Hyperlocal Voices: Matt Brown, Londonist

Archive interview first published August 16, 2012 for Online Journalism Blog.

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Run by two members of staff and a raft of volunteers, Editor Matt Brown gave Damian Radcliffe an insight into the breadth and depth of the site.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Everyone in London! We’re a very open site, involving our readers in the creation of many articles, especially the imagery. But more prosaically, we have an editorial team of 5 or 6 people, plus another 20 or so regular contributors. I act as the main content editor for the site.

We’re more than a website, though, with a weekly podcast (Londonist Out Loud, ably presented and produced by N Quentin Woolf), a separate Facebook presence, a daily e-newsletter, 80,000 Twitter followers, the largest FourSquare following in London (I think), a Flickr pool with 200,000 images, several e-books, occasional exhibitions and live events every few weeks. The web site is just one facet of what we do.

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

I actually inherited it off someone else, but it was originally set up as a London equivalent of certain sites in the US like Gothamist and Chicagoist, which were riding the early blogging wave, providing news and event tips for citizens. There was nothing quite like it in London, so my predecessor wanted to jump into the gap and have some fun.

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

It dates back to 2004, when it was originally called the Big Smoker. Before too long, it joined the Gothamist network, changing its name to Londonist.

We now operate independently of that network, but retain the name. It was originally set up in Movable Type publishing platform, but we moved to WordPress a couple of years ago.

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

Obviously, the Gothamist sites originally. But we’re now more influenced by the wonderful ecosystem of London blogs out there, all offering their own take on life in the capital.

The best include Diamond Geezer (an incisive and often acerbic look at London), Ian Visits (a mix of unusual site visits and geeky observation) and Spitalfields Life (a daily interview with a local character). These are just three of the dozens of excellent London sites in my RSS reader.

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

Complementary rather than competitors. We cover three or four news stories a day, sometimes journalistically, but our forte in this area is more in commentary, features and reader involvement around the news.

And news is just a small part of what we do — most of the site is event recommendation, unusual historical insights, street art, food and drink, theatre reviews and the like. As an example of our diversity, a few months back we ran a 3,000-word essay on the construction of Hammersmith flyover by an engineering PhD candidate, and the very next item was about a beauty pageant for chubby people in Vauxhall.

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

I think most of these would be technologically driven. For example, when Google mapping became possible, our free wifi hotspots and V2 rocket maps greatly increased site traffic.

Once Twitter reached critical mass we were able to reach out to tens of thousands of people, both for sourcing information for articles and pushing our finished content.

The other big thing was turning the site into a business a couple of years ago, so we were able to bring a little bit of money in to reinvest in the site. The extra editorial time the money pays for means our output is now bigger and better.

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

We’re now seeing about 1.4 million page views a month. It’s pretty much doubling year on year.

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

Transforming from an amateur site into a business.

We started taking different types of advertising, including advertorial content, and had to make sure we didn’t alienate our readers. It was a tricky tightrope, but I’d hope we’ve done a fairly good job of selecting paid-for content only if it’s of interest to a meaningful portion of our readers, and then making sure we’re open and clear about what is sponsored content and what is editorially driven.

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

I’m rather enjoying our A-Z pubcrawl at the moment, and not just because of the booze.

Basically, we pick an area of town each month beginning with the next letter of the alphabet (so, Angel, Brixton, City, Dalston, etc.). We then ask our readers to nominate their favourite pubs and bars in the area, via Twitter, Facebook or comments.

We then build a Google map of all the suggestions and arrange a pub crawl around the top 4.

Everyone’s a winner because (a) we get a Google-friendly article called, for example, ‘What’s the best pub in Farringdon?‘, with a map of all the suggestions; (b) we get the chance to use our strong social media channels to involve a large number of people – hundreds of votes every time; (c) the chance to meet some of our readers, who are invited along on the pub crawl, and who get a Londonistbooze badge as a memento; (d) a really fun night out round some very good pubs.

The next part (G for Greenwich) will be announced in early September.

10. What are your plans for the future?

We’re playing around with ebooks at the moment, as a way to sustain the business directly through content. We’ve published a book of London pub crawls (spotting a theme here?), and a history of the London Olympics by noted London author David Long. Our next ebook will be a collection of quiz questions about the capital, drawn from the numerous pub quizzes we’ve ran over the years.

Basically, we’re looking to be the best organisation for finding out about London in any and every medium we can get our hands on.

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