Community Journalism

#MediaScot – a focus for new community media

Leading figures from across Scotland’s new media sector are gathering at an Edinburgh school today (Friday 22 April) in a unique opportunity to learn from each other about how they can take more control over local news gathering and media production for their benefit of communities across the country.

The “Media in Scotland’s Communities” conference is taking place at Castlebrae Community High School in Craigmillar, organised by the charity Media Trust, where I have been working since late 2013, and the University of the West of Scotland.

The event brings together dozens of media activists, writers and publishers, journalists and academics as well as young film makers and students from Scotland and the UK to begin to map the future for new community-based media in the country.

The event marks the final stages of Media Trust’s 3-year flagship programme, Do Something Brilliant, which has been funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and which has delivered dozens of specialist training workshops to charities, social enterprises and small businesses in every region of Scotland since the project began in 2013.

I have had the unique privilege of travelling from Orkney and Lewis, to Ayrshire and the Borders either to run one of numerous training sessions or to film editions of the Community Channel programmes which I’ve produced, with the help of some outstanding young presenters and reporters, such as Farah Bradford and Ted Simpson (pictured, below).

Farah + Ted

Farah Bradford and Ted Simpson presented the March 2016 edition of the Community Channel’s Do Something Brilliant programme from Craigmillar.

However, we chose to locate this event in Craigmillar because this part of Edinburgh has been the focus of a key element of my work in the last year, assisting in setting up the area’s new hyperlocal news website, the Chronicle Online.

A key opening contribution to the day will come from Kathryn Geels, whose extensive study of the current state, and future of hyperlocals across the UK, Destination Local has just been completed.

Participants at the conference will be running masterclasses and technical workshops in how to produce sophisticated media materials on smartphones, opportunities for crowdfunding new media in Scotland, and the role of education in helping communities take control of media and news in their own areas.

Myself and the other co-organisers, Jennifer Jones and David McGillivrary from UWS, believe the event will help set the national agenda for the future of community media – and new media more widely – both in Scotland and the UK.

As well as the technical workshops, film screenings and panel discussions, there will be a number of stalls provided by partner organisations such as the Thistle Foundation and Digital Sentinel.

The University of the West of Scotland’s mobile campus will be based at the school for the day and will be both an editing space for the journalism students and young film-makers taking part as well as the intake point for contributions from wider flung hyperlocal websites, such as The Bristol Cable.


Castlebrae Community High School headteacher, Norma Prentice

Our enormous thanks go to both the staff and students at Castlebrae for their generosity in agreeing to host the event, despite having also to accommodate students from the local primary school which has been evacuated because of the Edinburgh city-wide schools PFI reconstruction work.


What’s actually wrong with the Scottish media?

Why does it always rain ast demos? Me with NUJ colleagues on anti-austerity protest. Birmingham, October 2010

Why does it always rain at demos? Me (left) with NUJ colleagues on anti-austerity protest, last time around. Birmingham, October 2010

Which should bother us most:

a BBC news executive is shifted sideways (very belatedly) after repeated accusations of bullying and a staff threat to strike if he wasn’t moved?

a perception that the BBC is institutionally biased against Scottish independence and its (especially on-line) supporters?

or the thought that traditional TV audiences are literally dying off and changing viewing habits sufficiently to trigger seismic cuts to public service broadcasting.

There’s an intense and at times highly divisive bebate going on in Scotland right now over control of the media.

But there’s an equally intense debate going on across the UK over ownership of the media and access – and it is one which has been at the heart of a struggle for generations over who controls the media, and over what the newspaper proprietors, ministers, broadcasting moguls and web owners say.

For people like me, it is a massive concern that the views of trade unions and people at work are systematically under-reported in the mainstream media, and especially by our national broadcaster.

We know the story: company CEOs and market analysts get largely uncritical airtime while union reps on picket lines or besuited general secretaries can only expect hostile, frequently ill-informed, questioning and barracking on the same programmes because the trains, ferries or underground aren’t running.

It has always seemed to me not just unfair, but a travesty of any genuine notion of public service news provision.

And it’s not just me, by the way. A more detailed academic study of the issue by the Cardiff School of Jounalism came to similar conclusions.

So, years of seeing trade union, anti-austerity, anti-war, or anti-racism campaigns being under-represented on TV or radio meant I was not surpised (disappointed, yes, but not surprised) that people in the #IndyRef campaign concluded the mainstream media were biased against them.

But is that the most urgent problem right now?

This week, the broadcasting regulator Ofcom released one of its most detailed examinations for years of the state of the sector.

The timing of the report is critical.

The BBC director general Tony Hall this week announced 1000 job cuts at the Corporation because of a £150m shortfall in licence fee funding.

That in turn has triggered fears that this could just be a precursor for yet another jobs cull at the BBC as a result of the renegotiation of the Licence Fee and the wider BBC Charter Review.

It its report, Ofcom found that “[Public Service Broadcasting] PSB channels spent just under £440m less in real terms in 2014 than in 2008” (p 13. 3.1).

It goes on: “Scotland [is] one of the main beneficiaries of the shift in production out of London and the only Nation to see an increase in spend on nations programming, up by 14% since 2008. Nevertheless, higher proportions of audiences here (21%) feel negatively portrayed, compared to respondents in most other areas of the UK.” (3.52.3)

BBC funding figures are notoriously opaque and are always challenged by those in Scotland’s creative sector, but the contrast between the BBC’s financial case and Ofcom’s conclusions about negative portrayal is still pretty stark.

But the most worrying numbers are not part of the Ofcom report. Instead they are being hinted at ahead of next week’s budget: that the BBC will have to take on the £600m cost of paying the licence fee of everyone over 75; and a further £200m if the government rules it is no longer a criminal offence for other households to evade the licence fee.

Remember, the BBC’s licence fee income is around £3.7bn a year.

The Chancellor is sharpening his axe and the all-male, all-white, mainly Conservative Culture Media and Sport select committee of MPs seems pretty unlikely to stay his hand.

And all this is before we even begin to look at the problems facing the press in Scotland, from the “challenging” state of finances at the parent company of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, to some of the long-term plans being tested out by the US owners of The Herald/Evening Times titles, or alarm over the threat to their revenues and coverage from Google, Facebook and the BBC expressed by the owner of The Scotsman and a stable of local papers around Scotland and the UK.

However, there is good reason for hope that we can challenge this. Or at least some of it.

It is good news that the Scottish Parliament and the government here will finally have a say over the future of the BBC as part of the Charter Renewal negotiations.

But there is another way of taking on these threats from ministers, editors and proprietors.

First, for instance, many months – actually, years, when you count them up – of relentless and dignified argument by NUJ reps at BBC Scotland resulted in the former head of news and current affairs being moved on. He’s been moved on to the office dealing with the BBC’s case for Charter Renewal – which doesn’t inspire staff with a ton of confidence, but they tell me it has already made an enormous difference to morale and output on the newsroom floor.

Another NUJ campaign to prevent a veteran trade union rep from being made redundant at a local newspaper in South Yorkshire led to his sacking threat being withdrawn.

A campaign of industrial action last month at a string of local newspapers across London managed – remarkably – to secure the support of the Mayor, Boris Johnson and a significant number of his fellow Conservative MPs, resulting in talks to withdraw the editorial cuts threat.

I am not surprised that very little of this ground-up, workplace campaigning has been reported by the mainstream media. These are trade unionists, after all.

Nor am I that surprised that Ofcom’s very detailed breakdown of viewing figures and ages, or examinination of Facebook metrics by Ashley Highfield, the Johnson Press boss, isn’t going to light a fire for those working to build a new media landscape in Scotland based on public disenchantment with the post #IndyRef BBC.

But if those leading the debate over the future of the Scottish media after the Referendum ignore this stuff, they risk leading this flowering, new politically-minded media in Scotland into a cul-de-sac where the opinions, skills and careers of the sub-editors, designers, producers, coders or videographers don’t matter.

And that’s not much of a public service, either.

So, it’s time for people to stick up for public service journalism and news – and it’s time to stick up for the BBC.

Digi film-making – a quickfire workshop for #Citizen2014

Filming with digital inclusion activists at the near-legendary Kirkwall Library (Orkney, May 2014)

Filming with digital inclusion activists at the near-legendary Kirkwall Library (Orkney, May 2014)

The current generation of smartphones is often called the Swiss Army Knife of community media – a stills camera, video camera and editing suite, audio recorder and mixer, keyboard, web portal and social media dashboard all in one package, depending on what apps the user has installed.

Of course, none of these functions can replace a high end DSLR camera, still less a recording studio and a newcomer to these apps and this kit is no substitute for an experienced photographer or sound engineer. However, community media is often about getting the very best results from budget-level equipment – and for many community activists and voluntary organisations, that will mean using what you have in your pocket: your phone.

This evening’s workshop is a quickfire, hands-on introduction to how to get the best from your smartphone for short on-line video making: a rough guide to framing shots, capturing good audio and editing.

If you are planning to be part of the #Citizen2014 community newsgathering project, we hope the workshop will be a useful introduction to on-line video and a chance to meet others in the #Citizen2014 crew. Coffee tin tripods are optional, but we will point participants to some of the on-line guides and resources which will help build and refine your skills.

We are at Beyond The Finish Line on Trongate. The workshop starts at 6.00pm.

Community journalism links 2014 Commonwealth to Common Weal

#Citizen2014 will operate from Beyond The Finish Line social enterprise incubation space in Glasgow city centre

#Citizen2014 will operate from Beyond The Finish Line social enterprise space in Glasgow city centre

As hundreds of media workers from around the world converge on Glasgow ahead of the start this week of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, many will want to make sure their reporting reflects at least some of the real character of the host city and its communities, not just the sport extravaganza.

So I am thrilled to be part of a pop-up community journalism initiative in the city centre which opens its digital doors just as the Games’ opening ceremony starts.

The community media newsroom for #Citizen2014 is based at the social enterprise “incubation unit”, Beyond The Finish Line, in Glasgow’s Trongate.

#Citizen2014 itself will run for the duration of the Games, with reporters covering a range of stories from the fringes of the Games themselves but also from some of the communities and individuals around the city whose voices are seldom heard in the mainstream media.

The project is a partnership between Media Trust, the Digital Commonwealth, the social enterprise SomewhereTo_, which seeks to re-function derelict buildings and urban spaces for use by young people, Mind Waves and Beyond The Finish Line. #Citizen2014 will run a programme of daily reporting based around themes ranging from culture, regeneration and resilience to legacy and the idea of the Common Weal. We also expect to run a series of workshops and media surgeries, depending on the needs and skills of the reporters taking part.

Says Jennifer Jones of Digital Commonwealth: “We want to support people to report and alternative, community-focussed view of what’s happening in our city during the Games.

“We know there’s loads going on and people have a lot to say about it.

“We’re here to develop skills in blogging, photography and video and to share what people produce through social media. We’re really excited about it.”

Reports, images and video will be posted on throughout the three weeks of the Games. You can follow the project on Twitter @Citizen2014.

Commonwealth Games – here’s the news from Dalmarnock

Financial pressures forcing the closure of traditional local newspapers, including free ones, make it all the more urgent to find a new, financially viable form of community journalism

Financial pressures forcing the closure of traditional local newspapers, including free ones, make it all the more urgent to find a new, financially viable form of community journalism

“They’ll love us – we’ll get more hits than Justin Bieber!”

The excitement was infectious among the group of elderly community activists from Bridgeton and Dalmarnock – living in the shadow of the freshly manicured car parks and imposing Commonwealth Games sports venues which dominate the new skyline of the east end of Glasgow.

The chance to report for themselves – by video, blogging or podcating – on how residents’ lives have been changed by the coming of the 2014 Games is exhilarating for people who say they’ve either been stonewalled or fobbed off by most of the local authority and Commonwealth officials they’ve encountered in recent years.

“If they don’t like what we’re telling them, we just don’t get invited back to meetings,” said one activist.

Residents have seen Dalmarnock by turn neglected, deprived, ignored and (most recently) turned into something resembling a war zone by years of demolition and land clearances to make space for the 2014 Games venues.

A high-profile campaign in 2011 to save the Accord care centre was just one example of how a section of the community felt bulldozed out of the way by city council plans to build a bus park for the Games venues.

The community believes there has been a noticeable absence of reporting of their experience of the run-up to 2014. That is a sentiment shared by many others who have lived through such mega events elsewhere, of course, but one question raised among the community activists in Dalmarnock was whether the dearth of local newspaper reporting (currently just one newspaper, the Re-Gen, pictured above, attempts to cover the whole of the north and east of the largest city in Scotland) has allowed politicians and those in power to ignore the communities which will have the Games juggernaut visited upon them in July and August.

Now, everyone involved in trying to rebuild local journalism quite rightly puts their faith online as both the source of information and news and the distribution infrastructure, via websites and social media.

But here, there is a big problem.

Sandwiched between the city centre shops/business district of the Merchant City and the highly-connected Commonwealth Games venues themselves, areas like Dalmarnock are among the most internet-deprived parts of the UK.

The two areas in dark blue highlight where between 18% and 28% of adults have never used the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics)

The two areas in dark blue highlight where between 18% and 28% of adults have never used the internet (Source: Office for National Statistics)

Last year’s Communications Market Report by the industry regulator, Ofcom found Glasgow had – by some distance – the lowest uptake of fixed broadband services of any city in the UK, at just 52% of households. That figure’s remained static since 2011, according to the watchdog.

Ofcom also found that only 57% had some means of access to the internet, whether by computer, tablet, or phone – meaning nearly half the population in a city of almost 600,000 people cannot get online.

Recent research suggests that the reasons for such a high level of digital exclusion – and the digital illiteracy which goes with it – are many and complicated, but they are also closely linked to wider issues of social deprivation.

An investigation by the Carnegie UK Trust noted that: “Cost is a major issue that cannot be ignored.

“The monthly budget for communications technologies amongst the demographic groups least likely to be online in Glasgow is around £30, compared to a UK average of nearly £100.”

An interim report released last month by the Royal Society of Edinburgh says: “We must stimulate digital participation at a community level… Over a million adults in Scotland lack basic digital skills.”

Using video, audio and blogging within communities will certainly help encourage people who are either “scared of the internet”, who say “it has nothing for them” or who cannot afford to go online, to improve their digital literacy by using tools which don’t mean they also have to do battle with bureaucracy.

The web is not just a portal to paying the rent, looking for a job or healthcare.

But people who are “put off” by the internet have good reasons to fear it could just be a door which opens their homes to the unwanted attention of payday loan sharks, council officials or people trying to sell them stuff.

A Scottish government project worth more than £240m is designed to help improve Scotland’s digital infrastructure must also make it a priority to address the needs of the country’s hundreds of thousands of unheard voices who cannot afford internet access. The threat to public internet facilities in libraries is a particular choke-point, together with related issues as basic as people using library computers not being able to save their work, or being timed-out of their sessions.

Part of the solution also lies in education. So I’m hugely excited by the prospect that I will be helping to train these Dalmarnock community activitsts during the next few months in how to produce films and blogs about “their” Commonwealth Games.

But I am also conscious that the other half of news production is always the audience, which means getting that online news to those people who cannot get online is going to be a big part of the whole project.

If we can get around that, though – that’s when this stuff will go viral.

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’”.