Pits n Pots was set up by Tony Walley to fill a gap in the market in Stoke-on-Trent where political commentary and discussion was concerned. The mainstream media at the time simply weren’t, in our view, fulfilling their duties of holding power to account as well as they might. The coverage was quite scant in some cases and the chances of discussions about anything political on mainstream media websites were quite slim. The BBC don’t tend to promote commenting on news and The Sentinel, the local paper in Stoke-on-Trent had, for very good legal reasons, a policy of moderating comments on their website. If you left a comment on the Sentinel website that was deemed to be too near the knuckle, it was removed. In some cases this policy made debate all but impossible.
Because of the paucity of engagement with political debate we decided to try to do things differently on Pits n Pots and actively encouraged debates on local political issues. Our aim was to keep discussions lively while staying the right side of the libel line. When dealing with politics of any kind this is no easy task. An added element of complexity at the time was that the BNP had nine councillors in the city. As well as dealing with the BNP councillors and their supporters we were simultaneously fielding comments from the anti-fascist movement, which, as you can imagine made for interesting times moderating comments.
So how do you set up a local website in your town or city?
Self-publishing has never been easier. There are many different platforms you can use these days. Personally I would recommend WordPress.com as a bulletproof solution for running a website. It is the largest hosted CMS (Content Management System) in the world and is next to impossible to break. When I am working with community groups as part of my day job with Talk About Local, I always advise them to think about WordPress.
So a quick checklist of things you will need. (These are loosely based on a political blog but work for pretty much any type.)
Do you actually have enough to write about? Are you writing about politics because you have an interest or think there is a need, or are you writing because you have an issue that you want to resolve? If you think your intentions are more the latter then use a blog to help amplify your voice. Don’t try and dress a single-issue blog up as an objective political website. It may grow in to something later but don’t plan for that, just deal with the issue that is important to you.
Do you have an audience to start off with? It is unlikely that you are going to have a couple of thousand people all waiting for your first blog post, but do you have even 10 or 20 people who you can send your blog to and who will give you feedback, even if they don’t publically comment? Once you are writing regularly, maintaining an audience becomes less difficult. Not easy exactly, but less difficult.
Do you have the skills to set up and run a blog? If you can use Facebook, then you will have the skills to set up a blog.
Do you have contacts in the council? Do you know your local councillor or people in the local political parties? Where are you going to get your stories? You can contact the Press & Communications office at your local council and ask to be added to their mailing list.
How councils deal with citizen journalists varies hugely from region to region. Over the last 18 months I would say from my own experience it has become increasingly challenging to get information out of Stoke council. With cuts to services and the huge uplift in people writing about their local councillors, a number of councils are becoming quite strict about how they engage with the public.
Do you have the time to write regularly? Do not underestimate how long you will need to spend working on your website. The more popular it becomes, the more time you are going to spend not only researching and writing but also managing comments. If you are working full-time and have a family then it can very easily take all of what little free time you have. Also think about whether you have time at the right time? If you work 9-5 in an office and you are simultaneously running a political blog, then chances are you aren’t going to be able to go to council meetings or photo calls because you are working. Councils are 24-hour operations, but almost all of their photo calls will be during the normal working day.
WordPress.com is free, but you may want to add in some of the optional extras like a domain name or custom themes. None of these are particularly expensive but will to come out of your own pocket. You might also want to buy a camera or an audio recorder. Alternatively an iPhone or Android smartphone should give you most of what you need for citizen journalism. Also consider the costs of going to the council meetings, bus fair or fuel and parking. It may not sound like much but it all adds up.
Play the ball not the man
When you are writing make sure you don’t attack people personally. For example, if you are writing about cuts, question the cuts, name the portfolio holder but don’t say “Councillor X is responsible for closing all the libraries in Little Midhampton” because they are not. They hold the portfolio and have a range of responsibilities, but budgets, reductions and removals of services will be worked out by officers and presented to the councillors who then have to approve them. Remember your council and councillors are obliged to set a balanced budget, as unpleasant as that may seem.
Naming councillors is ok – they are public servants and have made a conscious decision to put themselves in the public eye. Council officers, on the other hand, are different. If they are the head of a directorate or an assistant then it is probably ok to name them. It is expected that officers at this level in the council may be named from time to time by the press. Once you get much below this level then it is probably better not to name officers – they are just employees of the council, similar to you and me and have a right to a certain amount of anonymity, even if they have made a decision with which you don’t agree.
Keep within the law
The legal definition of libel is a published (or broadcast) false statement that:
• exposes someone to hatred, ridicule or contempt
• causes them to be shunned or avoided
• lowers them in the estimation of ‘right thinking’ members of society
• disparages them in their office, profession or trade.
A common sense approach to publishing is always the best. If you have any doubt about the validity of what you are going to publish, then don’t, or at the very least take advice. This page from Talk About Local is updated periodically with links to useful plain-English resources
A copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists is a handy book to have on your desk. The 21st edition is due to be published this month (March 2012)
Although Libel law in the UK is currently very harsh, 99% of local websites will probably never experience any problems. If you take care and use your common sense when writing, you will be unlikely to fall foul of the law.
If you find that it is becoming a chore to write and publish then have a look at what you are doing. Your enthusiasim for the task is your most powerful ally. Starting your own website can be incredibly rewarding. Get friends involved. Find out and expose the truth. Be fair and be firm and you will go far.
Mike Rawlins is the Editor of Pits n Pots
This piece is taken from The Journalism Foundation’s free toolkit on how to build a local website. Get the guide in full here
To read more about The Journalism Foundation’s local journalism project in Stoke-on-Trent click here