We’ve been going through the recent Knight Commission report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, and finding a lot of insights useful to our Iindaba Ziyafika project here in South Africa. Although focused on the U.S., the ideas explored under the commission’s three core topics: “Maximizing the Availability of Relevant and Credible Information,” “Enhancing the Information Capacity of Individuals,” and “Promoting Public Engagement” are helping refine some of our project’s approaches.

As I outlined in my previous post, when you are small and local, and don’t have much money to invest in investigative journalism, it’s essential to have citizen journalists who can help out. But how do we provide them with enough skills and motivation to get information out of officialdom? How do we act on the Knight Commission’s recommendations, in particular to “get government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records…” and to “develop systematic quality measures of community information ecologies, and study how they affect social outcomes”?

This is a particular challenge when a big reason for the lack of “easy and low cost access” is not deliberate obstreperousness, (at least, I like to think it is not!) but rather a lack of skills on government’s part, and a lack of easy ways for the public to find and access information. While parts of government are digitizing, and the typewriters are (mostly) gone, it is still amazing how little information is available in digital format in South Africa.

To overcome this, we’re discovering you have to roll up your sleeves and, at least at a local level, if you have the resources, actually offer to help. Among other projects, we’re meeting with the local police and we are close to a deal where we’ll help them capture their daily crime reports in digital format. It helps them do their work better, and it could be a hugely important resource for us as a newspaper website.

We’re also working with the city council to create and publish clear visual organograms on our website of ‘who does what’, ‘who reports to whom’, and how to contact the right city official when you have a problem. We have plans to publish our city council’s meeting agendas and, post meetings, the minutes of those meetings, or record of decisions.

But we’ve also been thinking hard about the possibly even bigger challenges of “enhancing the information capacity of individuals” and the recommendation the commissioners made to “support the activities of information providers to reach local audiences with quality content through all appropriate media, such as mobile.” This recommendation goes to the heart of the Iindaba Ziyafika project. We’ve had a very busy few months, and there are many new projects and sub-projects that directly address these issues of information maximization — getting more out — and ease of access — getting it out in way that is easy to understand and useful. Here’s how some of our projects are being taken to the next level.

Intensifying Citizen Journalism Training

In terms of citizen journalism, it’s becoming ever more clear that even a modest amount of training goes a long way. We seem to be settling in at around 20 hours of training. More might be too much from a cost point of view (you can never have too much journalism training!), but it appears that 20 hours of well designed, assignment-intensive teaching seems about right. This training must builds on a selection process that helps find the kind of people who have what we believe are core journalism aptitudes: curiosity, a desire to change things, and the ability to persevere where others would give up!

Our second group of 40 adult citizen journalists are now a month into their training. They attend a two-hour session each week. After six weeks — 12 hours of face-to-face training and a bunch of assignments — we’re confident they’ll be ready to get to work. From our first adult group last year, we already have a few ‘stars’ writing some great stories — stories we would otherwise have never got wind of.

We’re also putting together a Citizen Journalism training manual, and I’m excited to be writing a paper for presentation at the World Journalism Education Council conference called “What do citizen journalists need to know and when do they need to know it.” (Shameless plug: This is going to be a stunning conference, with more than 200 delegates confirmed from around the globe, and strong African participation. It also overlaps with the Highway Africa conference, the biggest annual gathering of African journalists anywhere, and with the Soccer World Cup. And, for anyone who wants to see what we’re up to, I’ll be giving tours of our pioneering citizen journalism newsroom, Radio Grahamstown, and Grocott’s Mail).

All of this is a major escalation of our approach to citizen journalism — we’re going all out to see what will work, what is sustainable, and what will generate good and useful journalism.

A Citizen Journalism Editor

A big insight for us is that, at small papers, while it’s great to have a group of trained citizen journalists at an editor’s disposal, you need to provide the time and resources needed to nurture them, as well as to edit and fact-check their work. We have decided to appoint a new “citizen journalism editor” who will concentrate and focus on this group of neophyte writers.

This editor will also help us get on top of understanding — and learning to explain better — how power works in our small town: How do you get something done? Who delivers and who doesn’t? How do you complain and get listened to without having to organise a small riot or, for the better off among our population, without having to pony up for a lawyers letter of demand?

Paying for Citizen Journalism

Providing training and close editorial support might be enough to generate some great stories, but we also believe that, in a town where about half the population live on about U.S. $4 per day, both material incentives (cash and mobile airtime) and non-material incentives (certificates, allowing the publishing of bylines) go a long way. Starting this month, we are experimenting with paying about U.S. $10 for a published story and U.S. $7 for a published photo.

As humble as these stipends might be, we suspect they are going to be just reward for good citizen journalism, and we are counting on these payments to make the whole experience more sustainable.

Opening Up Our Editorial Meeting

We’ve also decided to allow the most skilled and enthusiastic members of our first adult citizen journalist graduating class of 2009 to attend Grocott Mail’s daily 8.30 a.m. news meetings.

These citizen journalists receive the same small payment as the other 36 graduates who are not coming to the meetings, but they have an edge on the others by having earned the opportunity to be in the place where stories ideas are thrown around and reporting tasks are allocated.

Headlines by Text Message

i-ab145ef9813ded895c073c566b392f07-sms ad.pngFinally, we’re going live this week — after six months of testing — with our text message news headline service. To the left is an ad for the service.

We’re looking at signing up a few thousand people out of the local population of 100,000, all of whom will then get one or more of our various free short message daily news headlines, and our more occasional breaking news services. One of the big issues for us, once we got the tech right, has been around audience acquisition, figuring out what we need to know about our users, and when we should gather that information. There’s also the challenge of getting the business model right. Our plan is first to build the audience, and then to, for example, start selling the last 20 or 30 characters of the text message to local advertisers.

In my next post I’ll share more about three new Citizen Journalism/youth journalism radio initiatives we’re working on together with our local community radio station, Radio Grahamstown. The first of these is a new show called Y4Y (‘youth for youth’) launched two weeks ago. While the show covers news from local high schools, it also creates the space for discussing issues of importance to youth. Frankly we’re amazed, just two shows in, at how edgy and interesting these discussions are turning out to be. If you want to listen to the streaming audio of the first two shows or download them as podcasts, go here

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