Today marks the end of the Guardian Edinburgh blog, an experiment in hyper-local journalism that achieved what seemed to be nigh-on impossible: a professional and useful daily local news site with a dedicated and varied following. So why close it down, and what does this say about the future of local news? 38minutes asked the face of Guardian Edinburgh, its ‘beatblogger’ Michael Macleod.
Where did the idea for local blogs come from and what did Guardian hope they would achieve?
The mission statement is online here. There were quite a few aims, but in summary it was an experiment to collaborate with communities in providing journalism about their areas. I wasn’t really part of the concept/design/launch stage as I joined in September, about 5 months after it started in Edinburgh. But one of the project’s aims that jumped out for me was to increase scrutiny of, and participation in, local democracy – something I felt, and still feel, needs to be given more prominence in society. Otherwise who knows what they’ll get away with?
Have the blogs received different levels of engagement in different areas?
Yes, they’ve all evolved slightly differently. In Cardiff Hannah has found a very strong blogging community with has flourished further since her involvement. John, who runs/ran the Leeds blog, has a newspaper background and made great efforts to cover council affairs in far greater detail than his local papers could. The readers of his blog seem to really appreciate that level of detail and he encourages them to participate in consultations and events that may otherwise slip through the net. And in Edinburgh I’ve tried to offer the blog as a podium to whoever wanted to use it. I’ve run polls on the blog to ask what people are interested in and used engagement stats to judge what I should be reporting on. That’s resulted in some local campaigns being followed more thoroughly, with issues such as the Blindcraft factory closure, the Leith biomass plant plan and Forest Cafe campaign all getting their own sections on the site.
What was the most challenging thing about blogging so frequently on local issues?
I’ve always been slightly conscious of sounding repetitive by blogging about certain local issues. But to be fair to our readership I’ve never been challenged on that. While the issues mentioned above had limited interest, there were topics such as the trams that I’ve written about every week, yet still the posts go down well. There is so much public cash at stake in the tram project that people are determined to be very well read-up on it.
The main challenge has been trying to cover as many things as possible. It’s not possible for one person to stay on top of everything, so I try to point people to other sites’ coverage every morning in a blog news round-up. Guest posts have also been a big help in covering multiple issues, so in a way the community I live in has helped to solve that problem.
If you had to pick out one or two highlights from your time as Edinburgh’s beat blogger, what would they be?
I’ve made some real friends during this project. From charity workers and volunteers to company directors and even politicians. I’ve also picked up tons of new tech and online skills. Before I started I was a news reporter who could do shorthand and sort of take photos. Now I’m a (self-taught) multimedia journalist and really appreciate the chance I’ve had to learn. Earlier this week I asked people on Twitter what their highlights from the blog were and the most popular story seems to have been the video of a councillor doing crosswords and sudoku during an important council meeting. It raised questions about how open our local government meetings really are. Will he campaign at the 2012 elections and tell people on the doorsteps that he’ll be the councillor who will do crosswords and sudoku on our behalf during meetings? I hope not. I wish I’d filmed a lot more during these meetings. Many of the councillors talk among themselves during the 15 minutes of presentations from the public, which I find extremely rude, considering these are the people who voted them in. For the record, I ought to state that I’ve made a lot of pals in the council too and the majority are definitely in it for the right reasons!
Your blogs and tweets received a lot of attention – what advice would you offer to other bloggers hoping to make their work more prominent?
There’s no point having a podium like The Guardian online and not sharing it. I’ve always aimed to be inclusive in everything I write. So I’ve tried to keep inviting opportunities for people to join in by commenting, submitting pictures or videos. Linking to other sites is another way to be inclusive. I’ve also found people appreciate concise writing. Most weeks I’ll spend two or three hours going through 100s of planning applications, so that nobody else has to. It’s worth the effort to find wee gems of stories too. If something in the round-up gets a good response, that’s when to expand on it with a follow-up in greater detail.
Why has the decision been taken to cut the local blogs?
The main reason is that the Guardian is not currently in a position to continue funding them. Those who made the decision have told us all to be proud of the blogs editorially, so in a way it’s been out of our hands. There’s a post covering the decision here.
How important do you think hyper-local journalism is in modern media? Does it have a future or is it simply not sustainable?
There’s a good debate about this in the comments section of the post announcing the blogs’ closure. I’ve spoken about it with Tom Allan (the first Edinburgh beatblogger) andAlly Tibbitt (founder of Greener Leith and now one of the STV Local staff). They are the driving force behind the Edinbuzz social media surgeries. We all agree hyperlocal journalism is important, can be influential and can be sustainable but perhaps with more people doing less work, and probably not as a full time job. They’re two folk it’s been a real privilege to meet and work with, and now I’ve got a bit of free time I hope I can do more with them. I certainly don’t think trying to get advertising to fund hyperlocal news is the best business model, and I’m very grateful that was never a motivation behind the Guardian Local project. Whether that was our downfall or not, it meant the journalism was being done for the right reasons, not just hits or sales. I feel really lucky to have been part of it.
What have you learned along the way?
I’ve learned that these kinds of things don’t come around often in life so you have to work hard to make the most of them. I had spent the past 6 years in newsrooms being told what to write about, and suddenly I had a lot more freedom. I’ve always tried to keep it in my head that the project doesn’t exist for me to have a job though. It exists so there’s an open door to anyone who reads the blog and wants to use it or work with me on things. So while people are saying it’s a shame to see me go, the truth is that who ran it didn’t really matter much as long as they grasped the concept.
What do you plan to do next?
I’ve applied for a news reporting job, which I’d love to get back into so I can broaden my horizons from a news point of view. But I’m 26 and think I’m still young enough to be open minded about all sorts of careers. I’ve got some freelance work lined up for the next month and will hopefully be covering the Edinburgh book festival too. I’ve made a wee site so people can contact me if they want to stay in touch or work on something.
Now that we are bereft of your updates, are there any sites you’d like to recommend we visit?
If it’s Edinburgh news you’re after, my favourite local site is the Broughton Spurtle. I love its independence. I admire that it challenges the local paper if there’s something it disagrees with. Having said that, the Evening News is usually nowhere near as bad as people make out. In fact, doing this job has made me really appreciate the effort that goes into the Evening News. Every single day it’s got tons of exclusives, which is how a local paper should be. I’ve met most of the reporters and they do a brilliant job considering there aren’t that many of them. Greener Leith‘s site often gets to a lot of important local stories first and in far more depth than the rest too. My favourite news site is the GuardianDatablog, which presents public data in visually enlightening ways and encourages people to play with the data and share their own visulisations of it. I hope one day it will be the norm for every news site ot link to the raw sources of data, information and reports, so they’re less politically skewed and more open for the reader to make their own mind up about what’s really going on. But having said that, you can’t beat The Onion for a good lol.