Hyperlocal journalism: interviewing party leaders with toddler in tow
Richard Jones, founder of the hyperlocal website Saddleworth News, soon found his patch in the national spotlight:
It's January 2011. In a cramped upstairs room at a car repair garage in Oldham, I sit next to a couple of other local journalists as we interview David Cameron about the Conservatives' prospects in the forthcoming Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. It's my third party leader in a week, after Nick Clegg (above) and Ed Miliband.
A radio reporter asks whether the by-election is a referendum on the coalition. He's interrupted by giggling. It's my daughter, perched on my knee.
"There we are, you had your answer," says the Prime Minister, turning in her direction. "How old are you?"
"Fifteen months," I say.
"There you are, 15 months and laughing at that idea!"
I was covering the by-election for Saddleworth News, a hyperlocal website which I started writing in February 2010.
A few weeks before my wife had gone back to work, leaving me as a stay-at-home dad to our first child. I'd done various journalism jobs in TV and radio, staff and freelance, since graduating from university in 2002. I spent the best part of six years at Sky News. But my wife earned more than I did, which made it an obvious decision for me to give up work to become a full-time father.
I set up Saddleworth News for two main reasons. The first was pure selfishness. I didn't want to leave journalism forever and knew it would be harder to get back in with a gaping hole on my CV. I also thought my brain would appreciate something to think about every day that didn't involve nappies, feeding or 'heads, shoulders, knees and toes'.
The second reason was more public-spirited. We'd only recently moved to Saddleworth, a collection of largely rural Yorkshire villages on the Manchester side of the Pennines. With just one or two articles a day in the Oldham paper, and some monthly freesheets and magazines, there was relatively little news coverage of an area which has a distinct identity. I hoped my skills might be of some use to the local community.
At first I set aside an hour a day to work on the site during my daughter's afternoon nap, and gave myself a target of one post every weekday. The site was established as a blog as I thought one daily update would be enough to give regular visitors something new to look at without putting me under too much pressure to constantly come up with new material.
The site hadn't been going long when a teenager sadly killed himself at a nearby railway station. A passenger on the train involved was posting updates and pictures from the scene on Twitter. After getting in touch and asking if I could use his content, I was able to quickly publish it in articles about the incident.
With the local paper not getting anything online about the story until the following day, my site was the only resource of information about why the trains between Huddersfield and Manchester weren't running. The site's hits increased more than five-fold overnight, mostly thanks to Google searches.
It was an early lesson in the value of publishing content that other media outlets can't or won't produce. Over the following weeks, every time the site had a spike in traffic like that the hit stats always settled back down at a higher level than before, until several hundred unique users became the daily norm rather than the exception.
If publishing stories faster than other media is one service hyperlocal sites can provide, doing issues in more depth is another, and it's surely a more valuable one too.
I've always enjoyed covering politics. Before the 2005 general election I spent months on Sky's election unit helping to prepare its coverage. As polling day approached in 2010, I knew that both the Westminster constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth and the local wards being contested on Oldham Council would be closely fought, particularly between Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Pondering how to approach the campaign on Saddleworth News, I mentioned to a newspaper reporter that I was thinking of doing full interviews with all the candidates. He said he'd had a similar idea but had been told by his editor that "there wasn't space in the paper" for it.
Woolas held the seat narrowly after a couple of recounts, but his Lib Dem opponent Elwyn Watkins mounted a rare and extraordinary legal challenge to the result, on the grounds that Woolas had told lies about his character in those campaign leaflets. Over the weeks ahead I wrote lots of articles about this, reporting on various small developments in the saga.
By the time the case ended in a shock triumph for Watkins and bitter defeat for Woolas, Saddleworth News had by far the largest online archive of material about the story. Checking my web stats, I found that people from Saddleworth and much further afield kept finding old articles I'd written, including my campaign interviews with all the protagonists. They were the interviews which didn't exist anywhere else because nobody else had bothered to do them. When national journalists arrived to cover the subsequent by-election clutching print-outs of my articles which they'd read on the train, I had evidence I'd been doing something right.
The depth of my coverage of the Woolas saga and by-election helped to raise the site's profile, and also taught me another lesson about online journalism. The internet is forever. No longer is a news story tomorrow's fish and chip paper, forgotten about within a day of being written. It can be discovered and read months and even years later by people searching on Google. So, if your article is going to have a long life, best make sure it's good.
Richard Jones (@rlwjones) is a freelance journalist, blogger about journalism and visiting lecturer in online at the University of Leeds. In a forthcoming post he talks about whether you can make money from hyperlocal journalism. Saddleworth News is now a part of the digital journalism course at University Campus Oldham.
This article is adapted with kind permission from a forthcoming book, What Do We Mean by Local? Grass-roots Journalism - Its Death and Rebirth, to be published by Abramis later this month.