Although newspapers have gone through 150 years of evolution away from popular contributions and towards fully professional writing, technology is rapidly re-empowering non-professionals. Anyone who has rudimentary access to technology can blog or Twitter, take cell phone photos and video of dramatic moments, and quickly get them ‘out there.’

But does the input method matter when it comes to encouraging cell phone journalism, and particularly journalism for a ‘formal’ publication, like a community newspaper?

Does slow bandwidth dampen amateur reporters’ enthusiasm, and if cell phones are going to become significant input devices, what input medium — short message service (SMS), multimedia short message, instant messaging or social networking generated messages — is best suited to citizen journalism?

There are of course big differences in costs and carrying capacity of the different mediums on a cell phone. SMS is especially expensive, working out at about 11 US cents per message, as a world average. Some countries have an average charge that is above this, obviously, and some are very dramatically below it. In South Africa, the cost of an SMS approaches about 7 US cents.

South Africa has the biggest gap between rich and poor (as measured by income) in the world. So while many people use SMS extensively, for the half of the population that earn less then R600 per month (less than US $2 per day), 75 cents is seriously expensive. At current pricing levels, just sending 1 SMS a day would consume something like 4% of the income of this portion of the population, never mind the additional costs of making the occasional phone call!

But SMS is very useful and is more widely used than household economics in many country might predict, including in South Africa. Worldwide, SMS use generated about US $100 billion of income for network providers in 2008, and with profit margins a stratospheric 90%, there seems to be a lot room for price reductions — or for finding alternative ways of communicating text and photos on cell phones. (See ITU figures.)

This is part of the reason why Mxit, an instant messaging/chat room type application is so popular in South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent. Any instant messaging system, or email-based medium uses data connections and not voice/SMS transmission routes. Costs are a tiny fraction, per message, of the cost of SMS.

That’s also why, in Grahamstown, as part of the Iindaba Ziyafika citizen journalism project, in addition to using SMS to send and receive citizen-generated news/photos and information, we are also exploring the use of social networking sites, including Mxit and Facebook, to get stories and photos to the local community newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, and Grocott’s Mail online.

This month we’ve started to explore using Facebook in particular, as an easy means for ‘friends’ of the New Media Editor (a post we’ve just filled and who will be starting work on June 1st) – to send in short stories, or longer stories via the Facebook mailbox function, and even instant messages (when the editor is online) from cell phones.

The Facebook Option

Photos are also easy to upload to Facebook on a computer, although a bit more tricky to do directly from cell phones, although a variety of third party applications address this. We’re looking at what works best and we’ll adapt these applications to our African conditions if needs be.

We’re also exploring ways of integrating the citizen journalists’ input directly into the editors’ ‘in-box’ in the open-source community newspaper content management system NIKA, that we’ve built for Grocott’s Mail (and which we’ll be releasing to the world, free, later this year). Until we get that translation from phone to CMS right (which we’ve already done with SMS), we’ll use manual copy and paste.

Again, photos present a particular side project to get right.

We are getting clearer that it is important to offer potential and actual citizen journalists a variety of input mediums, including walk-in opportunities. For hyper-local journalism to take off in resource poor areas like Grahamstown, people need to be able to post easily and cheaply, and choice is going to be critical. SMS has the advantage of great ease of use, but Facebook on cell phones is not rocket science, as millions are proving daily.

To ensure we focus on closing the citizen journalist loop, we’re also exploring getting the news OUT via social networking sites like Facebook. Friends of the Editor, for example, would obviously also be able to receive news and URL links back from the editor: again the question is how to automate these transmissions.

We are also trying to work out how you could send such messages to individual in-boxes, say in Facebook, and then have Facebook automatically alert you by email to your cell phone.

We’re looking at things such as how many people have cell phones that can make a noise or vibrate when you get an email as opposed to an SMS, and how many makes of phone can be programmed so that you are alerted only when you get emails from a particular source?

As we find out just how popular social network sites are, and how many people use them mainly or exclusively from their cell phones, we’re starting to get excited about developing this new chapter of cheaper supplements to what has, up to now, been our singular focus on SMS.