My Commonwealth Games with @citizen2014

As part of my role as the project coordinator for Digital Commonwealth, I helped coordinate a team of citizen reporters from a variety of different organisations (who share the ethos of our project) to capture, train and report on the alternative stories from the fringes of the Glasgow 2014.

first sentinel session

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.


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!

Project: #digitalsentinel, towards the launch!

It has been a while since I have updated on the Digital Sentinel, a community news agency being developed in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh – and a lot has happened in the last few months. The project is currently funded by the Carnegie Trust Neighbourhood News’ programme and my role of community media development worker has been focused on getting the website, volunteers and content creators ready for a formal launch of the news site in October 2013.

I’m keen to give an update on my own website as a few people have contacted me about the process behind the Digital Sentinel and sometimes it is good to just lay out some of the key activity that has happened over the last few months to give a idea of exactly how much has been achieved by the team in this time.

It is great to be able to list a number of key mile-stones that we have reached since beginning work with the Carnegie Trust and others.

We have ran 4 sets of training workshops for Digital Sentinel reporters – one in the afternoon, one in the evening since July. There is one left before the launch – as well as additional support session from the Media Trust around media ethics and sustainable community journalism.

As part of training, the Digital Sentinel team have covered a number of events on behalf of other organisations. We have attended the AHRC Connected Communities conference at Herriot Watt, captured resident opinion on the Fountationbridge re-developments, amplifed the Wester Hailes fun run and covered the move of the Wester Hailes Health Agency to the new Healthy Living Centre.

The Digital Sentinel has a light web presence on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube. These sites has been used to host training content which includes video interviews between reporters &  video interviews with local workers and activists, photographs from events that reporters have attended, and more significantly, the live-tweeting of a community council open meeting regarding the public transport access to the new Healthy Living centre.

We are now working to develop the final design for the website (which will be launched in October) and are considering the governance structure and ethical media policy for covering particular events. This will include news, digital storytelling, event-based reporting and creative responses.

Although the Digital Sentinel is an online channel predominantly, and much of the content will be produced using mobile devices, there are discussions relating to access in terms of technology and in terms of literacies. These will  be developed over the coming months to provide creative solutions so that the Sentinel can be accessed and contributed to by as many local residents as possible.

Furthermore, as our current wave of Digital Sentinel reporters become more confident using these tools in a community journalism, the day to day running of the website and communication channels will begin to be taken over by residents (sooner rather than later) so that the Digital Sentinel can start to develop as the hub for all things Wester Hailes related.

Onwards to towards the launch, I am going to leave you with one of my favourite videos from the project development. Enjoy! :-)

Event: Everyday Growing Cultures, Sheffield (23rd July)

I was invited by Farida to give a social media masterclass to PhD students at the University of Sheffield ahead of attending and covering the “Everyday Growing Cultures” event based her research around open data and allotments.

Below is the Storify record from the social media content generated throughout the day.

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Project: Update on Wester Hailes #digitalsentinel community reporter taster sessions

Over the last few months through my freelance community media development role at WHALE Arts in Edinburgh, I’ve been facilitating several community media ‘taster’ sessions in Wester Hailes for the development of the Digital Sentinel, a community-ran local news agency. I have been in this role with WHALE since October last year, having developed a ethical media policy and timeline for developing and understanding the potential of a replacement digital news service for the deceased Wester Hailes Sentinel which lost its funding in June 2008.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 16.33.52

The taster sessions followed on from an initial workshop that was delivered in February to employees and representatives of community services in the area and were promoted and hosted by three of the services who attended; the Wester Hailes Health Agency (and their time-bank initiative), Wester Hailes Library and Gate 55 (the Community Education Centre based in Sighthill).

The first set of taster sessions were completed in May and were completely open to anybody to attend, without having to RSVP and or have previous experience. They included a brief introduction to the Sentinel and the projects that lead up to the relaunch. Participants then got the chance to practice interviewing each other using audio and video tools on mobile devices and then upload them to the web. They were repeated this week (mid-June), with a focus to cover the Wester Hailes fun run (happening today, I’m writing this on the train, on my way to Wester Hailes) as the first event to have reporters in attendance. After today, they’ll be content uploaded onto the Digital Sentinel website for the first time – still very much as a practice space at the moment- and we will begin work towards covering two events on the 4th and 6th July respectably; a AHRC connected communities open day involving a barge trip from Wester Hailes to Edinburgh, incorporating a QR code social history walk and a citizen reporter presence/video box at the canal festival. It is hoped, much like #citizenrelay last year, by using existing events that we know are definitely going to happen and have a lot of activity going on, we will be able to use them as a catalyst to capture & produce local stories for the website.

What is also significant about the development of the Digital Sentinel is that we were lucky to receive funding from the Carnegie Trust “Neighbourhood News” call; not only the only project to be funded in Scotland but also the only project that is at this stage of development and delivery. This means that I will be able to continue this support work through to May 2014 and also build on the enthusiasm shown by the community at these early stages. Similarly, as we aim to have the first ‘community generated’ content on the site as of this week but we can also look towards ongoing training and development processes, such as accredited learning & the linking the site to political, social and educational agendas within the area, aiming towards operating fully as a community-led media initiative.


It is also worth emphasising that my involvement with the sentinel is very much in my freelance employment as a development worker, with the aim to withdraw myself from the process over time and hand over the full responsibility of the Sentinel to the community that decide to take it on. I know at times this can be difficult politically as I switch my online voice from an academic interest, journalist interest and a community activist interest (due to the nature of my work & my research interest) – so I need to make this explicit in my intent. It is also a very interesting space to operate within, I am learning a lot from the process. Once the Sentinel site is running as a functioning news site, there will be space on the website to include reports on development process, mainly for evaluation & archival purposes, that will allow for posts like this to be cross-posted and stored in context of the website.

The fact we are developing a community news site from scratch is a story in itself, at a time when local news is wrapped in a narrative of decline & Wester Hailes is been shown as a community that is doing interesting things in this area. It is an exciting time and I am grateful that we have the opportunity to continue this work at a stage where it is becoming increasingly clear that the Sentinel is becoming a much-needed entities in the community.

To follow the content and on-going process of the Digital Sentinel, you can follow the #digitalsentinel hashtag on twitter, which will soon have its own Facebook and Twitter profile to join it in the coming weeks – additionally I’ve embedded a youtube playlist of some of the videos produced during the training tester sessions below.


The #digitalsentinel and on being the cutting edge of mundane.


I’m currently in London after attending the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase yesterday. I was representing the Digital Sentinel project that is based in Wester Hailes and is a follow on from a wider set of ‘Community Hacking‘ projects (check out the amazing comic strip on the projects website!) such as Ladders to the Cloud and the installation of the Digital Totem Pole last year.

I feel, for me, the process of the Sentinel is at a crucial stage where it is now moving from a vision of a ‘digitized newspaper’ format (that will replace the previous paper copy that had its funding cut in 2008) to become something that is more of a living breathing news agency, which needs to be by the community, for the community (and that doesn’t mean it can’t be printed/hard copies produced and shared as well for those with limited access to the technology. I’ll get onto that in a mo.)


Last month, I ran a taster session for the staff of those who work for the service providers in the community – which includes representatives from places such as the Health Agency, the Library, Community Learning Partnerships, Prospect Community Housing and others – to discuss what a Digital Sentinel might look and feel like.

After walking through Citizen’s Eye (a community news agency in Leicester that I was very much involved in/advocated when I lived there) and other Media Trust’s Local 360 beacon hubs as case studies of successful and active community led news agencies in the UK, I got the group to walk about between different flipcharts and to write down the How, Why, What, Where and When of the Sentinel from their perspective, keeping it open for interpretation (as ‘Where’ for instance could mean both a physical space for meeting to produce news, a place to host content or a place to access the website. I left the workshop deliberately informal to leave space for much needed discussion and debate about what this should actually be, where we should take it and, most importantly, who was going to step up and actually do it (as it’s all very well that I’m there and funded to be there for now, but essentially ,it’s not about me and never will be, and I need to be able to hand it over to the community as a thing and a process, not as a tick box, step by step commissioned wordpress magazine format that sits empty without me putting my own content up.)

Some of the obvious (but I needed to hear it from the community) points was the notion of an affordable central service provision for communicating the information that they currently provide online (be it through email lists, social media or facebook/blogs – see (and get lost in) the excellent social history of Wester Hailes blog “From There to Here.” to get a taste of what is already happening in online around this community.) whiteboardsThis is absolutely attainable through platforms such as WordPress and content that already exists can be aggregated/converted to be pulled into the website – no problem.

But – and this is a big but, the energy and stamina for a community news agency to get of the ground and to exist needs to be beyond sharing existing services and act as simply an information giving service – even if that information being given is stories from the past or a social history style project. It needs to want to exist and it needs to be opened up to new ways of thinking through co-collaboration with those who will be involved (and I honestly canne tell you/or predict who will be.)

You see, when you identity with employment or a service role, it is much clearer to identity with the purpose of communicating online as part of a process. If you want to use social media/citizen journalism as an exercise in stimulating community engagement, empowerment or even politicising (with a tiny p) people enough to want to attend some of the many activities in place that are inclusive to democratic, citizenship style processes (like the community council for instance) – then it needs to be more fluid, less replicate on journalistic processes and more about seeing value in the mundane, not the shiny.

68913_10151173953067654_843607420_nMy lovely friend John Coster (who is the editor of Citizen’s Eye and a big inspiration in my life) phoned me last week for a bit of a #peptalk style catch up on all of the things (including some of the exciting #citizenrelay plans for the Glasgow 2014 – stay tuned!) and having just opened the first UK Community Media Training School in Leicester (*proud* get to visit it in a few weeks!) the came out with the phrase “I aim to be the cutting edge of all things mundane” – which got me thinking. I’ve been trying hard to get to grips with how I am going to stimulate a community to want to take ownership of their news – getting a bit hung up on the fact that I’m *not* from there, I’m all academic-d out my nut when it comes to theorising about it (which is why AHRC event yesterday  – and the the related Connected Communities UWS event on Remaking Society a few weeks ago was so useful for me in terms of getting back on track with PhD and reflecting on that weird role of being a academic who does practice and is/has been pretty political with it all.) and that during the Olympics it all just got a bit too bloody much.

Anyway… cutting edge of mundane. What does that mean for Wester Hailes and the process of the Digital Sentinel as a thing that needs to be imagined but also start to exist?

Rather than focussing on the big ideas and the complexity of community (rarr, PhD, rarr!), in fact, I need to focus on just getting those who show an interest in the future taster sessions (to be arranged this week) to 1) get involved 2) produce content that is relevant to them 3) get it online 4) walk down to the totem pole with the kit bags that are getting bought in the next few weeks, to scan the QR codes of the pole (on smart phone or the rentable ipads) that point to the Sentinel and to see that what you have made, written, filmed, taken a photo of, is now online and existing online, live and feeding into a site as part of a wider community.totem

It can be present in the community (there is a section on the website that can only be accessed from scanning the pole, so you have to be in Wester Hailes to do it) and it can go out-bound. It can be tagged as super -hyperhyperlocal (there are 7 estates in Wester Hailes, all with clear identities right down to whit street you live on – like everywhere really) or it can be pointing out to the wider world as a process that folk might want to get involved in, connect with, respond to or just read as something related to their interest. It can be all or both – but the main things is to make the access to such processes (the making of the media stuff) so simple and non-judgemental a process (so none of the ‘this isn’t proper journalism’ argument at this stage – it’s story telling, its data, its whatever you want to make it – it is mundane) and to be able to meet in places to get involved. It’s loose and it is flowing & anybody can get involved.) My support is getting those who are interested and engaged at this stage (with little existing stuff happening on the site) to get to a stage where they can take ownership and feel that it is theirs.

I rambled some stuff to myself on audioboo a few times about this yesterday.

What is just superb is that all of the things I am using to update about the Sentinel are all tools that can and will be used to make it exist. Even down to the photographs which are all my own and taken in Wester Hailes on my phone and using instagram to make them look a bit better. It is important to remind yourself that some of the most mundane, boring things that you find yourself doing on a daily basis (or feel a little silly doing at the time – #jencam) can actually be some of the most interesting and useful things that you can bring to projects such as this. It’s not about being, replacing, challenging the mainstream/established media and processes. It is about giving people the option to provide and contribute to their own alternative narratives.