Media Interview with Mike Herd, editor of Guardian Online’s ‘Guardian Cities’

"Unreal City, 

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, 

A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many, 

I had not thought death had undone so many-" Okay, T.S. Eliot, that's enough of that.

We grabbed a quick chat with a very busy Mike Herd following the launch of 'Guardian Cities', a much more optimistic take on urbanisation and issues surrounding metropolises (metropoli?) across the world. Interactivity, job title confusion, and London vs. Brighton are just some of the hot topics discussed with Mike in today's interview… 

You've had a great reaction to the website so far, Mike  congratulations! So, launching ‘Guardian Cities’ – why now? What inspired the launch and what does it bring to Guardian Online?

It’s a massive and growing topic – the future of cities, the speed of urbanisation around the world – and we wanted to get into that. We felt that there were a lot of people writing on the subject, but there wasn’t a central place where people could talk about it. That’s the idea.

We then went to the Rockefeller Foundation and ‘said we’ve got this idea, are you interesting in supporting it,’ and they said yes, so that was also a helpful factor.

How is the Rockefeller Foundation working with you on the site?

We’re completely editorially independent; there’s no influence from Rockefeller in what we write. But as with many websites, it helps us to be able to do it – as ever, there is also a commercial side to it.

Rockefeller have their Resilient Cities programme – it’s an area that they’re interested in, an area we’re interested in, and here was a positive thing that we could do together.

You’re also still working as assistant editor of G1…?

Actually, no, I’m not! That’s just because we’re so rubbish at updating our profiles! I was assistant editor of G1 – to be honest, I feel I’ve had barely any time to sleep this week, so…Issues like what the website calls me I feel are not absolutely my first priority at the moment, but I will get there! One day it will say ‘editor of Guardian Cities’!

So, the new role! How has your job changed – what are your main duties now? Well, starting this week!

Y’know, it’s pretty atypical when you’re launching a site, because there’s so much involved. But for us the whole thing has been about getting the message out that we’re a new site and we want to involve people from cities all around the world.

We’ve been very busy over the last two weeks, putting together a network of blogs that we like around the world. That’s been a really successful part of our initial launch, because it’s shown people that we’re interested in what they’re doing – that’s key, for us. We want to tap into people who know cities intimately already. We, sitting in London, don’t know what’s happening in every city around the world – this is making those connections. We’re commissioning articles and multimedia pieces that in some way help start conversations, but in the end, it’s all about finding and building a community. In terms of my day-to-day, it’s just constant running around, really. Just trying to get everything done.

Tell us about the responses you've had so far…

The great thing I’ve got now – also, the slightly daunting thing that I’ve got now – is an enormous amount of feedback, contacts and ideas. Now what I’m desperately trying to do at the moment is find the space to answer all those people who’ve got in touch! We’re embracing the great response we’ve had, and turning that into more great ideas – it’s a virtuous circle.

‘Guardian Cities’ has its own dedicated Twitter handle

Correct, right.

The site is designed to be interactive with the people who’ll be reading it. Is it essential to be completely interactive on social media with a launch like this?

It’s utterly essential. The first person we had in place in our team was for social media. We’re intending to join cities up so they can talk to each other – there are places doing more general coverage of cities, but what they haven’t got, it seems to us, is a thriving community. And from our point of view, the whole point of doing this site isn’t just to lecture people on what’s interesting, we want people to tell us what’s interesting.

As you say, it’s been quite interactive, but that’s because there’s someone working on that all day, basically. What I have to do is commission ahead so we’ve got content – it’s very difficult to be in the ‘responding to people zone’, and to be thinking ‘what is the piece we need to commission for three weeks’ time that’s going to get people talking about us again’, you know. And it’s much cleaner and simpler to have a 'Guardian Cities' handle.

Talking of commissioning, are you commissioning journalists from across the world? What kind of thing are you looking out for over the next few months?

Just good ideas. We’re not a news service; we want really good, new ideas that stimulate conversation, and we want to make sure that we’re covering cities from all around the world – we don’t want to be seen as just a European or American thing. We are global – we want to tell stories about cities that perhaps go beyond people’s stereotypical ideas, and find out what’s going on out there. So, it won’t necessarily be traditional journalists that will contribute; there’ll be a lot of photography; hopefully, in time, there’ll be film, as well.

And you’re working with bloggers?

Yes. But we won’t be hosting bloggers. We’re going to be quite curative about it all, and not just chuck lots of stuff up. We want people to find stuff that’s really thoughtful. If it’s all a bit ‘Wild West’, you don’t get the value of in-depth discussions.

Because it’s not being put together in a traditional way (working with PR people, getting press releases, writing it up, etc.) will you be working with PR agencies at all?

Basically, we regard social media as the most important PR you can do now. Well, two things – good stories and brilliant social media are, as far as I’m concerned, the two most important things you can do for a site. But The Guardian has a PR department, and they may have some plans for it.

Where have you worked previously, and how did you end up in your current position?

I’ve been at The Guardian for 16 years, doing every kind of job you could think of – so that’s basically how they knew about me!

Lastly, one of the first articles up on the site (‘What makes your city so special?’) asked readers to get in touch about their own cities. So, you work from London  what makes your city special?

Funnily enough, I live in Brighton!

Honestly, I could go on for days about what makes Brighton so special – it’s an amazing place, and I’m so happy to live there. It’s a wonderful place to bring up our three boys, and I couldn’t think of anywhere better, really! So, the only downside is that I have to commute to London to do this, but it’s worth it! So, yes, I don’t live in London – shock!!

"I wandered thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet,

Marks of weakness, marks of woe-" Okay, okay, William Blake, we get it.

Get interacting with 'Guardian Cities' and let the rest of the world know what you love about your city (not necessarily in verse) @guardiancities

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