National media feed off hyperlocals, claims start-up

In the second of a series of case studies of hyperlocals, NMJ looks at Pits n Pots, the site with a reputation for hard-hitting political coverage of Stoke- on-Trent

If the experience of Pits n Pots is anything to go by, the path to successful hyperlocalism never runs smooth.

The site was born of a drunken night in September 2008 when founder Tony Wallely, frustrated at the lack of local political news in Stoke on Trent, decided to start a blog to plug some of the gaps.

Now, with the help of more technically-minded partner Mike Rawlins, the site has migrated to an independently-hosted url and won itself a reputation for tough coverage of the city’s political scene.

It gets 500 000 page views a month, and has 7,200 subscribers to its weekly email. In January 2009 its live coverage of an English Defence League march through Stoke on Trent attracted 10,000 unique users in one day.

But Pits n Pots’ scrutiny of council affairs, such as the disclosure that a council-run scheme to help businesses through the credit crunch benefited just one firm, or the highlighting of an Audit Commission report that council communications do not represent good value for money, have led to accusations that the site is ‘anti-Stoke on Trent’.

‘We’re not,’ says Walley. ‘We love the city. We’re absolutely passionate about Stoke on Trent, but we can’t help reporting some of the calamitous cock-ups.’

He is pleased that the relationship with the council – at once point so bad that he was forcibly ejected from a council meeting – has now improved, and Pits n Pots reporters are routinely invited to press briefings.

Getting recognition from within the profession has also been a challenge. While some journalists in the established media have been very supportive, others have told Pits N Pots plainly they are ‘not proper journalists’, according to Walley.

He and Rawlins are also disappointed that the mainstream media sometimes run stories broken on the site without attributing them to Pits n Pots. One story about the EDL using a Polish spitfire was widely picked up by papers such as The Daily Mail and Guardian without any reference to the source, they say.

Nonetheless, with a team of five regular volunteers providing content in a range of formats including video, editorially the site is going from strength to strength.

Both founders have jobs with sufficient flexibility to enable them to keep up the coverage – Walley is the managing director of an aluminium company, while Rawlins works for the hyperlocal training organisation talkaboutlocal.

But neither has the time to invest in the business side, such as selling advertising or developing other revenue streams to fund the things they’d like to do next – pay a dedicated team of journalists and buy better recording equipment.

‘We want to push the boundaries, but we’re also really frustrated that we haven’t got the time to make it as good as it could be,’ says Wallely. ‘Pits n Pots is at the crossroads. It can stay the way it is, or it needs to generate some income.’

With more and more hyperlocal sites getting established around the country, his difficulty is likely to be an increasingly common one.

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