May 252012

Collaborating Communities

Hyperlocalism was the phrase on everyone’s lips today, at the BBC College of Journalism Connecting Communities conference, held at Media City, Salford. Not only were we asked to think about citizen media, but we were given plenty of evidence that the rise of social and community media is starting to be taken seriously by investors, policy makers and international media organisations.

The trip from Leicester to Salford was well rewarded with glorious sunshine in a revitalised urban cityscape that is becoming increasingly audacious. Media City really looks like a hub for serious investment in media, and is home to BBC Sport, BBC 5 Live and CBBC. ITV are building headquarters across the quay, and the University of Salford are setting up a campus there. The direct tram from Manchester city centre took passengers through the winding pathways of Manchester and Salford ‘s new urban heartlands. But enough of the journey, what about the conference?

How mainstream media can engage with communities was the opening topic of discussion. The debate focussed on asking questions about the journalistic values and editorial standards that will govern social media in the future. The discussion focussed on how user-generated content, on the web and broadcast by communities themselves, will be shaped. Taking part in this discussion was: Claire Wardle from Storyful, who specialise in thinking about how social media and citizen journalism can support news-gathering; Adrian Van-Klaveren, controller of BBC 5 Live; Henry Peirse, founder of GRNLive, a news agency aiming to harness the power of social media, and Fergus Bell, associate producer with Associated Press, who use social media to drive news stories through the AP international syndicated reporting services.


BBC Salford

Two key issues emerged from the discussion: the role of the journalist, and the way that communities can harness the power of social media to tell their own stories and share their own ideas about the world that they experience. But the real question was what makes someone a journalist? According to Claire Wardle it is the ‘forensic level of checking information’ that makes someone a journalist. While it is possible to share stories, gossip and reaction using Twitter and Facebook, according to Claire, this doesn’t necessarily pass the ‘quality threshold test’ that allows a journalist to turn information and hearsay into a valuable commodity – i.e. news. Instead, Claire argued it’s the way that journalists apply the traditional values and techniques of the trade, and contextualise otherwise raw information, that has the potential to turn social media traffic into something that is substantially more meaningful, longer-lasting – and hopefully – financial rewarding.

Taking a more provocative stance, Henry Peirse declared that traditional media organisations are essentially ‘dead men walking’, and that their days are numbered. The fact that the old industrial form of producing news has survived, it might be argued, is testament to the strength of the inertia of habit that supports them, rather than any other justifiable reason for their survival. According to Peirse, community and citizen’s media are in ‘rude health’, and are rapidly gaining ground as the new forms of mobile and social media become established and embedded. It’s true, conceded Peirse, that citizen media will continue to call on the same principles of journalism that have helped in the past, and which have brought us to the point we are at now. However, it’s just that more people are going to be able to call themselves journalists in the future, by the very simple fact that many, many more people are now able to post their own content directly to a multitude of self-hosted sites and social communication portals. In this emerging media ecology, rather than the ‘hallowed’ principles of journalism somehow being magically passed from journalist to journalist – rather in the way that monks might pass-on the skills of illuminating manuscripts – the essential skills and values will instead be taught through sophisticated and integrated courses that will be more readily available across new experiential programmes of study. And that these programmes of study will aim to pull in a wider group of people than previously, who have never previously felt entitled to access them.


Media City

Echoing these sentiments, Fergus Bell from Associated Press, told the conference that ‘quality’ news reporting is only achieved by applying the continuing values of good journalism. Reports have to be verified, facts are sacred, and the paramount requirement is to tell a good story that is relevant to the lives of the audience. This was a theme that was taken-up by Adrian Van-Klavern, the controller of BBC 5 Live, who told the delegates that three principles govern news-gathering at the BBC, including it’s social media output. First, trust is essential between the broadcaster and it’s audience. Listeners really have to be able to rely on the information they are getting from national and local broadcasters. Second, speed is an essential premium. Audiences, according to Van-Klavern, increasingly want immediate news because they can access stories many more sources simultaneously from their portable media devices. Finally, it’s incumbent, argued, Van-Klavern, that reporting is done in a way that is relevant to the lives of the people listening to or following any story.

All the panellists agreed that serious thought has to be given to the technological changes that have brought this reconfiguration of expectations about in recent years. Stories are given much more immediacy thanks to social media, and the reaction from members of the public is increasingly become part of the story itself. Simply to say that social media has changed the nature of the way we think about news is by now an obvious point to make. But it is true. In recent years we have seen the opening of the once closed professional communities by social media, with Twitter in particular playing an essential role in this. The once private circles of commentators and reporters who were previously hidden behind corporate screens, safe in relative anonymity, accessible only to a limited circle of insiders, are now communicating publicly and often competitively. All the major newspaper commentators Tweet, re-Tweet and argue with other commentators as a way of developing their public profiles. This has the added advantage that audiences can now also add their contribution to this debate and can help to shape or direct a story as it emerges, and can offer comment after it has been published.

All the panel members agreed, however, that while Twitter is a great tool for journalists, it’s only a tool, and doesn’t replace the need to get out-and-about, talk to people and build-up sources across the spectrum of public institutions and community access points. In the social media free-for-all, journalists play an essential role in adding value to otherwise formless information, because they have the skills and the tools to check, verify and back-up their stories with evidence (well, that’s the theory). What’s changed though is that now users of social media themselves can checkout a story by scanning Google and comparing difference published sources across the Internet. Lazy journalism quickly gets found-out these days, as Johann Hari learnt the hard way.

In the process of telling stories that have resonance with audiences, then, the trick is to turn the shift to citizen media into something that is sustainable, and which might pay a return on the investment that is needed to establish the infrastructure, and give us all something to live on. The harsh economic reality is that the role of the journalist as ‘gatekeeper’ is often overlooked. Sifting through sources of information and deciding what is relevant – or not – is how journalists have traditionally earned their way in the world. But this gatekeeping approach is founded on the old and now unworkable model of mass communications, in which news is seen exclusively as a commodity that is packaged-up and delivered to an audience in hermetically sealed and branded units. None of the workings of this process are on show. There is no reason for audiences to want to see the workings of the black box, and so the process of production of journalism and reporting often remain a mystery to the otherwise unsuspecting consumer. Nowhere in the traditional model of news production is the audience viewed as a significant participant in the co-creation of news. Indeed, the audience has never been viewed as a collaborative producer of news – that is until now.

Changes in technology, then, are making the later more relevant than the former. Major news organisations are now competing to position themselves considerably closer to audiences than ever before. With embedded mobile computing platforms showing considerable growth, the prospect that individual users of media services and content will call on bespoke, augmented and aggregated information services, is becoming widely established reality. No longer the stuff of science fiction, the fact is, as was pointed out later in the day, more than one trillion web enabled devices are set to come-online globally in the next few years. An astonishing thought.

Programme production and editorial meetings often now start with the question ‘what’s trending?’ For the first time ever it is possible, through social media, to track what people are interested in – in real-time. We can now map how stories resonate with different communities as each story unfolds, one report or discussion at a time. Broadcasters, like BBC 5 Live, can now double-check how stories, features and programmes ‘resonate’ off-air. Listeners can give an immediate reaction and can propel a story from the side-lines into the mainstream. News aggregation services, like Google or Huffington Post, can collect and collate stories from more diverse and esoteric sources. They don’t even need to originate content themselves, they just soak-up or collect as much information that they can and sort it for us. Individuals’ blogging for themselves therefore have the potential to form the kernel of a story, which can, on occasions, breakout into mainstream popular consciousness. These stories can sometimes do this, not because they have been carefully curated by the news gatekeepers, but instead because they have been adopted and spread virally by users who recommend them to their fellow users, or repeatedly make reference to them.

Fergus Bell remained resolute during the discussion, though, noting that for the major news distributors a story has to have some intrinsic value to it before it is pursued and resourced. According to Bell social media does not provide free journalism, but should instead be thought about as an increasingly collaborative activity, in which news producers and distributers have to work closely with communities to guide and develop stories. It’s not enough for news producers to sit behind the ‘fortress’ wall and just soak-up what is coming to them on the Internet, instead journalists have to do the time-honoured thing and get out and help people to tell their stories in their own words.

In the future, according to Adrian Van-Klavern, the BBC has to do more to put the story in the hands of the listener, viewer and user. By working more directly with communities and audiences the BBC hopes to sustain it’s relationship with the British public and maintain it’s unique monopoly as a state funded broadcaster. Ultimately, though, the shift towards social media raises some important questions about the role of the professional journalist. Just what will the journalist of the future be like? A facilitator rather than a gatekeeper perhaps? A relationship builder and a networker as well as a curator? Social media, it was generally agreed, is posing some important philosophical and ethical challenges to the news production community. In an age when news can be produced and shared through ‘hyperlocal’ sources, such as blog sites and community radio stations, how long can so-called professional journalists and news organisations hold on to their assumed role as gatekeeper and ‘validator’ of news? What do major news organisations offer to any aspiring alternative news producers anyway? Why would any local, community or independent reporter want validation from the very organisations that are seemingly ignoring them in the first place?

Three questions seem increasingly relevant in this context. What is the model of community that we are working with here, and why is it now being focused on so vociferously by large media organisations and policy makers? What is the role of corporate media as an activator or inhibitor of the wider growth and health of community media? Are we simply wasting our time promoting the growth of social media when the international conglomerates have sown-up the markets, leaving economic development out of the reach of independent traders and social groups? Do we have such a low expectation of government that we aren’t asking for regulation to hold back the strong so that the fledgling entrants in the market might have a better chance to get established and compete on an even playing field? Will anything come of the Leveson Inquiry that might change the UK’s monopolistic media environment? Finally, and this might be the point that offers a glimmer of hope, how will technology change the social and business environment in which individuals and other independent collaborating agents might seek to develop their own radical business agendas and create more diverse media platforms? Do we always have to follow the spiv-economics of the neoliberal market, or can we create an economy that is more sustainable, more responsive to local needs, and which relies on the popular consent and support of the co-creators who have a stake in it?

I’ve come away from this conference energised and full of ideas about how social media can be promoted and developed, either through DemonFM or through the courses that I am involved with. One thing I am certain about though, is that I no longer want to be a bystander and observer of events. Instead, it’s time to push-on and shape the change that is happening all around us with social and community media.

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