BzIhPvfCcAETm8i

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

Read More

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.

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!


Read More

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! :-)

Read More

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 16.34.01

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.

community-media

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.

Read More