South of the River – You’ve got a friend

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I spent two days in that London last week and I must say I was glad to get into the fresh air of a windswept Miggy Woods when I got back on Sunday.

Why was I in the big smoke? I was attending two linked, but different conferences about the hyperlocal movement. Pardon? Let me explain, South Leeds Life is a ‘hyperlocal’. The YEP is a local paper and it covers the whole city and beyond. We are hyperlocal – just two postcodes. We are down at grassroots level, we know what’s going on because we are involved in community life.

I’ll let you into a secret. When we set up South Leeds Life back in 2010 we didn’t start from a blank sheet of paper, or even a blank computer screen. We looked at Brixton Blog, Digbeth Is Good, Ventnor Blog (now On The Wight) and others around the country. We nicked their best ideas and fitted them to our resources and the local situation.

We are part of a movement of community activists who want to see proper news coverage of our local area. It’s not just the YEP, all local papers have reduced their coverage of communities, as their owners put profits ahead of journalism.

So the first conference was an academic affair organised by the University of Central Lancashire. We were at Google’s ‘London Campus’ and all given an iPad on the way in (don’t worry we had to give them back on the way out). There were lots of academics from across Europe as well lots of us hyperlocals. It was a day of interesting discussions, but I felt they got more out of it than we did.

There were a few takeaways for me. We are completely under the policymakers’ radar, government is only concerned with the big traditional media. Now I’m not necessarily suggesting that you vote for him, but if Labour form the next government at least one cabinet member will know what a hyperlocal is as Hilary Benn writes for us and has been very supportive.

I was also interested in a comment from the NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts) representative. “Hyperlocal is the new version of Public Service Broadcasting”. Now, assuming she wasn’t making a hip reference to the excellent band of the same name, this is a bit double edged. Clearly I would like to think South Leeds Life stands in the same space as the BBC, but if people are thinking that we can replace the BBC they’re in cloud cuckoo land. I don’t want hyperlocal to be used as an excuse to cut funding to the BBC.

On the Saturday we rolled up to the Talk About Local unconference, or #TAL15. This was an altogether different occasion. Unconferences don’t have a pre-set agenda, it’s decided on the day by the delegates. So we chose to talk about election coverage, going into print, crowdfunding, community networks, managing comments and whole lot more.

The feel of the event was fantastic. There was a friendly energy about the day. People wanted to share ideas, successes and failures. Because each hyperlocal has a defined geography we are not in competition with each other, this spawns a very supportive atmosphere.

You will see some of the results of the discussions on South Leeds Life in the coming months. For instance there will be technical improvements to the site, we will have improved election coverage and we’ve got some more ideas for involving you, the reader, in our stories.

Of course, as is usually the case at conferences, some the most interesting points happen in conversations between sessions. That’s how, over lunch, a couple of delegates got together and West Leeds Life was born. Yes, you read it here first Leeds is soon to have a new hyperlocal.

Finally I must mention our award, or rather our unaward. In the sprit of the unconference, naff prizes are awarded to mark achievements. We missed out on the pink unicorn rain poncho, but  South Leeds Life was the proud recipient of the Leonard Nimoy Memorial Award for ‘boldly going into print’ – a secondhand Star Trek novel.

Live long and prosper.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.