Don’t ignore citizen journalists

In the last few weeks a gentleman by the name of Tony Walley has re-entered the world of blogging, providing commentary on the politics of Stoke-on-Trent. Wol’s World is the latest in a long line of media ventures, which also include sports commentary for local radio and a string of music shows for several local and internet broadcasters. But this solid CV belies that Tony is (and please ignore the possible connotations) a total amateur. Away from the keyboard and mixing desk he runs a successful metals business in Talke.

Tony’s most notable project to date was a political blog-come-news website called Pits’n’Pots, named as a reference to Stoke-on-Trent’s industrial heritage. I followed the site from its earliest days in 2008 when it was published using a basic blogging platform, featuring thoughtful opinion pieces from Tony, his friends and surreal ranting from the anonymous “Oracle”. At this point, some of the content was a bit rough around the edges – I remember one article by an anonymous poster that lambasted me for being a ‘parachuted councillor’, a rat and threatening to burn a colleague and me to death in Longton town hall! It gained quite a following of local politicos, but upset many of my colleagues inside and out of the council chamber who bemoaned its irreverence and were sceptical about its reach.

Soon Pits’n’Pots caught the attention of a website and community engagement wiz called Mike Rawlins. In a short space of time Mike gave the site a techy overhaul moving it to WordPress, giving it a facelift and introducing multi-media elements such as recorded interviews with local councillors and activists. In parallel Tony started to exercise more discerning editorial control.  ‘Oracle’ was out, and the more visceral contributions to the site were to be confined to the comments section. However, the site lost none of its controversy, featuring opinion pieces from a broader range of contributors. Crucially, Tony had become more investigative and was breaking news instead of simply offering opinions (although sometimes the lines were blurred).

By mid-2009 the site was receiving several thousand unique visitors each day. Tony’s scoops, which often hinged on leaks from one or other of the City’s fragmented party groups, were stealing a march on Stoke’s daily newspaper The Sentinel. Professional journalists from both the paper and local BBC were using Tony’s posts and even the salacious gossip from the comments section as leads. The site’s polished multi-media coverage of council meetings, community events and an EDL rally that turned violent lent journalistic credibility to Pits’n’Pots that was, let’s remember, still being run by hobbyists.

Few professional communicators within the city kept pace with the site’s evolution. I heard a series of excuses for failing to engage with Pits’n’Pots. “Anyone who reads it has already made up their mind”, “It’s not as important as the proper press” and “it’s reach is not that big”. I had one conversation (with someone I regard as one of the most effective political campaigners in the country) where the site was referred to it as “that right wing blog”. Clearly, Pits’n’Pots had a stigma attached to it based on its early days – local PRs had not recognised that Tony and his team had become fully-fledged citizen journalists.

It was not Pits’n’Pots that suffered. The site’s audience continued to grow and gained national prominence has the archetypal example of what was still called ‘new media’. Tony was interviewed on BBC Breakfast News and carved out a well-deserved image as one of Stoke-on-Trent’s opinion formers and thought leaders. By failing to engage with citizen journalists the area’s PRs had not recognised the opportunity this new channel gave them to communicate their message, and that the influence Pits’n’Pots had on the channels with which they were more familiar. Eventually, the penny did drop.

After a few years running the site Tony’s enthusiasm waned, or perhaps more simply the requirements of a paying job and other passions beckoned. For a few months, Mike continued to run the site but eventually moved out of the Stoke area leaving Pits’n’Pots without either of its two driving forces. Other citizen journalists filled the void and local communicators were this time more prepared. This was sensible, as citizen journalists in changing guises are here to stay. I strongly believe that in there is a need for professional journalism as a responsible challenge to authority. This is complemented, not threatened or undermined, by good citizen journalists like Tony Walley. PRs need to engage with the likes of Pits’n’Pots in the analytical way we’d approach any other sort of media.

In 2017, nearly a decade on from his original site’s launch Tony has created Wol’s World. It’s already created a stir with its coverage of the on going parliamentary by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central. PRs in North Staffordshire should take note of the site, and maybe drop him a line.

Image (C) Pits’n’Pots


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