Leaving the Sentinel: 5 things I have learned about faciliatating community-led media

Having spoken at a few conferences recently about the impact of social media and community-led media in terms of community engagement, I have been meaning to write this post for a while – especially as I’ve been talking specifically about method and approach to developing community based media outfit – and – several people have been in touch about how they might kick start a project in their area, organisation or specific-project related context.

I’ve recently concluded my year long stint at the community media development worker for the Carnegie Trust funded news agency Digital Sentinel in Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. It has been a year full of learnings, a chance to look closely at models for developing a volunteer pool who can find news and lead to community story generation – but most importantly, how do you develop and follow on from a much loved community based newspaper (which lost its funding in 2008) and replace the news source from top down established news models to shift towards a locally produced, community made news agency – made by the people, for the people. I am a hugely inspired by the work of Citizen’s Eye in Leicester, who’s editor, John Coster, has been a key role model for me in terms of thinking about encouraging people and groups to tell their own stories and to make these tools more accessible to all – especially as more and more people find themselves online and/or using a smart phone to access social media for their news and small media.

The gauntlet of CMDW now been passed on to a local Edinburgh resident and hyperlocal media producer Phyllis Stephens from the Edinburgh Reporter (so safe and expert hands then!) but as a sort of ‘exit-interview’ with myself, here are my top 5 learnings from working on and (as it emerged from idea to reality) with, the Digital Sentinel to share with those potentially interested in starting your own community led agency:

1)Identity community leaders, and empower them to tell stories- not just for the website, but about the website itself

That saying “If you want something done, ask a busy person” is never truer said when it comes to beginning to recruit volunteers for a local media project. Meeting members of a community council, those who volunteer their skills through time bank initiatives or community education practitioners/participants give a good starting point for identifying who is already active on projects in their community. Similarly, many successful community media projects are lead by just 1-2 people who drive the image and the work of the project forward, it is not just a case of building it and they will come. A turning point for me was after the first training taster session at the health agency, and speaking with John, the leader of the community council about what he had learned since beginning the Sentinel journey. Total goosebumps.

A challenge is reaching beyond those who are aware and interact with services, community advocates who know and understand what is trying to be achieve are one of your biggest assets in terms of ensuring the project has longevity.

2)Free and accessible tools, use what is in your pocket

interview reporters

Using a Samsung Galaxy Tab for digital storytelling

There are a range of specialist tools available to make and share media for the web. You can get bespoke cameras, apps and addons which a community group can purchase to help produce and share stories on their website – however – this can often be a difficult position to administrate, who looks after the kit, who gets to use it, what gets bought when starting up. It’s horses for courses, particularly as we live in a personalised, networked environment online – no one twitter or facebook feed is the same, depending on what and who we subscribe to – so sharing tips and techniques is key before a decision on kit and training of that kit is made. The Media Trust Local 360 is a great resource for getting recommendations of what might work for you.

If you are wanting to get out there and begin to tell stories, you are better to ask people to reach into your pocket and see what you have. A larger screened, app-based smartphone is slowly but surely becoming the default mobile phone that is available for those purchasing a new device. Similarly, tablet purchase and use are becoming more and more accessible with an apparent 1000% increase in sales at Christmas last year.
The trick is to tap into what you have got, before you start a shopping list of desirable kit. Reflect on the fact that access to broadband and/or wifi, digital literacy demands and cost of  the technology will also come into play, so it is advised to work with devices and scenarios that people can understand and are already embedded within – and support your volunteers to get confident in that – before dazzling with more expensive and more experienced kit. A pen and piece of paper is enough to get you started.
All that is happening is shifting the perception of the consumption to the production of online media, something that many do not realise they are already doing when they take a photo, write a status update or create a short video for the web – as a user of a social media platform, you are a content creator.

3)Cutting edge of mundane, not all community news needs to follow a News model

My core thesis for all my research and project management interests is that events are the perfect catalyst for media content generation and can be used for working towards longevity and self-production in a community media setting. Take a community fun run.

Sentinel reporters at the Wester Hailes Fun Run in July

Even if you’ve never attended a fun run in your life, you know what happens, what its aims are and you know that there will be news factored into the process – a starting call, individual and group causes being championed for fundraising or personal goals, the process and suspense of the run, the audience cheering on their relatives, colleagues and friends, data and stats of results – and of course, the winners.

The irony now is that an event that a whole type of community would come out to support, lacks coverage and support from existing media sources. Individuals may take pictures to share with friends, others might tweet that they are attending – but in terms of a coherent story, many local events and personal experiences are generally ignored by over-stretched local media who have a specific agenda to fill.
This is where a community media news outfit can come in, setting up a space to share and collect stories, interviews with participants and special guests and of course capturing the winners of the event as they cross the finish line.

Use these events to stimulate interest in your news outfit, allow volunteers to practice capturing and reporting in a safe environment, explore ethics and style – but most importantly, soak up the environment and have fun, these events will make the harder, more political and ethically diverse stuff easier to report.

This is what we did with #citizenrelay (citizen journalists, covering the Olympic torch relay in Scotland) and is at the heart of Digital Commonwealth (the Big Lottery funded project I’m coordinating at UWS), which will be recruiting and training people to tell their stories as a creative response to the Commonwealth Games in 2014 – the bigger the event, the more opportunity to connect people locally (or in our case, nationally and internationally) using the same catalyst of activity (Glasgow 2014 across Scotland – Baton relay particularly) – the skills developed to cover these larger events can then be used to tell stories closer to home.

When we say “cutting edge of mundane” (a phrase I borrow from John Coster), we mean that the story of the canal swans having cygnets, or a local member of the community finding a canary can be much more enjoyable to read than yet another report of a stabbing or criticism about a particular group of people that the mainstream media seem to enjoy picking on.

4)Face to face is key, it makes the digital better

A community news agency should not just provide a ‘taken for granted’ news service for the community but instead find ways to encourage people who have news to report on themselves rather than reporting for them – the only way that it can be truly sustainable is to spread the skills beyond a core set of ‘reporters’.
I’ve recently wrote a blog post for the Digital Commonwealth site on the benefits of a “Community Media Cafe” for bringing people together to co-produce the news gathering, training and networking experiences. It is often a complaint that it is very difficult to know about what other people are doing in your local area or similar field, a coordinated drop-in or regular time to come together to chat and listen to others who you may be able to help or be able to help you. Face to face time is a precious resource, but also the backbone to a locally produced digital resource.
Those moments where you can give people the space and structure to share information face to face are worth a million direct mail newsletters. What I learnt over the years working with Citizen’s Eye around the London 2012 Olympics is that the most important thing about community media is people, not the content itself – a website itself cannot communicate the richness of seeing people learn and begin to produce the media that represents their community, not having those stories told for them.

5)Many hands make light work, do what you enjoy and it feels less like work

A question I was often asked was about the process of using volunteers and ensuring that the project can be managed and administered within the community itself. The fact that a project of this scale does require a lot of coordination, recruiting volunteers, finding stories and developing a database of contacts – it does need core funding to be able to do this. It exists outside of any particular organisation, with the hope it becomes its own entity in the future – but with that will come challenges down the line, governance, growth and ownership will come into play. In terms of community media training, if you are working with volunteers who want to learn more about digital storytelling or producing community media for their area, discover what their passion is and let them run with it.

Everyone will have a role in shaping the future of their community media outlet, and not all need to be the citizen journalist – some people are good at finding and telling stories, others are loaded with local knowledge and history – more so, as the web because easier to access and use, you will discover a local tech champion who can help with website input or design, or others who are running local web based campaigns using hashtags and the interaction between the on and offline environment. The important learning is to support people to do the things they love, to feel that they are as much as important part of the project as those who already have the skills to write articles or build websites. Many hands, light work.

Conclusions

So that’s it, my time with the Sentinel is over. Following the official launch in October, It makes me smile, that there is now an active and fledgling community news website that the Wester Hailes community can now see and call the Digital Sentinel.

From idea, dream or desire being discussed at working group meetings to tangible thing that you can access, see and interact with, and now with local, on-the-ground support, I look forward to following the project from a distance and being able to connect it to other community media projects through the Digital Commonwealth intitative.

P.S. I spoke about this a few weeks ago the Neighbourhood Watch’s Community e-ngagement event at the Crowne Plaza. Below is a video of my talk and a short interview post-talk where I manically and red-faced give some tips on the use of citizen journalism for community engagement. Enjoy!