Friday, 8 October 2010

Hyperlocal Concepts in a Normal Frequency Lecture

Much kudos today go to Guardian beat-blogger John Baron of hyperlocal Leodesian blog-hub Guardian Leeds who came into Leeds Trinity university to speak to the raw clay that is the Specialist Reporting class of Second Year Journalism. As you can tell by that immense intro we're still a rough and ready crew, but John took us in hand to explain the concept of hyperlocal sourcing, reporting, and blogging - and how he does it.

It seems he regularly starts at six in the morning - a cold dash of shock for the rookies in the room - and must ensure that the site has at least three news stories to run in conjunction with the guest blogs he features. Every morning my twitter feed has an update from @GdnLeeds linking back to the site, and there's always three tantalising headlines made all the smarter by the space limitations.
At least one is a blog-post from some Leeds-based citizen journalist covering a topic close to their heart. John admits that these entries, often lacking any conventions a seasoned journalist would apply, actually seem to be the most popular draw for his site. He cites the "honest interest" of the author, and readily states it is probably better produced than by some journalist who had "siphoned off" the story.
On the actual news front, we heard that rather uniquely, John doesn't have to push for exclusivity - and see what the chase for the break has done, and is doing to the News of the World. The remit from Guardian HQ is more to engage the readers, and "tap into what they're thinking and talking about". In a noble gesture, the main requirement is for the beat-blogging websites to "open up democracy", and John is candid about his main objective being the scrutiny of the murky workings in council meetings - and in Leeds it seems that we have a real need for some objective observations!
Asked later about how operating as a 'one-man band' felt in contrast to a busy newsroom, John admitted that he did occasionally feel a little isolated from his fellow beat-bloggers and London based editor, but it was more than balanced by the freedoms a blog can have that a regular newspaper or broadcaster wouldn't have. He explained that a blog can follow up a story several times, even if the mainstream media downgraded or dropped the story for it's "lack of newsworthy content".

So how is his peformance measured by King's House? According to John, it's not just on unique site visits - at least 30,000 he proudly reports nonetheless - and pressure has never been mounted by senior staff at the national office. He does however recall their increasingly contentious poll on Whether Leeds is a 'Chav' City which led to some very inflammatory comments that eventually crossed the Guardian's own code of conduct. A contrite Guardian: Leeds withdrew the poll accordingly and posted a prompt apology which inevitably spawned yet more commenting! John drily commented that he was rather hoping people would forget and move on from it already, but he quickly affirmed that what happened was everything intended by the Guardian in their experiment of crossing regular journalism with hyperlocal blogging. He had nothing but kudos for his readers who expressed their opinions and interacted with the website - even if it was a provocative tidal wave of interaction!
He explains that this experimental spirit has meant Guardian: Leeds has changed since launching in January of this year, and will probably change again before they are up for evaluation at the start of next year. It's not clear how that assessment will take place, but John is again quietly proud that visitors to his site who are interacting outstrip those of fellow beat-bloggers Hannah Waldram at Guardian: Cardiff and Michael MacLeod at Guardian: Edinburgh.

In the Q&A, it was asked how the Guardian had decided on these three cities. John explained that Cardiff and Edinburgh were fairly obvious choices as capitals, not only of countries but of culture and society. Leeds was a more difficult choice, but was in part politically motivated - prior to the most recent election, Leeds City Council was run by a coalition of Tories, Lib Dems, Independants and even a BNP Councillor which would clearly be a contentious group generating some interesting stories - especially in those pre-coalition government days.
Indeed, Leeds-based stories generated by John have even made it to the main Guardian website although he admitted it was only a story about the meer-cat community at Roundhay Park - "pictures of cute animals always seem to go over well online!"
Being based in Leeds, LeedsEyeView asked how his relationship was with the other news outlets in Leeds, namely the Yorkshire Evening Post as the leading print and web media service in the city. John immediately became diplomatic, and he carefully explained that he had a "lukewarm" relationship with the Johnstone Press published newspaper but he was quick to refer back to editor Alan Rusbridger's predictions of 'isolated online content' versus open discussion between news providers, an idea he promoted previously to Leeds Trinity students at Journalism Week earlier this year - and an idea the YEP don't seem "interested in."

It is clear the paper shouldn't view Guardian: Leeds as a threat or an adversary. John described how the Guardian perceived a "democratic deficit" in reporting in Leeds, such as the coverage of council meetings he pursues with such vigour. As well as this, Guardian: Leeds intends to be a hub of Leeds based blogs, that spirit of collaboration that Rusbridger has constantly promoted, and where John's work has the edge over the established media in Leeds.

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