Today’s extract from What do we mean by local?* is by Mike Rawlins, the non-journalist who runs a website in Stoke-on-Trent called Pits n Pots.
If people feel that they are not being well served by their local newspaper, he says, then why don’t they have a go themselves? They don’t need to be massively technically skilled. Here’s his experience…
For me, local is politics… You could argue that a whole city, even a medium-sized one like Stoke-on-Trent, isn’t really local in the purest form.
But if that is the seat of power in the local area, although it may be stretching the definition, it is local…
In late 2008, I became involved in a very new political website called Pits n Pots that had been set up by Tony Walley. He told me it was called
Pits n Pots because it was a swipe at his old careers teacher, who was infamous for saying “you’re only good for t’ pits or t’ pots” – meaning you were either going to the coal mines, the pits, or the potteries, the pots.
Pits n Pots was set up to fill a gap in the market in Stoke-on-Trent where, as far as political commentary and discussion was concerned, the more mainstream media were not fulfilling their duties of holding power to account as well as they might.
The coverage was quite scant in many cases and the chances of having a discussion about anything political on the mainstream media websites were quite slim…
Because of this gap in the market for debating political news and ultimately getting people more engaged in local politics, we decided to try to do things differently on Pits n Pots and actively encourage debates on local political issues.
Trying to keep conversations and discussions lively while treading the right side of the libel line when dealing with any politics is no mean feat. Add in the fact that the BNP had nine councillors in the city and it certainly made for some interesting times moderating comments.
Not only were we dealing with the BNP councillors and their supporters from the city, but also the anti-fascist movement too, from further afield…
In the early days we were taking stories from the local paper, republishing them with attribution and links, allowing people to debate them.
We became almost like a third party commenting system for the paper. Understandably it wasn’t too happy about this at the time, but thankfully, other than a few snide comments left by reporters every now and then, it didn’t make too much noise.
Allowing debates to flow
We were totally open and honest about where the content was coming from and always linked back to it.
After a while we noticed that we were regularly getting more comments on our copies of the articles than The Sentinel was on the originals…
This was because we were allowing the debates to flow as much as we possibly could by not removing comments because they had a mild swearword in them or called a councillor useless.
We spent a lot of time ensuring that the site was set up to loosely enough to allow people to voice their opinions freely but tight enough that gratuitous swearing and profanity wasn’t prevalent.
Because we were working in a very small, almost niche market… we were able to spend time replying to comments, something that rarely happens on mainstream news websites…
The site was growing and becoming more popular so we had to keep feeding it. Therefore we slowly started to write our own content…
Tony would write a regular opinion piece about what was going on in the city and we were quite surprised when we saw these got as much traffic and as many comments as the articles we were “borrowing” from The Sentinel.
At that point we began to realise that we really were on to something, not only writing to feed our own egos but also providing a service by becoming an alternative political news and commentary site.
It didn’t take very many months until we had stopped borrowing content from The Sentinel and we had become pretty much self-sufficient.
In this respect we were helped greatly by the political make-up of the council. There was no overall control in the chamber, although Labour were the biggest party with around 26 to 30 councillors present at meetings…
This mix used to change almost on a weekly basis, with councillors crossing the floor to join a different party or leaving a party and becoming non-aligned.
Daring to cover the BNP
This intermingling of parties in the chamber made for interesting, if somewhat long, full council meetings where bargaining and deal-making was rife just to get the most simple of items passed…
Because of this we were able to get two, three, four or even five different sides to stories to put on the site.
We did notice that with the mainstream media outlets locally there was very little coverage of the British National Party…
Tony and I therefore decided that we would talk to all the political parties that held a seat in the chamber, if they would talk to us, and we would report on them openly, honestly and equally with any of the other parties.
We have often been asked why did we give some much column space to the BNP and the answer was simple – they were elected representatives of people in the city and therefore they had the right to have their say.
I often pointed out to people that we reported on Labour or Conservatives but that doesn’t make us supporters so why should reporting on the BNP be any different?
Many people have tried to tell us that we were wrong for taking this standpoint and that we should have actively ignored them. But by doing that we would surely be no different than the mainstream media, which we felt were letting people down…
By giving the BNP this platform, we also gave the public that same platform to question them and their policies, something that no other website has done, as far as we aware.
There are plenty of sites that support the BNP and probably five times as many anti-fascist sites, but none of them actively encouraged the debate.
In the 2011 local elections the people of Stoke-on-Trent didn’t return a single BNP councillor. We can’t say this is solely down to what Pits n Pots did, but I’m sure that by allowing the debate we allowed people to make a better informed decision on where to put their cross.
Refusing to edit recorded interviews
One of the other big selling points we used when trying to get audio and video interviews with people was that we would never edit them. They would be published from start to finish as recorded….
We wouldn’t try to spin anything by taking sound bites but they had to be careful because if they let something slip it was going to be published.
This was probably one of the best decisions we made, gaining us huge amounts of credibility with the councillors…
To this day I can honestly say that every audio or video interview we have done with anyone from any political party has been published as is…
After the 2011 local election, politics became very boring… At the time of writing in March 2012 Labour has a majority of 34 so there is very little in the way of decent debate and bargaining in the council chamber; it is simply a case of Labour getting what Labour wants.
Long gone are the days when Pits n Pots was breaking the latest news from the council, not because we have taken our eye off the ball but simply because there is no breaking news.
A former council officer said to me recently: “It is easier to get information out of the Kremlin than it is to get it out of the civic these days.”
He is very right, but that in itself is a challenge that Pits n Pots is up to taking on.
Tomorrow: A salutary lesson in the difficulties of maintaining a hyperlocal website, by Richard Jones, founder of Saddleworth News
*What do we mean by local? is edited by John Mair, Neil Fowler & Ian Reeves and published by Abramis. Available at a special Media Guardian price of £12 from firstname.lastname@example.org