Introducing The South London Post

Here’s a question: what’s the most appropriate geographical unit for a media title? Currently, “hyperlocal” is all the rage, which I take to mean a website about a pretty small area, probably one you can walk across and recognise most of the things in: a block in New York, the remnants of a village in London, a provincial town. There are many of these breaking out all over Britain (and you can track them, too, thanks to the continuing excellent efforts of OpenlyLocal).

What’s the next level up from “hyperlocal”? Ah, now there’s a question. Because the answer is: it depends. People’s sense of “where they are” varies by, well, where they are. So someone living in a village in Warwickshire may have little interest in anything beyond the borders of the village, while someone living in Cambridge may well be interested in the surrounding villages. It’s very much horses for courses.

Which brings us to London, and its deeply peculiar media scene. London is served by several free newspapers which aren’t really “local” in any meaningful way; they’re local manifestations of national or international brands. It’s served by BBC London which, I’m sorry, is rather a joke (we play a game in my house called “count the London stories on the BBC London News which haven’t already been on the national news”. Catchy title, no?). There is some local radio, most notably LBC, which provides some local coverage (although I’ve just looked at their home page, and there is not a single London story on there). And there is a patchwork of local newspapers, some free some not, which are mostly cut from the same “man dies in flat” template for local press.

In South London, where I live, we have  a bunch of local Guardian brands (the Streatham Guardian, for instance), and we have the Tindle-owned South London Press. Now the SLP is a rather extraordinary thing. It seems to have a terror-wracked view of the universe in which “normal people” quake behind their doors while the streets are roamed by young thugs with vicious dogs and dead eyes. Frankly if you read the South London Press, you’d be asking yourself why anyone would ever want to live in South London. I sometimes think its target market is the low-income, unemployed single mother who dreams of an escape to Kent or Essex and reads the SLP as a way of confirming her misery.

Anyway. All this is a long-winded introduction to the latest of the a long-line of online publishing experiments, the South London Post. It’s a blog about South London. More specifically, it’s a blog which curates the best blogs and news sources covering Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. It’s been running for a few weeks, and I’m going to be blogging here about its progress.

First, why? Well, the reasons given above. There is no news title about South London which assumes that: a, this is a pleasant place to live; and b, the people living in it might be somewhat engaged in and interested by what makes it tick. Also, there are several very good hyperlocal blogs in South London, but there was nothing that I could find that drew them together – that told me, for instance, about stuff going on in Brockley that I might find interesting even if I don’t live in Brockley. And there was very little coverage of council matters outside the South London Press, which just assumes that all councillors are lying bastards who are lying to them.

Secondly, why Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham? Well, it’s pretty arbitary, and it goes back to my opening point about “where is there?”. Contentious viewpoint: south-west London is its own thing. They do things differently there. Contentious viewpoint two: as you get out to Greenwich and beyond, the texture of living morphs into Kent, and again it feels quite different. Or, to put it another way: I’ve lived in South London for 20 years, and I know Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham pretty well. There must be a reason (psychogeographical?) for that.

Thirdly, why curated? Well, this was a bit of a journey. I started off experimenting with mechanical aggregators (see my post here) such as this, this and this. These things have their place, but they’re very bad at maintaining narratives (which I think is essential) and there’s a terrible signal-to-noise ratio.

Then I experimented with pulling in feeds into a WordPress installation using a plugin called Feedwordpress. This was more successful: it allowed me to file posts from other blogs in a more fine-grained way, and allowed me to “curate by tagging”, creating narratives by grouping similar posts together.

But it also felt not-quite-right, for two reasons. 1, there was no reliable editorial tone-of-voice, and I began to realise that tone-of-voice, however ephemeral, is one of the key things that binds a media property together. And 2,it felt unethical. It felt like stealing to mechanically suck in someone else’s work and then display it back in a new container. It just didn’t sit right.

So finally, I hit on this model: a blog which I post to manually, using WordPress hosted at Mythic Beasts. The tools of my trade (currently) are Twitter and Google Reader – there’s more about this on the site itself here. I try to link generously and quote reasonably. And, so far, I’ve not had any complaints from local bloggers who feature; indeed, some have been notably effusive.

The site launched in June, and the first month’s traffic looks like this:

So, no setting-world-on-fire going on here. I’ve got a very rough target in my mind of getting to a million monthly page views, which means I’m a thousandth of the way there. Nothing like simple metrics to keep you focussed.

I post about five times a day, and it probably takes between 30 minutes and an hour of my time. One thing I have noticed: the most unexpected things can get you traffic. About a tenth of June’s traffic was to a post about a Portuguese fair in Kennington Park. And look, by linking to it I’ve just skewed it even further.

There are currently about two page views per visit, which is probably more of a function of the IA than anything else – only excerpts are appearing on the front page. One thing I’m pleased about: about 30% of the visits were “not new”, meaning people had come back. Which is nice.

Oh, and I made – wait for it, wait for it – one American cent in AdSense revenue in June. So, if you fancy investing, Fred Wilson….

I’m going to post here every month about progress, and I’m going to try and do one concrete thing a month to drive traffic to see if I can gauge its progress. July is Twitter month – I’m going to tweet every new post to see what that does to traffic. The blog’s twitter account is @southlondonpost; if you live in South London, you might be interested in following it.

And I’m also pondering the design again. I agonised over the template for weeks – it’s a Woothemes template called Headlines, and I do like it, but it does slightly bork the formatting in homepage excerpts. I’ve just downloaded (and paid for) another Woothemes thing called Weekly, which I’m looking at and pondering.

So, anyway, as Russell would say. Onwards and upwards.