The news has started to flow. It’s a trial-trickle from township teenagers, through to other social groupings in Grahamstown. With the kick-off of phase one during 2008, citizen youth content has crossed the chasm of age difference to reach the older readers of the Grocott’s Mail newspaper.

This is an early manifestation of the Knight Challenge project titled Iindaba Ziyafika, which aims to use cellphone technology to deepen a local public sphere in which Grocott’s Mail is the primary place for a meeting of minds and formulation of public opinion.

It’s not just age differences being spanned, but a legacy of apartheid that includes divides of language, class and space.

The content doing the trick has been generated by 45 young adults from three schools, working with Schools Officer Sipho January, and it was based on three kinds of SMS citizen journalism:

– Comment/opinion
– Mini-news story
– Haiku poetry (you read it right: don’t conflate journalism content with conventional formats!).

In sum, they produced:

  • strong opinions on municipal accountability and reflected controversy around the revival of the local community radio station.
  • mini-news stories about crime, sewer pipe breakages … and sex in the city of Grahamstown. Here’s an example:

“Friday afternoon pupils were caught doing sexual activities in public, [at] Ethembeni ext7. They were kissing each others’ private parts, [and] also taking their clothes off. They were beaten by the community, but didn’t get reported to the cops.”
(sub-text: Vigilante behaviour is a real problem in Grahamstown.)

Haiku Journalism

The Haiku poetry SMSes from the learners covered stories like: “On my way home. Knives, ‘Give me your phone’. Took, ran away.”

And more light-heartedly: “My classmate busy as a bee. Braids on Thursday; plaited on Friday. How’s that possible?”

Is that journalism? It’s a debate that emerged when I reported the project at the Global Forum for Media Development in December. You can read the debate here, along with other samples of what they wrote). (The content published in the paper was edited).

One thing for sure: When these young citizen journalists spoke about their experience at the Highway Africa conference in Grahamstown in September, they said they enjoyed doing haiku journalism the most.

At Highway Africa, which is attended by some 700 media practitioners from all over Africa, someone asked the learners if they ought not to write in conventional language, not SMS-speak. “No ways,” came the answer. “The adults should get with it.”

I also presented on the project at the MobileActive conference in Johannesburg in October. At every occasion, people have come up to me afterwards (eg. from South Africa, the UK and Afghanistan) saying they’ve been inspired to do something similar.

My advice:
• 1. Work with youth who feel marginalized from mainstream media, and are motivated to express themselves.
• 2. Get a media partner who will publish or broadcast their work. They — and their parents — get a huge kick out of seeing their stories in the public realm.
• 3. Train the youth about what it means to be citizens (rights and responsibilities), and what it means to be journalists (accuracy, verification, fairness, public interest). We’ve done a basic booklet [PDF file].
• 4. Signal to audiences that the content does not come with a professional stamp of approval, and be sure to double-check anything that seems dicey or merits deeper investigation.

The ball is rolling and some of the bigger issues include assessing how this expanded circuit of news relates to the quality of the public sphere in Grahamstown. Keep in mind that this is a town which cannot even agree on its name (a strong lobby wants to rename it iRhini).

Challenges Ahead

For 2009, the challenge is to see how these youth contributions can be sustained, and also how to integrate continuous publication of these in the general mix of the paper.

We’re also planning research into youth creators themselves and into audience reception of their content. Right now, our Schools Outreach officer Sipho January is collecting detailed data on the technology — what phones they have been using, and how they manage use with pre-payment.

There’s also tech development being done to develop the software interface between the telephony and Grocott’s Mail drupal-based CMS. It’s been a slow process, but there’ll be some stuff to test in January.

The biggest aim for 2009 is not only to receive youth journalism, but to deliver mobile news streams to the producers as well. After all, to be a quality media producer, you have to be a hot-shot media consumer.

Related