If you want to see citizen journalism in action — not to mention provoking action — take a look at this collection of stories by citizen journalists who have completed a six-week course in the Grocott’s Mail Citizen Journalism Newsroom.

That page features 12 stories about a critical but little-covered topic that goes to the heart of the divergent experiences of living in Grahamstown, South Africa. The topic? Waste management. Perhaps it’s hardly a prepossessing topic, but it’s one that was embraced by the first group of adult Citizen Journalists to be trained in the Iindaba Ziyafika (“The news is coming”) Citizen Journalism Newsroom.

After handing out certificates of completion to the proud graduates of our first young adult group of trainees, and then reading these stories, I was struck by two things. First, how just a little training had produced so much enthusiasm, and flashes of real journalistic skill; second, just how hyper-local citizen journalism could make a profound difference in Grahamstown. We’ve always thought so, and it was the basis of Iindaba Ziyafika winning a Knight News Challenge Grant in 2008, but now we can actually see it!

Some of the waste stories have already got the municipality jumping. The fair-minded approach taken by many of the writers managed to not alienate the authorities, which is an easy thing to do in South Africa. We are encouraging all those who had their assignments published (as well as the other people that were part of the 40-strong group of trainees) to follow up on their stories, and to inspire residents and the authorities to work together to change things.

Lessons From a Year of Citizen Journalism

Looking back at the first year of our experiment to create citizen journalism in Grahamstown, we’ve learned a lot. Firstly, while school-age learners are able to engage with civic issues — and it is critical that we encourage them to do so — young post-school adults past the voting age of 18 appear to have both more interest and more agency when it comes to citizen journalism.

Teenagers at school are strongly focused on identity issues and want to write about issues related to identity. Getting them engaged in covering issues of why the municipality is not removing the garbage, for example, just doesn’t grab most of them. But thinking about and writing about relationships — especially in a South Africa that has the third highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world — has a great deal more appeal for young people at school.

We’ve also noticed that post-school adults are more able to write about the problems with our schools, when compared to those still at school. It is tough for pupils to highlight serious issues when they are engaged in unequal power relationships in local schools.

All of this is refining what we do with school-going youth in terms of citizen journalism. With unemployment rates among local youth hovering at about 70 percent, there is natural interest in civic issues and entrepreneurship. There is also a deep desire to get local authorities to do keep their election promises, and deliver on the ruling party’s vision of “a better live for all.”

We realized, too, that for citizen journalism to be meaningful, trainees have to imbibe and even embrace the norms of news journalism. As contested as these norms are, there are some baselines to adhere to: telling the story with some narrative comprehensiveness, for example the classic “who, what, where and when” of a basic news report; and having at least a stab at objectivity and fairness.

Most of the waste management stories give the municipality or the local councilor a chance to say why things are not working the way they should. That’s why even the more unconventional stories work pretty well.

New Initiatives for 2010

At their graduation ceremony, our first group of young adult learners strongly urged us to lengthen the training by ending it off with a Saturday morning “intensive” workshop. (The training is currently 1.5 hours a week for six weeks, plus assignments.) They also asked us to consider paying for some of their contributions. We’re evaluating both requests as part of end of year strategic review.

We’re excited by how some of our initiatives are starting to get traction, as corporate strategists might say. Our school-based trainees are doing great work with our new community radio show (read transcripts of the shows at
http://www.grocotts.co.za/content/izwi-labahlali-voice-citizens), and we’re also learning a lot about how print and radio journalism can work together with cell phones. On our last half hour radio show, we had 20 people sending in text messages.

In the new year, we’ll be using our content management system, Nika, to read the messages on air, and also to send out messages to the audience in order to create more of a two-way dialogue. We also want to do that with voice calls, of course, but that’s going to mean investing in a vital piece of equipment — a call hybrid. Even though these cost only about $200, our community radio station is one of many that have never been able to afford one.

We’ve got no doubt that with more adult citizen journalism training sessions in 2010, and a reorientation to provide more opportunities for identity-exploring journalism by our school-aged participants, 2010 is going to be a great year for the Iindaba Ziyafika’s citizen journalism project.