Month: December 2013

Community journalism – more than a nation of greengrocers

A social media surgery at the somewhereto_ facility in Edinburgh: former home of Companies House, now converted to performance, rehearsal, pop up office space

A social media surgery at the somewhereto_ facility in Edinburgh: former home of Companies House, now converted to performance, rehearsal, pop up office space

There has already been a lot written online (but perhaps not surprisingly, not that much in the mainstream press) about the demise of AOL’s 6-year, $300m hyperlocal project, Patch.

At its height, Patch was a network of around 900 websites across the USA, employing 1,400 people.

As the New York Times put it earlier this month, the theory was that Patch would use a single news person and a single advertising person to create a “digital maypole” in hundreds of communities at a cost of about $100,000 annually per site.

Commentators say the project was defeated by a “tyranny of small numbers” – lack of local advertising revenue to sustain the journalism.

So, does it mean the pre-teen community journalism project in the UK is already heading for an early grave?

Not if you look at this month’s joint report by the Carnegie Trust and Co-operatives UK into the future of community news, which found that despite the “pervasive pessimism” over the state of local news coverage – largely because of the profit-taking evacuation from the sector and systematic closure of scores of town centre newspaper offices by the large proprietors – there is still a strong appetite for local news. They believe that a co-operative ownership model, similar to that used on projects which have allowed local pubs, grocers and small, specialists shops to re-open, could also bring a new lease of life to local media through community buy-outs and take-overs of those newspaper offices.

How would that work in practice?

Here’s just one way of looking at it.

A new project in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield to fund a community-based greengrocer which would supply locally grown, preferably organic, produce to the local area is hoping to raise £30,000 by next March to get the Dig-In shop up and running.

Underlying the project is the long-term aim of improving the local economy by reconnecting residents, local schools and businesses with the food they eat, as well as providing an outlet for local veg producers and challenging the dominance of the retail giants, such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Now, one of the lessons which commentators warn we all need to learn from the Patch experiment is that no top-down model drawn up in a corporate head office is going to be of any use to a community journalist and her/his adversiting co-worker as they try to find a sustainable way of making (digital, hopefully) local news work in their own town, village, housing scheme or neighbourhood.

So, it is important to take great care in making recommendations about financial models for a new wave of community-owned media and journalism in the UK.

However, there are some hints of sources of potental funding for some community journalism operations, if they can find a way of linking themselves financially to the community not just by publishing local news, investigating local issues and providing an outlet for local voices to tell their own stories. And media training might be at the centre of it, alongside co-operative ownership.

Research last year by City University New York suggested that local news sites might find a source of revenue in training and advice to local small businesses, rather than just seeking out traditional advertising.

“As smartphones and tablets proliferate, consumers are spending more and more time online. Many small businesses, however, are not keeping pace. For a number of reasons, they are simply not taking full advantage of the numerous online marketing opportunities that are available. As a result, we see an opportunity for local sites to position themselves as “digital agencies,” not simply media companies, by offering a “suite of services” to small businesses. The desired result, of course, is that a business improves its online marketing efforts (and thereby increases sales), and that the local site develops a source of revenue beyond traditional ad sales.”

Meeting community and media activists in various places around Scotland over the last month as part of my new job with MediaTrust has shown that there is as the Carnegie Trust and Co-Operatives UK found, a strong appetite for local news.

As one community worker in Edinburgh told me: “There are lots of questions but plenty of will to make it happen.

“We just need to figure out the ‘how’”.

From the Black Isle to Pilton – putting new media in people’s hands

Jennifer Jones speaks at a Digital Commonwealth Cafe meeting, Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, Edinburgh

Jennifer Jones speaks at a Digital Commonwealth Cafe meeting, Royston Wardieburn Community Centre, Edinburgh

A group of rowdy school students in Fortrose – a small town in the Black Isle, on the Cromarty Firth – pounces on a box of handheld recorders, mics and headphones on the classroom desk in front of them.

Hardly before I know it, they are off, heading out around the school to interview teachers, members of sports teams, or even each other, their notebooks full of questions they’d prepared beforehand, thanks to a training session earlier in the week from a fellow journalist, Catherine Deveney.

Over the next half hour, I’m unpacking cables, a sound mixer, microphone stands and other bits to build a small DIY radio studio the students will be using as part of a literacy project now involving a number of schools across Highland Council – from Plockton on the northwest coast, to Kingussie on the edge of the Cairngorms and northwards across the River Spey to the Black Isle.

It is one of two inspiring pieces of work I’ve been involved with in the last week or so – the other took me to a community centre in the north of Edinburgh, where around 20 community activists had gathered to look into getting involved in a 2014 project which hopes to turn the focus of the journey of the Commonwealth Games ceremonial Queen’s Baton around from the baton itself onto the people communities it passs through on its 40-day relay around Scotland to the Glasgow stadium for the start of the games in July.

The project is designed to “change the narrative of the establishment version of the Games,” according to Jennifer Jones from the University of the West of Scotland, who is helping to organise the Digital Commonwealth initiative.

It is based on the success of the Citizen Relay reports from scores of towns and villages as the Olympic Torch caravan made its way through Scotland in 2012. Both projects attempt to make citizens and their voices the central subject, rather than the circus around the torch and baton. It is an attempt to allow the voices of Scotland’s communities to be heard above the cacophony of excited sports commentators or the politicians who will inevitably try to seize the credit for the success of the Games, and possibly even for any word records that get broken in the pool, the velodrome or on the track.

“If you can’t get your story heard by the media, why don’t you become the media yourself?” asked Jennifer, as she spoke to activists at the Royston Wardieburn centre.

“The narrative of the Commonwealth Games has been established by the mainstream media snce the very start,” she says.

“If you try to tell any alternative stories, they’ll just take you down. So our plan is to train people to report their own communities and to create a digital archive of people’s expereince during the Commonwealth Games, so that we have more than just the official account of the event.”

I have been working on the Highland schools  Literacy Hub project in one way or another for most of 2013 and it has seen my working life come almost full circle, from adult literacy teacher just after I emerged out of university in the depths of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, to a spell as a history teacher in southern Africa before entering journalism and now returning (for some of the time at least) to the classroom and training.

The King Edward fountain at Invergordon illuminates an oil rig in the Easter Ross repair yard.

The King Edward fountain at Invergordon illuminates an oil rig in the Easter Ross repair yard.

The project, which has taken me to schools across the region, including Invergordon, has opened my eyes not just to the lives of young people in these schools and communities, but to their eagerness – and the truly impressive scope of their ambition – to report on their lives around them when they are presented with the tools to do so.

A big part of my new job as Scottish Outreach Manager with the Media Trust is going to be geared towards getting these tools to people in these communities and helping them take their first steps towards reporting on their lives, their concerns and their hopes for themselves, in their own words.

I’m keen to make a start.