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New Article: Revealing the platform politics within community journalism

Originally posted on Centre for Community Journalism website, Cardiff University – 7th October, 2014.

Revealing the platform politics within community journalism: what do we mean by empowerment in the context of digital storytelling and hyperlocal websites?

There is no denying, people have been talking about the ways that the internet and mobile and social media devices allow us to produce and publish content in ways that were not possible even 10 years ago. The citizen can become a journalist, the community can become a newspaper, the journalist can go off the beaten track, research becomes data becomes storytelling then is distributed through existing mainstream channels. The media landscape is shifting, changing, merging and augmenting – causing a disruption in how we both make sense of the media we consume, but also gifting the possibility to create our own – and have our stories heard.

In my work, I look at the act of journalism and how it can be taught to anybody so that they can de-construct and re-construct their own narratives into how media is formed and how stories can be told digitally. Where communities becoming empowered to tell and mediate their own stories, rather than being mediated through alternative modes of existing mediums in a digital format – i.e. blogging sites that look like newspapers or magazines, community radio stations operating out of dedicated facilities or producing television style documentaries for distribution on YouTube.

How we see it, digital storytelling is a method that can be applied to varying degrees of personal social and political contexts, not just a citizen producing their own act or form of journalism. It can be a way in which the stories of individuals can be revealed and amplified whilst gaining access to emerging practice and skill development under the premise of growing digital literacy demands. It offers an alternative to ‘learning digitally’which is beyond form filling, bill paying or online shopping and it is a chance to critically reflect on the importance of storytelling within community settings whilst creatively selecting the right tool to do so.

Hyperlocal models of community journalism tend to require those participating to follow and adhere to a model of delivery that replicates existing forms of media infrastructure in a digital form. An example of this may be using the blogging/content management system WordPress to develop a website in a newspaper-like theme, that is then populated by stories relevant to a specific location, and often delivered by 1-2 keen and driven self-identified community leaders and/or a team of volunteers.

The hyperlocal blog is a service based approach, an attempt to use emerging digital tools and affordable methods of publication as a way of rebooting local news into communities that may have lost access to previous forms of information. The merit is in the economic factors for production and delivery – on the offset, digital is ‘cheaper’than paper in order to develop a publication – but does not take into consideration the human resourcing required in order to source, develop, write, report and promote that content in the first place. Therefore, it could be argued that some forms of hyperlocal operation reflects the principles of the current UK government’s big society model for community development – where keen volunteers will replace paid staff as a method of achieving the same service without a concrete funding model in place, relying on the principle that the community will love the hyperlocal blog so much that they were contribute to it for free – thus developing a thriving journalism site, produced ‘for the community, by the community.’

It is a nice idea in principle, and does work successfully in many contexts, however to apply this model uncritically would leave me feeling uneasy. For instance, the socio-economic background of those participating need to be considered if we are seriously consider this as a default model of rolling out recommendations of emerging forms of community journalism. Often those who set up or contribute to a hyperlocal blog may already have a background in journalism, academia, digital media or communications more generally and can contribute effectively to the publication within their ‘space time’and around existing commitments. They possess platform and network literacies and knowledge of media production to make critical decisions of how and why they participate. It is nice to be able to write something about your community, publish it and not be too restricted by other expectations such as an appeasing an employer or working for a client – but a hyperlocal’s accountability to ethical or the notion that this is an empowering form community journalism requires similar principles and governing documents that would exist in a newsroom or existing media platform. The editorial of the hyperlocal is governed by those who produce it – and if those who produce it have an existing grasp of media production and governance, we need to be aware of what that is and how it may affect the ways in which other voices from that community are heard (or not heard.)

Unlike commercial journalism, the hyperlocal blog can set its own parameters as to what is acceptable coverage on its blog, its accountability is governed by those who participate with in it, so it is worth being careful when making vast claims of community empowerment when it is not entirely transparent who is behind the hyperlocal itself. Volunteers may receive training in return for their participation in the blog – which may lead to further opportunity – but realistically, there is no obligation to publish content that the volunteers produce, nor is there obligation for people to volunteer in the first place. What is the trade of for participation – is it social or monetary capital? is it a form of health or wellbeing? is it an opportunity to learn new skills or gain employment or access to education? In this case, many hyperlocal blogs tend to be ran by one or two people who attempt to find a way to monetise their efforts so what may have started as a ‘hobby’project can draw its own income, mainly through advertising and associated projects.

When we think about sustainability and allowing these sites to become self-financing and self-governing, this should also include reflections on keeping the community engaged both as readers of the content, but also through participation from a community development perspective. Producing media is political, it is not just a commodity to be bought, sold and provided as an uncritical service. There is fantastic opportunity to use forms of media making as a development and learning tool, that can often align with instances of political education, digital citizenship and wider community participation – but there needs to be clarity on the role of the site. If producing local news to a house style and editorial is the aim, and the site begins making money through forms of advertising – don’t be surprised if your volunteers drop off. They need to feel like they can own the site, and community learning and development is as (if not MORE) important than simply producing blog posts that look like local journalism used to look on paper. Do not take this level of community participation for granted.

One way to ensure that the community blog can include a array of voices and opinions is to ensure there are multiple avenues to access, share and contribute content – not just replication of journalism style on a blogging platform, but perhaps multimedia forms such as audio recordings, videos, photographs – and showing people how they can access this on their own devices, be it a smart phone or a smart TV, and how they can pass this on to members of their family or social network in a way that it suits them.

Similarly, it doesn’t always have to look like journalism, journalism as we know it today is a constructed form but the essence of research skills, investigative enquiry, ethical use of sources and telling stories are transferable skills than allow for those participating to be creative in their expression of their story – it might not look like a digital version of a newspaper, but believe me, being able to produce rather consume content on your existing devices can be empowering for somebody who thought the only way to have their story heard was to write to a local newspaper and engage in debate through a publishing gatekeeper. Social media and digital storytelling allows the discussion to not only come into existence but the conversation to carry on.

In some ways, it could be argued that those who run and manage hyper-locals could be in danger of being the same form of gatekeepers when it comes to providing an editorial – we must be careful that we don’t ring-fence this form of community journalism, deciding what is considered acceptable content for the hyperlocal and throwing away the rest. What if that ‘rest’ is the emerging evidence of that person contributing their first steps into participating digitally, it might not bring in the site hits, YouTube views and Facebook likes – but it brings that person’s story into existence. They experience mediation, they learn how to communicate digitally and can begin to make critical decisions wherever to participate or not. And most importantly, it is told by them, not on behalf of them. There is a staggering difference.

So my suggestion?

Teach the world to see how media is constructed. Deconstruct it, reconstruct it, ask questions of the process and who is underneath and above and beyond those narratives. Don’t get hung up in replication the forms of familiar journalism rhetoric and technique or even expect those volunteering to adhere to your specific house style, if your desire is to support the development of a hyperlocal site that reflects the voices of the community, co-produce the mediation of events together. Take from journalism the need to be critical of what you are being exposed to, how to develop and ask the right questions, and to capture that investigation in the best way possible – make sure the sound is clear, the image is the right way up and your style suits the platform you are presenting within.

I’m interested in helping people start fires and develop the expectation that they should benefit in someway for doing so – be it confidence in using tools they have already to do something better, become more critical of what they are being told by the media and importantly feel that no story is too small, too irrelevant to be told.

Focus on equipping and supporting people to find the tools and approach so they can speak on behalf of themselves, rather than only let media outlets, even with all good intentions in the world, do it for them. It is then possible to make a critical decision about their decision to participate, much like the practicing journalist who volunteers their time to a hyperlocal blog that allows them to write without pressure but ultimately makes an informed decision about how their labour is being used.

Similarly, it is about notions of content ownership, a gatekeeper can make a decision whether to publish a piece of work on the site that they govern, however, the creator can still self-publish regardless if the gatekeeper choses to use the the post. The main requirement here would be confidence, confidence to know that their position and story matters – and operating and articulating ‘in public’ can often feel a daunting task, regardless of how supposively easy it is to do now using social media.

There is transparency in the purpose of why people may sign up to participate in a community blog, what is the trade of, what are the perimeters and are they able to co-produce the governing outline of the website they are participating within – if one person, with the additional knowledge of how news sites work is deciding the editorial approach of the outlet, how is this being communicated to the volunteers and the public more broadly – how can we ensure that we move beyond simply replicating ‘cheaper’ big society ways of delivering the craft of journalism to increasingly localised communities and instead work towards using community journalism as a form of community development, media & digital literacies and a broader political education

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Digital Commonwealth featured as case study in Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack.

After being included at the first Creative Citizen’s conference on the 18th-19th September at the Royal College of Art in London, we were approached by Dr Dan Lockton to contribute to the Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack that brought together case studies of inspiring digital ideas from community based projects. The pack is now available as hard copy and can be downloaded from here as a .pdf (or click the image below)

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Publication details: McGillivray, D., Jones, J., McCandlish, A. & McPherson,G., Digital Commonwealth (2014), in Lockton, D., Greene, C., Casey, A., Raby, E., & Vickress, A. (Eds.) Creative Citizens’ Variety Pack: Inspiring digital ideas from community projects, London: Royal College of Art. ISBN 978-1-907342-97-4. http://www.rca.ac.uk/documents/419/CC_Variety_Pack_sm.pdf

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Innovation award for @HousingAccess

 

Last July, I delivered 2 days of training for DPHS (Fife) (Disabled Persons Housing Service) in social media, digital storytelling and mobile film making with staff and board members. This morning I found out that they have won an innovation award from Voluntary Action Fife for their Housing 55+ Mentoring programme – and have been blogging, tweeting and making videos since. Well done guys! :-)

Here are the slides that I used for the first part of the training, available on Prezi.

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#BeGoodBeSocial: Lessons from the #IceBucketChallenge (video)

Last week I helped Ross and Sara at the BeGoodBeSocial popup talk at the Young Scot offices in Edinburgh with Iain McWhirter from MND Scotland who was reflecting on the lessons learned from #icebucketchallenge campaign. I cut together the edit of the talk above – that explores what happens when all of a sudden your charity or organisation begins to benefit from a viral campaign.

To ensure your #IceBucketChallenge donations are used in Scotland for Motor Neurone Disease care, support and research please text ICED14 £5 to 70070 or give online.

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5 Lessons I learned from teaching Digital Literacies in Scottish Schools

Through my role as project coordinator for the Digital Commonwealth, I’ve had to spend a lot of time this year behind my laptop, coordinating, making sure that the right people are in the right location learning the right things from the right people.

Working alongside the project’s education coordinator Alison McCandlish, the project developed a Scotland wide digital literacy programme that was to be delivered across all local authorities, to transition learners between p6, p7, s1 and s2 level – as well as a community media and creative voices element for adult learners to explore digital technology through creative practice.

That was the vision anyway – those who work in education, local government, digital, community learning, literacy training will understand that experiences when working across different contexts, sectors, authorities will vary tremendously, but when it works and factors comes together then it can be incredibly rewarding for those taking part.

Although my role has been mainly project management, recruitment and advocacy, due to the sheer scale off project like this, I actually managed to get out and deliver some of our sessions as a trainer in a couple of local authorities. Meaning that I would actually have to experience using the resources we had developed, tested and discussed in the office in an actual real life classroom with real life learners. As well as getting the chance to teach young people, rather than adults – a good opportunity to learn some new tricks in classroom management.

No pressure eh?

Anyway (being an Ayrshire lass) when I was offered Rothesay Primary on the Isle of Bute as my first school to deliver training to, I was on that 8am ferry as fast as a commonwealth games related athletic pun. I got to deliver 2 sessions to the primary 7s on blogging and audio recording.

Post games, I’ve been working with Our Lady of the Missions Primary down the road in Giffnock – and both these experiences made me think that I should write up some quick reflections on delivering digital literacy training in schools – from the chalkface, as they say.

So here we go, 5 lessons from my experience as a frontline trainer on the project…

1) Communicating Expectations

Managing expectations of all the people involved, the learners, the teacher, the trainer and the overall aims of the specific project that the workshops were addressing is probably the most important factor of ensuring the that the workshop and the contents produced at the workshops were a success.

As the workshops each focused on a different element of digital storytelling (blogging, audio, video and social media) each week had to have a distinct flavour, but at the same time had to work towards a final “product” that had hopefully been defined by the school in their application to take part in the project.

“Digital” can mean all things to all folk, so one person’s expectation of a blogging 101 session could vary vastly from producing content, web development or even building websites from scratch. How you do it, well, that could vary, but if you don’t have anything to talk about it is going to be difficult to write – no matter what technology you use. Trying to write a blog post from scratch is no different from trying to start an essay, write an email or begin a novel.

That why our commonwealth themes were important, they tied things together, they allowed us to explore ideas conceptually before having an attempt at writing down experiences. A blank page is scary no matter how scary you are, so much of the workshop was about getting people to think about what is possible, not just the art of sitting on a computer learning a new tool for word publishing.

We tried to avoid that at all costs, but that where expectations come in – I learned that you need to be super clear about the purpose of the workshop, the role of the technology in sessions (ie we will be doing things that are not on computers, in fact practice is more important than the tech you are using) and gaining access to it.

Which takes me to my second lesson…

2) Technology

When we began this project in October last year, a few people asked us at the launch event if we would be giving away tech to those participating. Judging by the range of equipment that the schools and community groups we were working with already had, many projects do come with a capital spend for technology for the activity, often leaving behind the legacy of some kit to carry on using later.

The problem is that this can often be a block in continuation of digital literacy projects. If we focus too much on the kit that we desire, without thinking about why we desire it, there is every chance that when a project concludes, that kit will sit at the back of the cupboard unused – with nobody around to take responsibility for its advocacy.

The ethos of our project was to encourage people to use what they already have. This is great in theory – as it allows for the groups in questions to conduct a mini-tech audit and activity reflect on what they have, dig it out and try using it again – BUT – it does make it challenging when delivering consistency.

Every local authority we visited had different set of tools to work with – when I went to Rothesay, I was greeted to a roomful of primary 7s who each had a wifi enabled laptop in front of them – where as in other schools, we did a fantastic job at planning blog posts using mini whiteboards, paper and pens and easispeak recorders – even if we couldn’t access certain social media sites. It just depended on what the school had access to, how the comfortable the teachers felt using the equipment and how much access to websites they had in the classroom.

Which takes me to my next part…

3) Flexibility

Delivering workshops of this nature, as an external project – across multiple local authority areas – is going to be challenging at the best of times, however, the most important factor of delivery was the ability to be flexible and be open to work collectively with the teacher(s) to ensure that the content that the learners make can actually happen.

We’ve all been there -walked into a room with a workshop plan, ready to take on a well prepared 3 hour session to a roomful of eager participants – only to find out that the entire internet is blocked and the projector doesn’t work. It’s not the end of the world.

For me, the heart of the Digital Commonwealth project was in teaching skills that allow to make your engagement with tech better. We prepared exercises in interview skills, all which can be done without a single piece of technology – we developed ‘paper tweets’ using post-it notes that allowed for the learners to talk about social media without having to be all over social media and developed scripts and storyboards for film and audio production. Flexibility was key – and having 4 sessions to develop a product meant that we could work closely with the teachers to ensure that we could find a solution around some of the more sticky technical challenges.

Which relies heavily on point number 4…

4) Relationships

The success in the workshops was all in the planning and communications with those involved. In some cases there were nearly 5-6 people involved in getting the workshops up and running in each area; local authority people, teachers, head teachers, cultural leads, legacy people. This involves a lot of phone-calls, emails and multiple cups of tea. What we must remember is that what we are developing and piloting here is new ways to understanding digital literacy in this context. When I started this job, it was a lot to get my head round in terms of communicating it to key stakeholders and participants – and now we are 2 months post games, it can become too easy to rest on hindsight, it was a long slog to convince people to work with us, but those who did, did so with great enthusiasm. Relationships are such an important factor – and I certainly hope that over the coming months that we continue to build on these connections to build and improve strategies around being able to teach digital literacies in these varying contexts.

Finally…

5) Empowerment (through demystifying risk)

This is possibly my most radical learning outcome from my experience as a trainer. Equipping and supporting those on the frontline with the language required to challenge and shape some of the existing practices associated with digital media in the classroom. I’m an ‘outsider’, I exist on the fringes of a lot of different things. I’m not a teacher – my role was to deliver this project, but my ‘outsiderness’ allows me to met with many people, share best practice, recommend techniques and strategies for overcoming blocks, matching up people across conventional work networks and be able to share this with the people I encounter.

That’s why I’m writing this blog post – I wanted to share these thoughts with you. Pass it on, add to it, but most importantly continue the dialogue around digital literacies. Like most things in the last few weeks, the more we talk to each other about these challenges and opportunities, the more confident other people feel about telling their stories within this context – and the more risk can be demystified.

With this in mind, does anybody have anything they wish to add or feel like I missed?

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So how was your summer?

Sorry, long time no blog. Mainly because my full time over the last 12 months has involved so much blogging in project spaces, blogging in other people’s project spaces and teaching other people to blog in their own spaces that my own blog has taken the hit when it comes to writing down my own thoughts about things and the stuff what I have been doing. It feels like I have been pretty much been blogging every day, just not here.

I’ve got a list of draft posts that need completing from back before the Commonwealth Games last month, some reflections, some from talks that I’ve taken part in, some PhD related – or audio/video recordings from other events. The biggy is that I’m going to be on the Community Channel representing Digital Commonwealth on Freeview 63/Sky 539/iPlayer from the 31st of August as part of the Media Trust’s Brilliant Scotland programme.

I’m honoured to be the chair of the steering group in Scotland – and in May, Peter Murray and I got to go an epic trip in May to Orkney and the North Highlands to delivery 4 rounds of Digital Storytelling workshops for the Digital Commonwealth project – the TV show features that trip, the Community Media Symposium at the Big Lottery Scotland HQ that we organised back in January and the #citizen2014 activity from during games time, where a group of us operated as community reporters from the Beyond the Finish Line shop-space in Trongate.

In my PhD/ ‘spare time’ (ha!) I developed a wee website for my 2nd supervisor Rowena Murray that gives more information about her writing retreats for academic writing that take place in Gartmore, near Aberfoyle. I’ve been a massive advocate of her writing retreats on social media, seeing as it was one of the main factors that aided me restarting my PhD after 16 months off and I’ve had a lot of people ask me about them – but with nothing ‘official’ to point people to. Rowena and I worked together to develop a website that will eventually become a group-curated resource for PhD students and academics to talk about writing – and at the last retreat, I interviewed 10 participants about what writing retreats meant to them – which you can view here. I’ve got three retreats booked up until xmas (that’s about 30k words hopefully!) – and I’ve got plans to return to Canada over the break to conclude my interviews for my PhD research.

I’ve given a few presentations on the run up to the games. The first was at the UWS learning and teaching conference in June with my colleague Alison McCandlish on the “University in the Wild” focusing on impact first, research later at the heart of a engagement project such as Digital Commonwealth (blog post to follow, I’ve to work on it for another session on research innovation in the new semester) – and a paper at the Leisure Studies conference in July with David McGillivray on event-led digital participation and how Glasgow 2014 can be used to empower communities to produce grassroot responses to major events. Both of these papers are now in the stages of being developed further ahead of the SCVO’s Comms Rewired in October and the Creative Citizens conference in London on the 18th-19th September. We were also invited to deliver a social media surgery for the PR and Comms group associated with Youthlink Scotland

Freelance-wise, I’ve delivered social media training for the National Union of Journalists Scotland which was really interesting to develop, especially as I’m normally helping citizens to become journalists, not the other way around. I’m also been actively involved as a board member at GMAC Film, taking part in some development days and beginning to look at helping develop a social media strategy for them – as well as media education element of the organisation. It’s exciting times.

And… I reckon I’ve probably delivered over 100+ workshops in 2014 alone. Now I’m properly back at my desk and the games are but a faded memory, I can get back to writing and researching and all that other stuff that you do at desks. So expect more blog posts!

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