Community journalism or “Local nosey parkers with mobile phones “

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!

What’s that Andy?

It’s me banging my head against the desk…

There’s a story about the Beskpoke project on Hold the front page. I was interested in it as (full disclosure) my Uni is one of the partners in the project. Inevitably I got sucked in to the comments.

But just to put things in to context:

The project has been established to look at the issue of digital and social exclusion in the Fishwick and Callon areas of Preston.

Broadly speaking, the project has two parts. The first is for us to set up a team of community/citizen journalists who will report on the issues that are important to them and to their local community.

The second part of the project is centred on innovative design. Partner universities (Dundee, Falmouth, Newcastle, Surrey, and UCLan) will use the news stories, as well as other information gathered during the lifespan of the project, to design digital technologies that can meet the needs of the area. This collaboration between emotive, technological and functional design with hyper-local journalism is a ground-breaking exercise and, as far as we’re aware, has never been tried before.

Hold the Front page focus on the journalism aspect

The group of citizen journalists were trained as part of a project called Bespoke, a scheme that sees members of the public in Preston provided with flip cameras, mobile phones and journalism training in order to generate their own news stories.

Lots of comment but they are all of a type. One that stood out began:

Years of training, university degrees, shorthand classes ad infinitum.

And the reward? Local nosey parkers with mobile phones are netting page leads.

Given the usual anti-degree tone that pervades it was nice to see degrees get a mention.

Traffic Chaos continues:

So-called citizen journalism should not extend beyond a phone call or submission of on-the-spot footage to the nearest newsroom.

There’s really no such thing as citizen journalism outside of the egotistical “blogosphere”, populated by keyboard warriors and bigots who feel they can do a better job than anybody else at everything – especially the news.

Hmm. I think they actually mean that the term Cit-j has little or no meaning outside a limited circle of egotistical journalists. But everyone is allowed a view (except it seems local nosey-parkers!)

You wouldn’t call a citizen-MD would you?

Update: Jon Walker tweeted to suggest that the phrase MD related to managing director, not Medical doctor.

@ It's a small issue but I'm pretty sure that moaning hack meant managing directors, not doctors
Jonathan Walker

My response is Doh!

Of course you can’t mention Cit-j without a hackneyed and inappropriate comparison. Hacked off duly obliges


Can’t wait for the day they introduce Citizen MDs thus clearing out an entire layer of over-paid fools and replacing them with an entire layer of fools for free.

A great comment that:

a) conflates journalism with medicine –  because they are exactly the same aren’t they.

b) insults journalists as well as the apparent cit-j’s in such a short space – nice work!

The general tone of the comments is to wonder what impact this will have on the journos at the LEP. I don’t want to play down the plight of shrinking regional newsrooms for one minute. Or belittle those who lose jobs. But to see one as a cause of the other is a leap.

Room for all

About the same time that the LEP published it’s first newspaper (1886) my great-grandad borrowed money to buy his first house. He didn’t go to the bank, he went to the butcher. The local butcher! (We have the receipt to prove it.) Would the butcher have advertised that service in the LEP? Not sure. No doubt a local nosey parker would have told him. Oh and if that butcher had sold him a dodgy steak the chance are, nearly 60 years before the NHS he wouldn’t have gone to a doctor.

That’s how my great-grandad’s community worked. It’s how communities still work. Not on definitions of professional pratcice but on people who have the means and the skills doing the jobs that need doing.

My point to hacked-off and traffic chaos would be that there is a world outside the newsroom, full of people who do and discover in different ways. They’ve done it that way before you and they will do it that way after you. You only play a role in a community if you are part of it. Please don’t contribute to an attitude that means they chose to do it without you.

And here is that sentiment in morse code…

Thud! Thud! Thud! Thud!…

Guardian local:Failed experiment?

Lets get this hyperlocal stuff back to London. Just don't get any on your hands (via Wikipedia)

In short. No and credit for trying.

I was frustrated by much of the twitter chat around the announcement that Guardian local was no more. The insinuation seemed to be that this was a failed experiment. I tweeted that no experiment is a failure.

So it’s good to hear that the Guardian:

have also learned from the local communities who got involved with telling their stories. And using this we have continually refined our approach over the past year.

But it’s scary to hear

One of the guiding principles of the local blogs has been dialogue with communities about situations and topics of mutual interest and concern. There will still be plenty of that on – for example, in our growing army of local cutswatchers, monitoring local council activities – but we felt, in that spirit, that we should share the thinking behind the local experiment with you, the readers who have been involved all along

‘We value the community so much that we want to bring it all in to one place’. It’s trying to take community out of the community.’ Thanks for allowing us to experiment on you but we’re back off to London now. We’ll call you when we need you!’

But I’m trying not to be parochial about this and dismiss it as the Guardian cementing the London centric nature of their broader community offering. (Who wants to be a member of the ‘Guardian club’ (the touchy feely response to the paywall argument) if there is no room for local communities? But, hey, I did see a masterclass in Manchester.)

No,  I’m sure that the Guardian has learned loads and will see the benefit. I’m sure they understand how to run a crowd now. I’m sure they see the value in having someone on the ground. They must see the potential of new technology in having faster, targeted and responsive journalism. It even strengthened their brand – albeit in a passive way.

So a lot for the Guardian to be proud of. But any the failure of any experiment comes from how you use the results not the experiment itself. And they’ll fail if they take the results and don’t keep the hyperlocal team.

Relationships matter

Talking to community managers from the small hyperlocals to the big players like Propublica it’s clear that there is real value in the experience of handling a crowd at grass roots. I’m sure that Hannah, John and Michael have that in spades. I never met John and Michael but did meet Hannah. She is whip smart. I’ve no reason to assume that John and Michael are any different because Sarah, who drove the project, is planet-size smart when it comes to this stuff. To lose them would be a bad fail.

The truth is that the value of the Guardian local communities rests with them; their work and their relationship building. The unique nature of each area can’t be homogenised in to a broad model. The people who are upset to see the sites go didn’t have a relationship with the Guardian – the Guardian is the bastard that broke their relationship up!  You can’t just transplant the Guardian Cardiff model anywhere. You could put Hannah or John or Michael anywhere and they’d use that experience. But you might also lose some of their passion and, with the best will in the world, there would be little or no reason for their Guardian Local audiences to follow them.

That’s why I stand by my belief that hyperlocal is not a model that large media organisations can ever get right.

I wanted the Guardian to prove me wrong and for a while they did. They let the hyperlocals have an identity and quietly absorbed the experience.Yes!  Then they went and blew it by acting like the Guardian rather than letting the sites speak for themselves and standing by their belief “that journalism plays a vital role in communities”

Update: A great storify from Sarah on the closure – the tweets alone show what people feel about the move.

More updates: Rick Waghorn, whose Addiply system was used for ads on the local sites, is very nice in saying I was one of the people who ‘get’ the biggest lesson to learn from the saga. Shucks!  Tom Allen has a good post about the response to the closure including the start of fundraising efforts to try to take the guardian up on their offer of partnership. I was surprised that the Guardian only considered this ‘after’ the closure announcement rather than seeing it as part of the exit strategy. But the support is showing and efforts to find ways to fund the sits are underway. Matt Edgar suggests using Guardian subscriptions to pay – don’t subscribe to the Guardian any more, subscribe to hyperlocal. I’m sure the loss of subscriptions was not in the Guardians mind when they closed the site.

 The Media briefing also picks up on the this thread as Ed Oldfied looks at how the story developed and what happens next. There are some interesting facts and figures in the post but it does rest of the word failed again! A point that is picked up in an addition to the post:

It is worth pointing out that while the business model of these sites was unproven and ultimately unviable, the publishing model from a content perspective was a success – as proven by the outpouring of anger from readers in Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the awards and accolades the three beatbloggers gathered.

Sarah Hartley, who led the project, doesn’t agree with Ed’s analysis and “takes exception to the term ‘failed'”, preferring to describe the project as “halted, stopped, concluded”.

I agree.

No such thing as free money to save the local press

As I was leafing through the Guardian on Saturday morning I came across an article with the rather alarming headline

Google news tax could boost local papers, report says

Google and other websites that carry news they do not produce should be taxed and the money generated used to prop up local newspapers, says a report which warns control of the media is concentrated in too few hands.

I tweeted it and got a number of interesting replies:

The report comes from the Carnegie trust UK’s commission on Making Good Society. It does indeed set out a suggestion for Industry levies citing Institute for Public Policy Research research that a 1% levy on pay TV providers of 1% “bring in around £70m a year”

A similar fee imposed on the country’s five mobile operators could generate £208m a year. Making Google meet its full tax liability in Britain would boost the pot by a further £100m.‘ The same IPPR report argues that ‘such sums could save many local newspapers and web sites from closing down, could stop the destruction of local and regional news on ITV and could help new media start-ups to plug these gaping holes in public service provision – all without the taxpayer having to stump up any more cash and without having to raid the licence fee.’

But the report also makes it clear that the money would come with something of price

Levies on the use of aggregated material have the potential to generate significant revenue to support the production of new public service and local content, involving civil society associations. If this form of funding were to be explored, changes in regulation would be needed to ensure that revenues go to original news producers and not just to those who present and disseminate material. Original news reporting needs to be supported so that it is financially viable; this could require charging those who are not authorised to use and distribute this material.

Not quite free money from a google tax.

The whole report makes for an interesting read (I mean genuinely interesting not that other academic definition of interesting)

It’s pretty wide ranging but it singles out “democratising media ownership and content as one of it’s four main areas where “a stronger civil society could make the most difference”

A whole chapter (chapter 3) is devoted to trying to understand the pressures on and drivers of news production and the impact that has. They are clear that technology plays a key part citing radical cultural shifts associated with pervasive technology and the rise of ‘digital natives;’ as an uncertain driver of change. But the discussion is a bit more broad ranging:

…[D]espite the proliferation of online platforms, more of the news we receive is recycled ‘churnalism’ and aggregated content. Trends of concentration in media ownership and increased pressure of time and resources have narrowed the sources from which original news derives. Moreover, the centralisation of news production and neglect of local issues has particular repercussions for access to information across the UK and Ireland, especially in the devolved nations.

And it’s clear where the problem is:

…the central issue affecting traditional news providers is not the decline of audiences or interest in news, but the collapse of the existing business model jeopardising the democratic role of journalism. According to the National Union of Journalists: ‘The media industry is essentially profitable but the business model is killing quality journalism.’

Media concentration.
When I first read the Guardian article I bristled at the idea of a google tax of newspapers. Why? Because we would essentially be propping up commercial organsiations who still work at a profit. It would be akin to a bail out. So I found myself drawn to the areas of ownership and centralization in particular. The report is pretty robust here.

The challenge of creating original content and the diminishing number of newspapers is further compounded by the concentration of media ownership in relatively few hands…..with four dominant publishers controlling 70% of the market share across the UK

That concentration of ownership and the influence it exerts is cited as a “key obstacle to transparent policy-making which incorporates a sustainable role for civil society associations” Which comes from the ‘continuing and intimate relationship between key corporate interests and policy-makers; a relationship whose bonds are rarely exposed to the public’

Their suggestion seems to be that the Scott Trust/Guardian model is more likely to serve the development of a pluralist media landscape than a purely commercial one. But it sounds a note of caution

While independent funds directly supporting journalism can come with strings attached and endowments are not immune from economic pressures, philanthropic funding can help preserve journalistic independence and secure guarantees on public service content.

General suggestions.
The big ticket suggestions like tax breaks and levies are balanced by some more specific suggestions that form the main discussion of the chapter.

  • Growing local and community news media.
  • Protecting the free, open and democratic nature of the internet.
  • Strengthening the transparency and accountability of news content production.
  • Enhancing the governance of the media.
  • Protecting the BBC.
  • Redirecting revenue flows to promote diversity and integrity.

Their ideas for strengthening transparency include the suggestion of a Kite mark that shows no dis or mis-information. Good luck with that one.

But back to funding, the last three points are interesting in themselves.

When they talk about enhancing the governance of the media they say that”

“All news organisations in receipt of public funding should actively engage with the public and with civil society associations, through their governing bodies as well as through their daily practice.”

Which could only really mean the BBC right? But in developing the suggestion of redirecting the revenue flow they:

…want to see new funding models explored: for example, tax concessions, industry levies or the direction of proportions of advertising spend into news content creation by civil society associations, or into local multimedia websites.

The price of public money.
My reading of the report was that nothing comes for free. In an earlier chapter the financial sector comes in for a real battering. But though the media orgs are more delicately handled the implicit message is still the same. All the money that could come from tax breaks, funding and other sources comes at a cost. That cost is de-centralisation, openness, stronger regulation and in transparency (a phrase that seems to disappear mid report to be replaced by integrity)

Would be nice but I can’t see it happening.

The full report is available here.

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The challenge of a (university research) council website

ROCKVILLE, MD - OCTOBER 26:  Lab workers demon...
The newsroom of the Future?Image by Getty Images via Daylife

“Those ‘traditional’ consumers are joined by younger readers who prefer to find their news ‘unfiltered’ on the web. We are trying to serve both groups, and we are delighted with the enthusiasm that our new British partners bring to the effort.”

That from a press release for reported in

It’s essentially a website for Universities to publish research and news about their research. Why? Because…

In an increasingly complex world, the public needs access to clear, reliable research news. Futurity does the work of gathering that news. Think of it as a snapshot of where the world is today and where it’s headed tomorrow. Discover the future

A lot of this has a familiar ring. The claims sound a lot like the reasons why journalism is so important and the role of journalists will be vital.

But it also reminds me of the some of the issues that surround much of the ‘council newspapersdebate. These are organizations who should be open up to a bit of ‘filtering’ especially when there is public money involved . The content they put out should be open to scrutiny and question.

Of course this risks becoming a circular argument. If journalism was doing its job and reporting science properly then they wouldn’t need to do this.

But it also goes to underline what we already know but many media orgs seem to be unable to respond to; communities are using the web to tell their own stories.

In the case of it’s a community of interest (with all the self-interest issues that brings) but it’s just as common with hyperlocal communities of geography.

Whatever the motivation, is this the kind of thing that journalism needs to step up to?

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news:rewired Hyperlocal and community

I’ve spent the day at the very excellent news:rewired conference organised by the good folks at Lot’s of interesting people and discussions. But I found one thing very frustrating. (actually I found it infuriating and apparently went a shade of purple not often seen)

It seems that some of the breakout sessions descended in to ‘arguments’ generated around an issue which can be best summed up as the “but they are not journalists” argument. The afternoon session on hyperlocal I sat in on certainly fell victem.

We had the whole gamut of arguments including a number of the old favourites, my personal fave was “someone holding a camera is not a photographer”. Erm…yes they are but…I found it frustrating because I thought we had moved on from this. By the time we got to the ‘close the BBC and local newspapers will thrive’ stage  I lost my patience and   my contribution reflects that.  But I realise that was naive and a little unfair.

Given the painful restructuring in the industry at the moment it’s perfectly understandable that people will be looking at where the pinch is. Adam Tinworth made a good point to me that in terms of the stages of loss at least they had moved on to anger from denial. But I realised that it’s not really fair of me to dismiss that out of hand. I should have sat on my hands.

What did become clear to me is a growing divergence in the way hyperlocal and community are being defined and applied. Let me expand.

For me hyperlocal is now best defined by outfits like the Lichfield blog, represented at the session by Philip John. It’s content built on social capital. People are involved because it means something to them other than just a job or brand. Money is second to social status or altruistic motivation.

In contrast we could say that (in the context of the future of journalism) community is a strategy employed by media organisations and the journalists within them to engage with audience. Money is a defining commodity here in terms of starting it and sustaining it. Whether it’s to use that community to newsgather/crowdsource or to bolster the brand.

Both have economies of scale.

A hyperlocal site can only be so big. It will eventually get to a point where it demands more time and resources than volunteers can sustain. The economics of altruism only stretch so far. They can be be satisfied with ‘big enough’ or look at alternatives. Communities can, perversely, be too big to manage for large organisations, they cost too much for little return. In the context of profit and investment the economics don’t work

Both are different.

This inherent difference of motivation and a definition of the economic (investment and return) is becoming increasingly clear (and more so in the debate today) and in that a truth is evident. Hyperlocal websites are not a solution for media organisations who are struggling. You can not fill the gap that hyperlocal sites are starting to fill. A good community strategy may work but your core motivations make it different.

But just as hyperlocal is not the solution it’s also not the cause of the problems.

The truth is that the shift is creating a lot of friction (it’s perhaps bad taste to refer to shifting tectonic plates) and I think thats what created a lot of the ‘grief’ in the sessions.

There was a lot of criticism of hyperlocal as undermining/stealing/destroying journalism; you know the arguments. Likewise the crowd sourcing session seemed to descend in to sa similar semantic debate. As Adam reports:

There’s an undercurrent of hostility to the very idea of calling these contributors to crowd-sourced journalism “journalists” in any way – and that it’s under-mining credibility. In answer, people are suggestion that people can become journalists for single events – one time they happen to be at the right place at the right time.

But growing difference between parish pump websites and the local media, between community and audience, suggests that even discussing hyperlocal and community together is, perhaps, a mistake at a journalism conference.

The motivations, models and practice, it seems from the tone of the debate, are just too different.

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Looking the wrong way down the telescope

There is a future for news – a sustainable and once-again profitable future with the prospect of expanding and improving journalism by taking it deeper into our communities with increased relevance, engagement, accountability and efficiency.

That’s the view of uber J-blogger Jeff Jarvis who, when not asking “what would google do”, is asking (along with his students at CUNY) “what happens to journalism in a city when its last daily newspaper dies?”. According to Jeff’s article in the Guardian, what happens is that the local community could step in and fill the gap with something new and, most importantly, profitable.

Bottom line: after three years, we project that a blogger could hire editorial staff and advertising help – citizen salespeople who help support the citizen journalists – and net $148,000 out of $332,000 revenue. That’s a conservative estimate when you consider that a community weekly paper in such a town probably earns between $2m-$5m.

There are more facts and figures of amounts that, even with the exchange rate as it is, are pretty eye-popping.

In a comment, I questioned if there was enough of a culture of hyper local in the UK to sustain the ‘ecosystem’

Given that most of the metro blogging and hyperlocal networks in the US are driven by/motivated by/focused on politics, you also have to wonder if the legislative structure in the UK would effectively stop the kind of ecosystem you are talking about at a county, or at a push, city, level.

That prompted a response from the Guardians Kevin Anderson who noted that very little of the ‘hyperlocal’ stuff is to do with politics. Pointing to an older post he mused that there was still “much to learn from two-yr old report on hyperlocal” which, for him, underlined a key problem news organisations had.

One of the most common mistakes that news organisations make when it comes to community is trying to build participation strategies around an extremely narrow, overly-professionalised definition of news.

I have a lot of sympathy with that view. Maybe the media does look the wrong way down the telescope at this issue. But I still think there are questions to be asked about the roll of news in the ecosystem and the role the community has to play.

Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?
Is there room for a Preston City Chronicle?

Much of the tone of the debate around the ‘death of the traditional media’ is framed by the general consensus that we need to know what is going on in the community around us – it’s our democratic duty. That may not be the fun stuff. It may be the hard stuff, when the community fails. It may be the dull stuff like the endless council meetings.

The argument goes that, whatever it is, we need it and as newspapers die the gap needs to be filled. It’s in that context that many of the best examples of hyperlocal journalism seem to exist. The oft cited Ann Arbour Chronicle is a great example. The frontpage is all politics and metro news and the civic watchdog roll is one that is part of their daily routine.

But that brings me back to my comment and few (of many, many) questions.

  • If sites like the Ann Arbour Chronicle are the model for a successful hyperlocal news service, will the model travel? Does it work in Ann Arbour because of the city and the way the public administration work in the US?
  • What would need to change in the UK for it to work? More open government, less ‘big media’ or a more politically motivated electorate?
  • Should we be trying to make it work at all?

Open09 seems like the perfect opportunity to ask those questions.

This article first appeared on the Open09 blog.

Green is a local journalism niche

Take a look at this list

  • Deals in the real, the tangible, the directly imaginable
  • Speaks the language of collective action, in contrast to the disempowered individualism of ‘small actions’ at the national level
  • Addresses the individual as a member of a community, as opposed to a citizen of the planet
  • Speaks peer-to-peer rather than from the standpoint of authority
  • Pragmatic, descriptive and inviting (we are doing this – come and join in!)

Now considering what I blog about here you could think that it’s a list of ideals local journalism should stand for. Perhaps a manifesto of community journalism.

It’s actually a list of some of the defining features of an “energetic local discourse” in green issues that Alex Lockwood identifies in post about green issues and local journalism – why local journalism is better for green issues

Picking up on the subject I proposed for the last carnival of journalism, Alex thinks that local is exactly where the green issue is best discussed and developed. The national level of debate just isnt hitting home.

One of the biggest disjuncts in climate change has been between the size of the problem (global, system-changing) and the dominant ’small actions’ communications set (let’s change the lightbulbs; ‘do your bit’). The size and threat of climate change is communicated too effectively, and many people have felt overwhelmed or that the problem must be exaggerated.They feel their actions are too small to matter.

Citing research from the IPPR Alex points out that locally focused initiatives has been more effective at getting people to engage:

“what has emerged through these initiatives is a powerful repertoire of ‘communal address’ that differs from the campaigning or top-down national communications of government, NGOs and the national press.”

I like the idea of a “repertoire of communal address” as appose to the national line. Local rather than national.

The directly imaginable, communal address, community, peer-to-peer, and importantly, the ability to join in with activities… The digital/local combination is a powerful way of providing people with agency and positive local messages, so they can see how they can make a difference in tackling climate change in their local areas.

Makes sense doesn’t it. And according to the research, its a “potentially useful positioning for organisations promoting climate-friendly behaviour”. But despite the possibilities Alex points out that many in the media are missing a trick or worse ignoring an opportunity.

It’s a shame but not suprising. Take green out of the thing and you could apply the logic for engaging in the way that Alex describes to any issue. But it’s clear that it isnt happening on any level or with any issue.

Parochial and popular – recipe for success?

This is local news for local people...

Sarah Hartley from the Manchester Evening News left a nice comment on my post about parking stories.

We’ve had exactly the same experience this week with a story about police parking.
More of a universal than parochial issue perhaps!

I especially like the headline on this story

I commented back that I wasn’t using parochial in a negative sense here. Perhaps its a better word than hyperlocal (please, god, anything must be better than that and its new bed fellow ‘reverse publishing’) to describe those things close to home but, as Sarah says, universal

Now, local newsapaper editors in particular no all too well that this is the kind of content that is ‘bread and butter’ for local coverage. But its always worth reminding people (and i count myself in this) that in the shiny world of digital the best stuff is often the closest and the most familiar.

It’s something I’m trying to find interesting ways of getting across to the students as the term local story fills them with dread. For them, in the words of the song – “nothing ever happens, nothing happens at all”.

Parochial content

So I thought about other areas that fit that bill. These aren’t necessarily magnets for multimedia – although it seems that they do lend themselves well to maps. But they are stories that generate a lot of interest.

  • Parking – The MEN story woks well here. But there is obviously a wealth of info out there. Croydon council will let you report a parking violation using a map via their website – great info if you could get it.
  • Traffic – parking may be tricky but spare a though for those trying to get moving. My local paper (at work anyway) the LEP loves traffic chaos, rant lines, roadworks and speed cameras. It’s all good stuff.

  • Graffiti – have you seen graffiti? – in the US people sites like want to know. Their interactive graffiti map is great.

I can think of a few more but does anyone want suggest any more or better still suggest stories from their own publications that have got the comments rolling in?

Parking violations and parochial content

Yesterday a colleague asked me what crowdsourcing was. So I chattered on about pothole maps, and crowdsource maps, pertrol and CD prices. As I was talking I realised that on the surface a lot of the subject areas seemed pretty mundane. Not the kind of thing you would win a pulitzer for.

Later on in the day Justin McLachlan, a US journalist (blogger and superhero), stopped by to leave a comment on my ‘something for the weekend’ ireport post. So I popped over to his site – which is very nice – and came across a great post about a parking violation:

Downtown this morning, I saw a 12 News truck parked outside the courthouse. In front of a red curb. Illegally.

So, I did what any good digital journalist would do: I snapped a picture with my iPhone and ran back to my office to blog about it.
There is a picture and everything.
What surprised me is that it’s generated 28 comments. And I mean heated debate.  From parking violation to journalism ethics debate in one sweep. Wow.
The two connected for me in gentle reminder about what can sometimes get lost in digital journalism.
What matters is what matters to your audience
Of course potholes, dog dirt, petrol and cd prices are mundane. They will always annoy, engage or motivate someone to participate because they matter to them.  Perhaps more than embedded reporting with an army or a clever online bulletin.  Maybe local,or better still parochial,  is the ultimate in viral content.
Never underestimate the everyday to attract an audience.
Oh, and never park near a red curb.

Jay Rosen: The UK is two years behind the US

Credit where credit is dueAfter listening to a panel discussion on local journalism Jay Rosen says that the UK is two years behind the US when it comes to collaborative journalism.

It got me thinking about why.

Jay was one of the panel at the 7th Journalism Leaders Forum held at the Department of Journalism. The topic for discussion was Local Turf Wars, a look at how different media where tackling the hyperlocal problem and where the people formally known as the audience fitted in to making this happen. (you can see a webcast of the discussion here)

Jay kicked off the discussion with some insight on his collaborative journalism project Assignment Zero. For Jay it was as much an exercise in working out how elements of complex stories can be distributed to groups of experts to make better content as it was the end result. It was a proof of concept.

BBC angle

Emma Hemmingway, academic, broadcaster and author of Into the Newsroom gave us a peak inside the BBC’s efforts to get hyperlocal broadcasting off the blocks with a pilot study for LocalTV in the Midlands.

The BBC are presenting it as a success but the evidence suggested otherwise. In working out how to ‘use’ the audience , the BBC had divided them in to

  • Can’s – Those with the kit and the know how
  • Could’s – Those with the know how and no kit
  • Cant’s. – Those with no know how and no kit

Over nine months producers battled with content and in apparent frustration with some of the communities ability to live up to BBC standards many producers ended up shooting and editing content themselves. It seems that in dividing up the audience there was one category they all fell in to – Not BBC!

Another panelist Neil Benson, Editorial Director for regionals for Trinity Mirror, thought this was the typical BBC “imposing their own standards and pomposity” on the project. Along with Darren Thwaites of the award-winning Evening Gazette in Teesside, he talked about some of their hyperlocal adventures.

He also took the opportunity to announce a new project called ‘Make the news’. Although he was light on detail (commercial reasons, darling) he says he was heavily influenced by Jay Rosen’s assignment zero.

According to Neil, journalists needed to start thinking like radio producers.

It was a point that wasn’t expanded on but one that I really liked.

Thinking like a producer

Coming from a broadcast background I’m comfortable with the idea of a producer. They are the ones driving the project, managing the team and pulling everything together to tell the story. Even though they have a firm hand on the editorial tiller, they rely on experienced researchers, expert advisers and experienced technical crew to bring the programme together.

I think Jay’s idea of collaboration is a lot like that. He said that the biggest challenge for journalists is controlling the division of labour. Working out who is best to handle that element of the story whilst keeping an editorial line.

That team effort is recognized in the credits that role at the end of a programme. The producer, director and Executive producer get to go last in the list- in UK TV that denotes that they are the most important – but everyones contribution is noted.

That’s in sharp contrast to the way things are done in newspapers.

Credit your sources?

One question from the floor wondered how we can get the specialist correspondent with 30 years experience to engage with citizen journalists to help tell stories. I responded that perhaps that was a case of the journalist recognizing that some of those ‘citizens’ where actually more experienced and knowledgeable than they where.

That wasn’t a criticism. What I meant was perhaps they needed to see their relationship with some of the audience differently and recognize a level of ‘professional equity’. They need to say, ‘we are both great at what we do. Working together we can produce something fantastic’(one of the driving aims of Rosen’s Assignment Zero) and then credit that relationship to reflect the level of collaboration.

But it was clear from the discussion and the insight Emma offered in the BBC approach that we still have a very obvious them and us mentality in journalism. If you are not a journalist, working in our organization, in the way we work, you are the audience. It doesn’t matter that you may be a nobel prize winning scientist, or a ‘person on the street’. Whenever we talk to you, you are all the same.

For me that’s the fundamental reason we are still lagging behind.

Some may see that as an positive, egalitarian approach. But if we want to take full advantage of the opportunities to connect with people that digital affords then we need to move beyond thinking of audience and contacts and seeing those we use to tell our stories, experts or not, on a more equal footing. That doesn’t mean trying to turn them in to journalist or relinquishing that term to all to use.

It simply means that we need to be more transparent, open and honest about the increasingly important role they play. But I’m not holding my breath for the day a list credits appears alongside a print story.

And if you don’t think you we have a way to go on that front, you ask any newspaper journalist if they are prepared to share their byline with any of the people they ‘crowsourced’ or the citizen journalists they used.

Get on board with your audience.

Jay Rosen ended the evening with an analogy.

To him the industry standing on the edge of digital ocean trying to work out how to get to the other side. We know that a lot of the ‘people formally known as the audience’ have already set sail.

But there is a chance that if we get on board and share with the those digital communities about to set sail, we may just get to the other side in one piece.

The problem is that journalists are still only willing to share the boat if they can be the captain. Everyone else has to be satisfied with being crew.

If we get over that then maybe we can make up some of that two years of lost time.