Hyperlocal Voices: Zoe Jewell and Tim Dickens, Brixton Blog

Archive interview first produced for the Online Journalism Blog in June 2012. I’ll share other archive pieces here in the coming weeks, or you can read the full series (including the original series of interviews conducted by Paul Bradshaw) on the new home for OJB. Over time I’m also hoping to revisit the interviewees from the original series to see what has changed over time, and indeed if these ventures are still running…

We haven’t any Hyperlocal Voices interviews for a while, so Damian Radcliffe has agreed to remedy that. To kickstart this new series he talks to Zoe Jewell and Tim Dickens from theBrixton Blog in South West London.

The site relaunched earlier this year, with an aspiration for the “website to perform the role of the now all but defunct traditional local paper.” Interestingly, Tim left his job at a local paper (run by Archant) to concentrate on a venture which seeks to be: “a focus point for all section[s] of the community to come to and read, share and discuss. A voice that you can trust amid the frenetic tumult that is Brixton.”

Here the Editor’s answer ten quick questions about the history of the blog and outline some plans for the future.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Zoe Jewell, who works in television production, originally set up the Brixton Blog in 2010 to cover some of the interesting stuff happening in the area where she lives and grew up. In January 2012 she relaunched the website with local newspaper journalist Tim Dickens as a comprehensive online news resource for people in Brixton. We are now helped by a team of more than a dozen regular talented contributors.

2. What made you decide to set up the blog?

We felt there was a massive gap in the provision of news in Brixton, an area where news is made all the time and where lots of change is happening that was previously unreported. We wanted to hold the local authorities to account by covering council meetings.

It is vital that the community can come together to discuss big issues like gentrification and housing, so we wanted the site to report facts and stimulating discussion on them.

3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

We relaunched the Blog in January 2012. We met and came up with the idea in November 2011 and very quickly got the idea up and running. First we spoke to local business owners, bloggers, community leaders and councillors about the idea and what was needed in the area from a resource like this.

We also spoke to hyperlocal experts and bloggers from across the country to find out about their own experiences and ask for advice. We tweeted that we needed help from graphic designers and website designers and managed to find people who felt strongly about contributing to the brixton community and would, very kindly, help us out for free.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Se1, Herne Hill Forum, The Londonist, Hackney Citizen

5. How did/do you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

As trained journalists and media professionals we see our role as a replacement to traditional local newspapers. We aim to report timely news accurately and in a balanced manner, giving all points of view and enabling discussion through the comments thread. The launch of our printed paper, the Brixton Bugle, this month will take this one step further.

At the same time, the nature of web and the relationship we have built up with our local readers means we can have more of a personal relationship with our readers than most traditional media and be much more flexible – we can very much have our own personality online, especially on Twitter. That also means we are, quite rightly, held to account too – when you might to meet your reader in the local shop buying a pint of milk or having a pint in the pub you want to be sure you’ve done good!

6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s editorial development?

Other than our campaign victory regarding the Lambeth Country Show, we are proud of the time we began “live blogging” council meetings. We had three reporters in the council chamber all tweeting, writing and blogging simultaneously during the budget setting.

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

We currently have an average of about 1,500 page views per day from just under 1,000 unique views. This has been steadily rising.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

By far our biggest challenge has been monetising the site and trying to find advertisers to support it. It is also a challenge to prioritise our time: There is so much to write about, and so many potential projects, but so little time!

9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Two weeks after our relaunch we learned that the local council, Lambeth, planned to cancel a popular country show, which attracts 250,000 annually. Although they blamed the Olympics we felt there was more to it and began a petition to reinstate the popular event.

We began a community campaign to reinstate the show that attracted almost 1,000 signatures in just a few days. It prompted responses from councilors, MPs and the police borough commander. A few days later they announced that the show would in fact go ahead. We believe that it was the pressure exerted by the Blog’s campaign that led to the u-turn. (Ed: see this report from the Evening Standard.)

10. What are your plans for the future?

Later this month we plan to launch the Brixton Bugle, an 8-page hyperlocal newspaper on newsprint. It will be distributed to about 5,000 commuters at Brixton tube station and across the town centre in shops, cafes and libraries.

We are also in the process of organising a series of “offline” debates about issues we have raised on the site.

We have ambitions to create a mobile app edition of the site (NESTA funding allowing) as well as developing the listings side…

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