor Blog for the way it keeps local authorities on their toes.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
I think we have quite old-fashioned news values – we place a strong emphasis on local government coverage and the importance of local democracy. That means a lot of evenings sitting in long meetings at Southwark and Lambeth town halls.
Quite often the main difference is simply speed of delivery – why should people wait a week for something to appear in a local paper when we can publish within hours or minutes?
We are able to be much more responsive to changes in technology than traditional news operations – we were one of the first news sites in the UK to integrate the Google Maps API into our content management system, and one of the earliest users of Audioboo.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
It’s very difficult to pinpoint ‘key moments’. I think our success has more to do with quiet persistence and consistency of coverage than any particular breakthrough. Our 12-year track record gives us an advantage over the local papers because their reporters covering our patch rarely last more than a year or two before moving on, so they’re constantly starting again from a clean slate in terms of contacts and background knowledge.
There are also several long-running stories that we’ve followed doggedly for a long time – for example the stop-start saga of the regeneration of the Elephant & Castle area, and various major developments along the riverside.
Twitter has changed things a lot for us, both in terms of newsgathering, and being able to share small bits of information quickly that wouldn’t merit writing a longer article.
Some of the key moments in our 12-year history have been as much about technical achievement as editorial.
In 2006 I developed our CMS for events listings. Since then we have carried details of more than 10,000 local events from jumble sales to public meetings and exhibitions of fine art. As well as powering a large part of the website, this system can also output InDesign tagged text ready to be imported straight onto the pages of our printed publication. How many publications have such an integrated online and print workflow?
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?
The site consistently gets more than 500,000 page views a month.
We have a weekly email newsletter which has 7,200 subscribers, and we have about 7,500 followers on Twitter.
For us the big growth in traffic came four or five years ago. Since then there have been steady, unspectacular year-on-year increases in visitor numbers.