If a week is a long time in politics, then three years is a very long time in hyperlocal. With that in mind we thought it would be interesting to revisit sites we covered when this feature first started in 2010. (Don’t worry, we will continue to feature interviews with new and upcoming hyperlocal publishers too.)
First out of the blocks is Ross Hawkes from Lichfield Live. Damian Radcliffe asked him what had changed since his colleague Philip John spoke to us back in September 2010?
1. What’s been the biggest change to the site in the last 3 years?
We’ve not consciously changed too much. There have been some changes to the design of the site just to give us a bit more flexibility in what we do. I suppose the biggest change has been in terms of trying to get more voices on LichfieldLive. We’re seeing a far greater level of contributions than we’ve ever had before and it really adds to the depth of the site – and makes my life easier because I’m not having to go out and source every last word! There has also been work carried out by Philip John (the other half of the LichfieldLive double act) in developing a What’s On calendar filled by user submissions.
2. What sort of traffic do you now get and how has that changed?
I’m told the traffic has had a spike lately, but that’s probably to do with the fact we’ve had some good stories drop for us. Part of this is because we’ve gone back to what we used to do in terms of the sort of stories we are digging out. In terms of audience though, I actually couldn’t give you figures because I don’t really bother with them too much.
In the earlier days of the site I used to be really impacted by the audience numbers but part of me has mellowed out now and part of me has realised that the numbers game wasn’t the reason I got into this. I place far more value on the amount of people who are submitting content or joining the discussion in the comments section of the site – it shows that they are buying into this in the same way I am.
3. Have you seen any changes in the way that audiences interact with you?
It’s peaks and troughs really – and depends a lot on where we are focusing our energy at any one time. We’ve tried to put effort into getting comments and discussion up on the site and have achieved that well.
Our next step is going to be upping the engage through the social media channels and examining new ways for people to access our content.
One of the simplest, yet most effective, changes we’ve made to improve interaction and engagement has been the addition of a Submit Your News button.
It’s so simple and basic, but has really given people an obvious route into the site. They no longer have to dig out an email address or worry it won’t get answered. This way they know they are being able to get their content into our site easily – and the big button keeps reminding them! It’s clearly working though as we’re getting far more submissions than ever before.
4. How would you describe your relationship with the traditional media in the area?
We don’t really have one. We’re part of the Birmingham Mail Your Communities project, but we’re not their heartland so it’s not really a massive part of what we do.
In terms of the really local media we don’t have as close a relationship (or a relationship at all!) as you would think might be healthy. After all, we don’t run this as a business so we’re quite open to ideas, suggestions or partnerships, or even ways of improving the overall media landscape of the city.
But the fact that we’ve had the local weekly newspaper launch two websites in the last year-or-so (one of them designed to look and feel like a hyperlocal) probably tells you that they don’t intend to play nicely anytime soon, but I won’t lose any sleep over it as we’re not in this to be a rival or anything like that.
We do this because we enjoy it and people seem to like what we’re doing.
5. What new blogs, bloggers or websites have you seen which you think are doing this stuff well?
I don’t really like to cast too much judgement on others because we’re all trying to muddle our way through the great unknown and find a way for this to work for us. It would also mean I’m assessing their success or otherwise against our own metrics of success. I’m a great believer that projects should have their own identity and traditional sustainability doesn’t always have to be what we judge them on.
But in terms of sites I quite like on a personal level, then my former ‘day-job’ colleague Pete Leydon has to get a mention for his NantwichNews site. He’ll be the first to tell you how much I’ve been pestering him to change his design, but in terms of content and community engagement he sets the bar really high.
Similary, the guys at Wrexham.com are also developing a good set-up, while Jamie Summerfield‘s A Little Bit of Stone is another site that gets itself at the heart of the community.
I’m also intrigued by some of the hyperlocal print projects that are beginning to develop.
Hyperlocal is an awful term that means very little and too often is seen just as a digital offering, yet a return to true, successful community-based media could come in many shapes, sizes and platforms so we have to ensure we’re open and not taking a blinkered view.
6. What story, feature or series are you most proud of over the past couple of years?
It’s hard to choose really because some stories probably don’t get the traction or discussion that others do, but to those who are involved they are massively important and that’s a huge part of what we try to do.
I suppose one of our most recent stories about £1.7million worth of cuts being introduced at Lichfield District Council was a strong one for us.
It showed that people trusted us because we were approached off-the-record by council workers who face the prospect of losing their jobs to take up the story and get it out there. It says a lot when people feel that a hyperlocal project can be given such a sensitive issue and be allowed to work with it. I think the local authority also appreciated the way we handled it.
Part of the pleasure of producing that article (and the series which will follow it) was not only the joy of bagging a big local exclusive, but also seeing the amount of discussion it has generated on social media and in the comments section below the story.
Council cuts will have a huge impact on our area and a number of people from different walks of life are now engaging with the issue – something which can only be a good thing for Lichfield District.
On a wider scale I also hope the coverage of this story helps to dismiss the myth that is often peddled that hyperlocal media can’t do ‘hard’ news well.
Yes, we don’t always have the time in our current guise to tackle stories with huge amounts of depth but when we do, we feel we do as good a job on it as anyone in the local area.
7. What is currently your biggest challenge?
Like so many hyperlocals, it really does boil down to having the time to do all the great things we want to do. It’s really rewarding to give local events, organisations etc the depth of coverage that their work deserves, but it can often be a restriction because of the voluntary nature of what we do.
As the lives are evolving for Phil and myself – we’ve both got kids now – so the way we balance and juggle our commitment to the site is having to evolve too.
There’s certainly no suggestion of saying ‘we don’t have time for this anymore’ but it’s about being smart about what we do and introducing some of the intiatives we have to improve access to content and submissions from others.
8. What are your plans for the future?
We’re just going to carry on muddling our way through this ever-changing media landscape. There’s no grand plan and there never has been to be quite honest.
Part of the fun of LichfieldLive has been the organic nature of its evolution. I don’t know what the future holds and I’m fortunate not to be in a position with LichfieldLive where I don’t have to take a punt on predicting it. It’s nice to have that flexibility to take us wherever the wind may blow.
9. What one thing would most help you to move successfully to the next phase of the site’s development?
It would be lovely to have even more people engaged with the site and taking on some of the content bits and pieces and to perhaps investigate getting our content out in different ways and on different platforms.
Similarly, it would be nice for someone with a commercial background to take things on from that side of things.
We don’t want to stockpile cash and retire to the Bahamas by commercialising what we do, but we’d love to be able to pump revenue back into projects in the community and offer increased opportunities to community members and young journalists to be able to engage with our area.