Is hyper-local journalism interesting enough to engage its own audience?

And is the prospect of being more “in the know,” and more connected and more involved in one’s community, attractive enough to inspire people to take the time out to do citizen journalism?

The old adage that “all news is local” does hold a great deal of truth. News can be locally generated or outside news can be made local. The implications of any big news story – like H1N1 virus, a.k.a. swine flu – can almost always be localized to create stories about how this impacts on you, where you are right now.

You might want to know about local stocks of anti-virals, and you would certainly be interested if the hospital near you started treating cases. In fact you’d probably be unhappy not knowing.

But “big story localized” is not what we mean when we talk of hyper-local. We usually mean something that emanates out of a defined geography. Benedict Anderson theorized the idea of “imagined communities” in the 1980s, providing us with a powerful way of understanding nationalism and group identity. We live in collectives like nation states that are so big that we can’t know everyone face-to-face, and we have to build a collectively imagined (but often contested) set of ideas of what such a community looks like, what it stands for, and what value we place on belonging to it.

But in small geographic areas, like a school, or a city block, we don’t have to imagine our community as much. Or do we? We live right in it, even if we don’t know everyone in it. It is much more face-to-face, and in many ways, there is less need for it to be imagined.

Hyper-local coverage is about locality, build around a boxed-in closeness and a physical terrain. We are interested in knowing more about what is going here because it is literally where we are at — so the thinking goes.

How the Local Paper Fits In

But there is also an argument to be made that we are interested local news because it allows us to imagine relationship with our space, and other people in it. We’ve seen just this week, with the 140th anniversary of the local community newspaper, Grocott’s Mail (an essential component of our Knight News Challenge Iindaba Ziyafika project), just how central a local paper’s reporting is to how people think about themselves. It is about how to make sense of geographically-based location in relation to other people living there.

With South Africa’s history of division, and of rigid apartheid of geographical space, building a new sense of community-hood and nation-hood is clearly a very important social task. Contributing to this is a big part of our overarching objectives.

In Grahamstown, South Africa, we have a perfect laboratory to test what works and doesn’t work in hyper-local media and journalism. But there are dangers when areas of greatest likely interest to those who live here — say a few square kilometers around where people live or work, or your school or campus dorm — still largely reflect the segregation of apartheid-era social planning.

Might hyper-local in this context not simply reinforce ethnic and class ghettos, only slightly less strongly formed now, even though all legal compulsions have been removed?

This week, we’re starting our training for what will eventually be a dozen local school “cell phone media clubs.” Young volunteers with an interest in making a difference in their communities through learning to use and make media will learn about digging up and reporting interesting stories, both in their schools and in their communities. Building on the work of the 2008 class, we’ll be focusing on getting the news in to a central point — Grocott’s website and even into the Grocott’s print edition — primarily via SMS.

But in 2009, we’re channeling a lot of energy into creating something like a school newsletter as a basic building block for getting into the swing of hyper-local journalism. In South Africa, better-off schools have weekly newsletters. They are mostly filled with sports news, but also carry some cultural and club activity, and sometimes news of a new teacher arriving, or an old one leaving, for example.

Poorer schools often don’t have these kind media channels, and that might be why in many poorer schools there seems to be a greater sense of distance between parents and the schools their children attend.

Might being able to read about what is happening at the school make parents feel more involved, or maybe want to be more involved? Do they play a role in helping people connected to the school — parents, teachers, learners, families, communities — imagine a particular role and relationship to that school. And, if they do (we think they do), how can they help everyone take a great stand for improving educational and life experiences in these schools?

Basic Training

Getting practical, cell phone media club members are going to get some fun basic training and then they going to choose news beats. Someone is going to be responsible for reporting on the debate club, or the chess club, or the football team. There will also be social news, “what’s on,” and opinion pieces. They’re all going to write short stories and take photos on their cell phones.

These highly local school-based news will then be edited professionally, and appear on Grocott’s Mail Online and sometimes in Grocott’s print edition. Our first examples should be up and running in June.

We are also finding ways of getting this news and information back to schools that often don’t have much access to the Internet (and, indeed, few computers for any purpose). We are going to use SMS, Mxit and Facebook to do this, once we’ve built that capacity, and figured out ways to pay for it, but we’re also going to make print-outs on big A3 sheets and paste them up in a specially designated “news wall” at each school.

Combination of old and new media channels, but suited for purpose.

We’re taking this approach even though some voices within and outside our project are asking: “is this journalism or just information provision?” Is allowing schools to report on their sports results, on a public website, really journalism?

Our view is that getting learners reporting about things that are important to them will generate, on its own, a whole range of topics we’ve not even thought about, some of which might have greater social import then say, a soccer score.

But starting with sports scores (and match reports) or news of the School’s choir’s performance at the regional choir competitions, for example, and with other very (hyper) local news, is a great way to build audience rapport and reporting skills. In any case, who’s to judge what social import is, if not the communities and schools themselves?

Over time, we’ll add instant messaging, twitter and Facebook feeds, so that these spaces can be updated consistently. We’re also looking at providing public information, where available — like a school’s graduation rates — on the site.

Contentious Issues at Schools

Watch this space: Schools in South Africa are sensitive places and we’re faced with a huge range of interesting issues that arise simply from having a space to report about what’s happening, not matter how banal that might appear to some in the first place. Just posting graduation rates can cause controversy for example; many schools are not proud of their achievements and with good reason.

And other issues can be equally contentious: for example, recently, some pupils (or learners as we like to call them in South Africa) expressed some critical views about the dominance of rugby football at local high schools (because the rugby authorities make money available to promote the sport at grassroots level), as opposed to ordinary football (soccer) which is hugely popular in South Africa.

Some of the school teachers were very upset to be criticized in this way. How will we handle this kind of issue? How do we support our learner citizen journalists to do their jobs, but also how do we stay out of it, and just let it happen?

Schools are in fact, hugely contested places. In the current set of newsletters that we are looking at — from wealthier schools in Grahamstown — you see all sorts of power relationships leaking out. Boys’ sport is often given more prominence compared to girls’ sport, for example. What’s that all about? How do we make sure we don’t inadvertently reinforce a whole bunch of gender stereotypes, to cite just one area of obvious contestation?

We are clearly going to have very interesting issues come up simply by creating the space, and providing some skills and resources, for school-based hyper-local reporting.