No, this article is not about broadcasters shifting to digital transmission. But it’s about something that’s also a huge change — uprooting from known territory and heading for the unknown complexities of digital country.

Switch-over in the sense of convergence is the challenge facing South African community paper Grocott’s Mail. The publication is at the heart of a Knight Foundation project to exploit new technologies in order to build a participative public sphere within a small town.

The paper serves a town that’s divided spatially, linguistically, racially, and along class lines. There are also divisions between youth and adults, and between town and gown (Rhodes University is the biggest institution in this college town of circa 100 000 people).

The only other local medium of significance is a community radio station (mainly in the isiXhosa language) which hosts important discussions but lacks journalistic capacity.

Grocott’s was founded by white settlers in 1870, but today tries to serve the broader community of Grahamstown. But that endeavour is constrained by language (it’s in English), its cover price, literacy levels and the difficulty of addressing all interests and views in the confines (and costs) of printed pages.

We won a Knight Challenge grant to address this very challenge, and our key strategy is leap-frogging the paper into mobile communications.

Young, poor or semi-literate residents tend at least to have access to cell phones, meaning that they can receive calls and messages even if they don’t always have the airtime to initiate them. One analyst at South Africa’s biggest cell phone company reckons there are 8 million South Africans online via their mobiles — double the number who have access via desktop computer.

So here’s what we’re doing:

• Last year, we experimented successfully with 40 learners from local high schools, who produced wonderful SMS journalism contributions to the paper. These workshops will continue and be expanded this year.

• Right now, we’re working on a Citizen Newsroom which will provide a practical hub with facilities and training to enable a swath of residents to contribute electronically to the paper — for instance by downloading photos taken with their phones.

• Soon we’ll be interviewing for a new media editor for the paper, who will help oversee its digital expansion.

But all this also requires transformation of the paper into a multi-platform enterprise.

Grocott’s has had a website for a couple of years — maintained (erratically) by new media journalism students at the local Rhodes University (which owns the paper).

The site has played a little with a mobile interface in the past, but what’s been lacking to date is an over-arching digital strategy that would provide the technical, conceptual and business basis to integrate marginalized people into the mainstream communications around the paper’s journalism.

For this reason, we more-or-less had to start thinking about convergence at Grocott’s from scratch. To this end, the paper had a strategy workshop a fortnight back.

I searched the web unsuccessfully for something like a checklist of steps for how a paper could coherently approach the exploitation of digital platforms. Especially for small independent papers, there doesn’t seem to be much codified experience out there.

We’re talking about the steps to develop optimum synergies between a twice-weekly publication with channels like SMS, a conventional website and a .mobi site.

Drawing from people like David Domingo et al, it was helpful to start the workshop by discerning five areas of convergence:
- Marketing (cross promotion and advertising issues)
- Skills (technical and genre)
- Production process (repurposing, pre-purposing, collaboration, integrated newsplanning)
- Delivery platforms (the range of web technologies, audio and video, SMS, MMS)
- Audience (devices, customisation, interactivity, etc).

That’s a vast panoply. But we agreed that convergence doesn’t mean conflating all operations, nor that full-on integration is some kind of Holy Grail. We wanted to avoid the kind of teleology that is indirectly suggested by the Convergence Continuum model.

Instead, our focus by necessity has to be driven not by theory, but on the basis of our small paper’s current limited resources, skill, culture and revenue models.

And, rather than be driven by tech and hype, we located the discussion in terms of expanding the existing vision and mission of the paper. The result:

Vision: A viable and high-quality convergence-driven community newspaper (and multi-platform interactive publisher) that serves and grows the local & remote community of Grahamstown as well as (some of) the multiple training interests of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University.