In Grahamstown, South Africa, getting and sharing news is a mobile experience. Grocott’s Mail, a local paper, incorporates mobile phones into many aspects of its news service — from disseminating headlines via SMS, to encouraging readers to text in their opinions and making it a part of a Knight News Challenge-winning citizen journalist training program.

The paper, which sells 6,400 copies each week, is a good example of how mobiles can create a richer news experience for both readers and publishers. Idea Lab contributor Harry Dugmore, is a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He runs the Iindaba Ziyafika citizen journalism program with Grocott’s Mail.

“The inspiration for the whole project is trying to democratize news and information and put it into the hands of more people, give people more access to it, and create more participation — not just one-way, top-down communication,” he said.

Creating Reader Engagement

Grocott’s Mail, which published its first print edition in 1870, launched an online version of the paper in 2006. The website, now called Grocott’s Mail Online, uses a customized content management system called Nika that is built on Drupal and allows for a smooth computer-to-mobile transition.

Grocott’s Mail Online has a page for SMS opinions from readers in addition to the normal editorial content; readers can text the paper with their responses to articles, tips for stories, or general information and see those texts translated into non-text speak and put online or in the paper. Nika sorts SMSs and incorporates them directly into the newspaper’s system, automating what had previously been a manual process. The SMS pages let local citizens share their opinions, and see their words in print.

Another way in which local citizens are engaged is through the paper’s citizen journalist training program. However, Dugmore is quick to differentiate the citizen journalists from the general online community saying, “We think journalism and citizen journalism is quite a special thing, and we make quite an effort to distinguish it from user generated content and from community participation.”

The six-week training program teaches students how to frame a story, how to create a narrative, how to access sources, and how to interview them. (Read more about it by going back through Dugmore’s posts here.) So far, the course has been taught four time and, according to Dugmore, the program has evolved to be an important part of the paper. “We’ve gone from getting two pieces of citizen journalism a month to one for almost every issue,” he said.

The citizen journalists use mobile phones as a supplementary tool in their work, not as a substitute for old-fashioned journalism techniques. Dugmore explained that although the students use their mobiles for sharing breaking SMS news alerts and taking photographs, they’ve often found it easier to take notes with a paper and pencil and then write out the stories on Grocott’s Mail’s computers. However, he said that they still train the citizen journalists on using the phones as cameras and for audio recording, and that the use of mobile phones is part of the curriculum.

Getting The Word Out

For readers who want to stay up to date on the latest headlines, Grocott’s Mail has an SMS headline alert system. The free program, which users text to sign up for, sends out the paper’s top headlines twice a week. (The print edition comes out every Tuesday and Friday, as do the SMS headline alerts.) The program launched a few months ago, and Dugmore said there are several hundred subscribers so far.

In addition to SMS alerts, the paper is also developing another way to reach its readers — using mobile instant messaging to directly send the news to their subscribers. Dugmore said this will be a good addition to the current SMS headline system because it will give subscribers a more thorough news experience, while being a cost-effective news dissemination tool for the paper (which covers the cost of the SMSs).

“The other nice thing about IM is that you’re not restricted, like SMS, to just headlines,” he said. “If you want to, you can send a whole IM or the whole story “

The paper has already developed a GoogleTalk version of the instant messaging system and is currently finalizing a MXit version; they plan to launch the tool by the end of the summer, meaning that users without high-end phones can still have what Dugmore calls a “smartphone experience.”

Grocott’s Mail’s initiatives show how mobile phones can be a great way to keep readers engaged.

“We were looking for ways to create more spaces where people could get news and information about things that were useful, and [also] looking for ways that possibly people could come together to see if there were common issues or areas where they might be able to make a difference in their own lives,” Dugmore said.