I recently attended the Walkley Media Conference in Sydney, Australia. It is run by the Walkley Foundation, a very interesting outfit that I’m learning more and more about. The Foundation aims to encourage professional and ethical journalism in Australia, and they run the country’s main media awards. They also publish the the Walkley Magazine every two months, which anyone interested in journalism should read. The conference had a lot of great speakers and led off with Peter Fray, the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, who spoke about Who moved my pyramid?.

Speakers from the U.S. included John Nichols, Washington correspondent of The Nation, and the author of some of the best books on U.S. journalism; Jay Rosen, a leading thinker about public and participatory journalism from New York University, was also on the conference bill.

It has been interesting to hear that some folk in Australia are launching a site that’s based on the Knight Foundation-funded Spot.us’ model (and code). It’s great to see Knight-funded innovation diffusing all over the place.

I spoke about our Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project, but also about broader issues dealing with media, journalism, citizen journalism and digital business models in Africa. (It was a panel, so there were questions that led in lots of directions!). I looked in particular at citizen journalism as a concept, and shared something of what we’re trying to achieve. Below is the text that I prepared in advance of the panel, and which was first published in the conference issue of Walkley Magazine.

Remarks on Citizen Journalism

Can democracy work and good government happen without local media?”

The two are not the same thing of course. Authoritarian governments can get the trains to run on time, and tip-top democracies can still have badly run departments, councils or even whole ministries at a national level. A double whammy is to have both low levels of democratic participation (even though people might vote once every five years), and poor government services. In many parts of South Africa, we have both whammies. Does and can local media, or “community” media, make a difference? And if it does, how does it do that?

Our general experience in South Africa is that community media does make some difference, if only to make graft, corruption and inefficiency slightly more likely to be exposed and, we like to think, therefore slightly less likely to occur. Studies that provide hard evidence for this are thin on the ground, but there are some, and they do suggest reasons for optimism in this regard.

A more specific example, of Grahamstown, our fairly representative of the rest of South Africa city of 100,000 people, reinforces this “gut feel” that good local journalism can play both watchdog and more proactive, get-people-involved roles. In Grahamstown, we enjoy a twice-a-week community newspaper that has been publishing for 140 year, Grocott’s Mail. Anecdotally at least, many believe the reasonable performance of our local council and police — when compared on national comparative charts that are published periodically by government agencies — might have something to do with the greater volume of decent press coverage from Grocott’s Mail.

But how can local media achieve greater volumes of credible journalism that is good enough to make a difference? To be commercially viable, or even to stay open, most community papers (and of course even most commercial papers) run on razor thin staff complements. It is hard to get one reporter to a council meeting, let alone cover all the sub-committees, for example.

The Role of Citizen Journalism

That’s where citizen journalism can possibly play a huge role. With Iindaba Ziyafika (“the news is coming”) our approach to citizen journalism is, firstly, to get clear about what we mean. The term “citizen journalism” has always been controversial because of the slippage between the meanings often intended by the users of co-joined term, and the meanings usually ascribed to both constituent words when used on their own. We take the view that journalism, citizen or otherwise, has to adhere to some of the norms of a rather “liberal” conventions of short-form news journalism, which are fairly standard, if aspirational at the edges, in most democracies.

This means that citizen journalists have learned that stories need to be “told” (so a short narrative needs to be constructed), and that the story needs to give as full a picture as possible about the subject matter, and still be as “fair” and “balanced” as it can be.
Fullness, or at least adequate context, comes from a focus on the basics of the “who, what, where, when, how” classic news formulation, and fairness stems, in part, from openness of motive (being clear about why you, the writer, or the paper, or both, are running the story), balance (not just covering the bad stuff) multiple sourcing (“one source is no source” is one of our mantras) and affording a clear right of reply.

None of these are easy to do, or to inculcate, but getting it mostly right means you have a much better chance of creating the kind of stories that readers are more likely to trust and act on.

Achieving this is not straightforward or easy. In our experience, papers that want to do this need to provide a fair amount of training and, harder still, need to seed something of a “community of practice.” (This concept, coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, suggests that ongoing learning takes place best in groups where new knowledge and approaches can be easily shared, and where the sense of belonging to a group is a critical spur to a sense of identity, the development of which is the key to mastery in any profession).

Training Citizen Journalists

Our approach revolves around offering about 20 hours of training over six week, which is carefully sequenced. Our training focuses first on story selection — what is important, what is happening, what can be changed.

Then we spend a lot of time on finding sources and interviewing skills. Many trainees are amazed that their people who’s job it is to talk to the media, and that they will talk to our citizen journalists, especially if they develop some credibility with those sources.

Then we talk and explore how to achieve balance and fairness, but also going just that bit further than “standard,” “objective” commercial media pieces, to working out ways to create more “empowering” and “solution orientated” stories. We want our writers to not just write about what is wrong, but to ask and explore how is it to be fixed. Better still, follow up, and follow up some more, something many papers have become poor at, until something happens!

Post training, we now also provide a dedicated citizen journalism editor and we encourage the most promising citizen journalists from each course (about 30 people complete each course, which are run over six weeks) to attend diary meetings. We’ve also created our own citizen journalism diary meetings. And, we pay for published articles and photos. It is a very modest amount, R100 for a published article, but in a town where more than one in two people are unemployed (and youth under 30, unemployment is two out of three), this can and is becoming a useful way to get some additional income.

Of course, a lot of people — when hearing about our approaches — throw their hands up and say, “Ok, wait a second, your so-called citizen journalists are trained, there is post training mentoring, their copy is edited and fact checked, stories are paid for, and you even encourage them to join diary meetings with all the pros — how is this not just journalism en masse, rather than citizen journalism?”

Holistic Approach Works

And if they are producing good stories, that make some difference, how is this not just a
way of generating copy cheaper, i.e. how is this not exploitative? (And when the Knight Foundation grant is gone, how could you, or any other grantless paper, afford to give volunteers 20 hours of training, payment for stories and photos, and a sense of belonging to a group of people with an emerging quasi-professional identity. Yes, we give our citizen journalists press cards!)

These are all good questions, but these citizen journalists remain dedicated and committed, some now for more than a year, because they know how to craft stories that do “get things done” — most often by shaming local officials into doing their jobs better, or getting local police to stop using the disabled parking bays when doing their grocery shopping! — and they get some collegiality and conviviality that comes from a work like experience. Many are unemployed, but some have jobs and want to make a difference. In each group about a fifth – about four or five people per training group — really get into it. (And we working hard to figure out more about why that is, and how to up these numbers).

But, taken overall, this set of approaches has produced about 70 published stories we would not otherwise have had in past six months. Our first trainings in 2009 produced few viable stories and little longevity of interest. It has only been when we have created a more holistic experience, honed in on training and post training “space” that builds confidence and starts creating some sense of identify as citizen journalists, that we’re starting to see more regular contributions and, even more gratifying, some great journalism.

Its early days, but “watch this space” — it might yet be filled with citizen journalism some day.

(For examples of some of the citizen journalism produced by the Iindaba Ziyafika project, see http://www.grocotts.co.za/category/section/mymakana and other sections of Grocott’s Mail online)