How should a hyperlocal blog cover local elections?

By Jeremy Morton | 19th Mar 2014

South Leeds Life is a hyperlocal news blog that started about three years ago. We cover an unfashionable part of the city, you can define the area as two postcodes, or three council wards. We are quite proud that we’ve built up our readership to 10,000 visitors a month.

There was no council election last year in Leeds, so our last election was two years ago. In 2012 our readership and our influence was much smaller. We reported on the local election, but focussed on the importance of voting and what councillors do. We only published a simple list of candidates for each ward giving their names and party affiliation.

With local and European elections coming up in May we thought we could do a better job this time round and maybe help the democratic process along the way.

One of the comments we’ve had is that our readers don’t know who the candidates are or what they stand for. Leaflets either don’t get delivered or they get scooped up with the junk mail and go straight in the bin. I can’t remember the last time a canvasser knocked on my door. It’s not just our problem, the activist base of all the main parties has collapsed added to which our three wards are relatively safe seats, so party resources get directed to more marginal wards in the city.

So we decided we would give the candidates a platform on South Leeds Life. Clearly we need to be fair and offer equal coverage to all the candidates, so we will be setting up a page on the website for each ward, listing the candidates and then inviting them to send us text, images and video to post.

We will be sending the same invitation to every candidate on the same day, once the Council has published the lists of candidates and we have set limits on the word count and video length.

We are also hoping to hold some hustings. I always feel I have to explain this word as the practice seems to have died out. A hustings is a public meeting where voters can hear the candidates speak and ask them questions. We are currently looking for like-minded organisations to help us organise the meetings.

South Leeds Life has always covered stories involving our local elected representatives. It may not be Watergate, but we think it’s important that our readers see their Councillor and MP engaging with the local community even if its only opening buildings and visiting schools.

Last November our MP, Hilary Benn, agreed to write a monthly column for us. Although generally well received, some of our readers didn’t approve claiming it was pro-Labour propaganda. We had a debate in the comments section and drew the distinction between reporting on elected representatives in office versus giving extra coverage during an election campaign. We will therefore have a period of ‘purdah’ during the campaign to ensure a level playing field.

We’re excited about our approach to these elections. We feel we are playing to the strengths of a hyperlocal blog, getting into more detail because of our local focus. I don’t know if we will have an effect on the outcome, or even the turnout, but we will be monitoring how many people go to the election pages and comparing turnout with other inner city wards in Leeds.

Image accompanying this article is copyright Coventry City Council.

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