But having recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, the site is reaping the benefits of its unfettered approach to the stories it covers, securing advertisers and developing the site.
"The traffic to the site has been the most surprising thing – we’re now getting between 10 and 15,000 unique users every month. When I started the site I thought I’d be lucky if anyone thought it was worth reading. But the fact that people have been reading is what has kept the site going and kept us on our toes," says Hawkes, who was previously editor of the Coventry Citizen and worked as a multimedia editor at BNM Media.
Comparing the blog to local news organisations operating in the area is like comparing chalk and cheese, says Hawkes. Its not-for-profit status is the first of several fundamental differences between the site and local media 'competitors'. It's web-first approach is another: the site has a streamlined feel to it with fewer sections than local newspaper counterpart thisislichfield.co.uk, as well as RSS feeds, and a more integrated mixture of news and information.
But Hawkes does not intend The Lichfield Blog to be rival to other local news sources, such as the Lichfield Mercury paper and its website thisislichfield.co.uk, but does concede that the project was born out of a gap in the local news and information market – exacerbated by the closure of Trinity Mirror title the Lichfield Post last summer.
"We’re not about competing with them – we don’t have the funds or manpower. Some have actively tried to see how they can work with us, others have just ignored the fact we exist and carried on as usual. I’ve always said that The Lichfield Blog would not exist if someone was doing what we do – giving regular updates about news and information in our city. But they aren’t so we’re happy to fill that gap and let others worry about where we fit," he said.
"The remit of the site has definitely changed. It started as a basic 'let's have a moan about Lichfield' site, but it quickly evolved, not through planning but through the readership asking if we could put this on the site or cover this story. Being a journalist by trade I also veered towards what I know.
"We've now taken the basic school of thought that we’re not there to be an online newspaper, even if some see us as one. We’re just trying to blend news and information that people in our city and outside might enjoy."
The site is keen to experiment with making money from online too, not least to support developing the design and taking on contributors, and while its not-for-profit status allows this to be an experiment rather than a necessity, there are lessons here for other local media organisations.
Advertising on the site has been steady, but the team behind the blog have never considered advertising alone to be sufficient for a stable financial footing, says Hawkes.
"The pricing structure we chose proves this. Advertising was more about offering the chance for small-scale advertisers to speak to people who are interested in Lichfield for an affordable price. And I was also keen that we didn’t over-value what we do. Who is really going to invest £150 into a site that’s new and not affiliated to any big organisation? I wouldn’t. But for £10 a month I’d give it a shot," he says.
"We've also rejected a number of advertisers because they have no link to the city. It sounds like commercial suicide when we have spare ad slots, but the ethos of The Lichfield Blog is much more important than buying gold plated notepads."
Any revenue-generated is invested in the site and third-party funding to help develop some projects for community engagement is also being looked at.
From the network of writers and developers who contribute to the site as a result of both "favours and persuasion" and to showcase their work to a wider audience to its highly localised advertising approach, being part of a community is one of the site's biggest strengths and something that local media could directly benefit from.
"With newspapers reporting from afar or lumping an area in with a neighbour that it has no real connection with for the sake of cutting editions, they're losing the link with locals. If I read a website or newspaper about Lichfield I expect it to do what it says on the tin. But increasingly that’s not the case. People still want to know about their area. Rather than retreating from them, traditional media needs to be putting flags in the ground and going back to basics," says Hawkes.
"But with the funding not there to do this, traditional media could do worse than to bring down the walls and accept that others might just be able to do the jobs they wish they could do. This means extending the olive branch and creating partnerships. There are signs that the barriers are coming down and media groups are showing signs of welcoming the likes of The Lichfield Blog into the fold, but there needs to be more of this rather than the pointless locking of horns and point-scoring that too often goes on. After all, while traditional media's reporters might not fancy publishing copy at 10:00pm on a Friday night, there's an army of community-minded folk out there who are."
Hawkes and long-term supporter and freelance contributor to the project Philip John hope the Lichfield Blog will not only offer partnerships and ideas to existing local news organisations, but share advice and experience with new publishers looking to launch community sites.
"Be part of your community first and foremost. You can’t cover it unless you know it. It also helps to get a feel for who is out there. The Lichfield Blog wouldn’t be where it is without Phil or myself. I couldn't do Phil's side of things and I'm sure he'd say the same about mine. By throwing myself into the community and seeing who was out there, I've managed to meet some great people such as Nick Brickett, Phil and countless others who have all added either their expertise, knowledge or thoughts to the mix.
"If it wasn’t for these people, I'd have missed out on a world of opportunities and great ideas. Don’t think you are the ultimate knowledge, even if you are a journalist now working with non-journalists as I am. By opening your eyes and ears you can always find someone who can add to the flavour of your site and increase its appeal."
Bloggers or publishers new to this space need a basic understanding of potential legal issues involved, as well as a commitment to the project that goes beyond making money, says John.
Setting up these kind of sites can be incredibly cheap if not free. Sustainability doesn't have to mean financial sustainability - if you can garner enough support in your community you can run it for no cost except a small amount of time from a group of contributors. Think outside the box a little and you'll find your own way," he says.
"It's wise to say don't go all out from the word go. Let the site grow naturally. If you do a big push and then find after a month or two or three it's not for you, the community could miss out unnecessarily."
While the site may not have been set up to rival other local media, initiatives like The Lichfield Blog may offer a necessary wake-up call to how traditional outlets can build their web presence even at a time of restricted resource.
It's a case of mind over matter, says John: "I think there's much that sites like The Lichfield Blog can do differently. However, it's not that traditional media can't, it just seems to be bogged down by it's die hard attitude to print (…) For traditional media, it takes some getting out of the comfort zone, which they seem to find hard given the climate they're dealing with at the moment."
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