Richard Jones, editor of Saddleworth News, has done a cracking job chronicaling the daily drama surrounding the Oldham East and Saddleworth byelection. Being a Saddleworth resident, his interviews with the candidates added true local value and perspective to the election and (I believe) ultimately helped voters make more informed decisions on issues relevant to their community. To understand more about what councils and councillors can do to help such sites developed, I’ve asked Richard to write a guest post on his experiences with the hyperlocal site so far.
I started Saddleworth News last February for a mixture of reasons. Partly it was pure selfishness, as a journalist who had just become a full-time stay-at-home dad, I wanted a project that would give me something to do every day that wasn’t about babies. But it was also a bit altruistic, because I felt it would be a good way in which I could use my professional skills to contribute something to the local community.
I’ve had a great response and the site’s readership has grown dramatically, from 6,000 unique visits in the first full month to more than 21,000 in December. I’ve also had a warm welcome from councillors, in particular the local parish councillors, who seem to enjoy the in-depth discussions of various Saddleworth matters which now take place on the site. Some often write letters to the editor, too.
As for the borough council, the press team there treated me like all other journalists right from the start. In fact, I hope I’ve had a bit of influence back the other way. Since I set up Saddleworth News with extensive use of social media, Oldham Council has established itself on Twitter and Facebook, and gave a terrific service of updates on gritting and school closures during the recent snowy weather.
By far the biggest story of the year has been the long-running political saga, which has taken in a controversial general election campaign, a legal challenge, and now a by-election. My credibility as a news source was shown by the fact each of the main parties made a special effort to give me time to interview all of their visiting dignitaries during the campaign, including the party leaders.But away from all that, I’ve had the biggest reaction to stories which have come from Freedom of Information requests. Some have been about aspects of council spending, but others have been based on fascinating statistics. For example, I got Oldham Council to send me the details of all road accidents in Saddleworth since 2000.
I was able to demonstrate that, while local folk as well as councillors generally believed roads were getting more dangerous, the number of crashes had actually fallen dramatically over the years. It would be great if councils took the lead in releasing that sort of data, although it still takes a journalist’s eye to turn dry statistics into interesting stories.
Hyperlocal sites thrive on information, and being able to give locally-relevant information to a focused audience, in a way that traditional media organisations can’t or won’t. But I think just comparing them to newspapers is misleading, they’re arguably more akin to the traditional parish newsletters which are still produced in many areas. The barriers to entry to creating a good-looking internet site are now so low that, even if hyperlocal sites never make much or any money, I think they’re here to stay. I’d advise anyone involved in local government, whether as a councillor, press person or any other kind of council officer, to both take them seriously, and work with them.