Tag Archives: community

Hyperlocal Voices: Richard Gurner, Caerphilly Observer

For the fourth in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head back to Wales. Launched by Richard Gurner in July 2009, the Caerphilly Observer acts as a local news and information website for Caerphilly County Borough.

The site is one of a small, but growing, number of financially viable hyperlocal websites. Richard, who remains the Editor of the site, told Damian Radcliffe a little bit about his journey over the last three years. Continue reading

Hyperlocal Voices: Ed Walker and Ryan Gibson, Blog Preston

For the third in our new series of Hyperlocal Voices we head North to the city of Preston in Lancashire, UK. Damian Radcliffe spoke to Blog Preston‘s Ed Walker and Ryan Gibson about some of the lessons they have learned over the last three and a half years.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Ed: There’s me, Ed, who used to live in Preston but now lives in London – studied and lived in Preston for five years. Plus Ryan Owen Gibson who is Preston born and bred, he’s co-editor. James Duffell a local web developer and designer is the technical brains behind the site. We’ve recently said goodbye to co-editor Joseph Stashko who was studying at the University of Central Lancashire but will be departing Preston soon after joining Blog Preston in April 2010. We also had co-editor Andy Halls on board from April 2010 to May 2011 before he joined The Sun. We also have some excellent guest contributors including Holly Sutton, Paul Swarbrick, Lisa McManus Paul Melling and many others!

2. What made you decide to set up the blog?

It was a cold January afternoon in 2009, the Preston Citizen (weekly free newspaper for the city) had recently shut down and there was a chance to create something new.

3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

Ed: Sunday 11th January 2009, started out as a wordpress.com blog to test the water and after a couple of months I recruited the help of James Duffell and he made an ace site and helped me move it to a proper domain. Just started posting local news and events, and build it up from there – lots of Freedom of Information requests, local photos, events coverage and nostalgia.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Ed: I saw the St Albans Blog, and thought, hey, this could happen here.

5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

Ryan: I don’t think Blog Preston can compete with a traditional news operation, and I don’t think we would want to. What makes a hyperlocal blog such as ours so great is that we have the freedom, both editorially and strategically, to change our course very quickly. This means we that can adapt to our readership much faster than a traditional news operation can. I also like to think we listen to our readers more, and we try to engage with them through social media channels and on the blog itself.

6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

Ed: May 2010 – we covered the general election and we’ll touch on why that was so important. July 2009 was a big moment, we moved to a hosted solution with a proper domain and really started to accelerate the amount of content going on the site. 2011 was big as we teamed up with NESTA to train community reporters and we recruited a lot of guest contributors, plus Ryan came onboard and has really excelled at live event coverage.

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

Ed: We now average around 10,000 unique visitors a month, with 24,000 page impressions. In October 2010 the site was averaging 10,000 page impressions a month and 4,000 unique visitors.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

Ed: Just keeping the momentum going, it’s easy to set a site up but when you move away from an area it’s a tough decision, do you shut the site or down to try to keep it going? Fortuntely there’s a great team of people who have stuck their hand up and got involved, and well, we’re still producing great community news for Preston.

9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Ryan: Blog Preston has been lucky enough to break a number of stories that weren’t being picked up by the mainstream media at the time, such as an announcement that the BBC would be coming to Preston to film a series of short dramas, dubbed the Preston Passion, as part of its Easter output.

…I think the live coverage of the May 2010 electionsreally defines what we are about. The mechanics of that series was very simple – it was just a team of guys with a laptop and a mobile phone each, but the level of coverage they managed to achieve went above and beyond what any of the other news operations were doing at the time.

We were the first to interview Preston MP Mark Hendrick after his re-election.

Perhaps this was the moment that people began to take us seriously.

10. What are your plans for the future?

Ryan: 2012 is very important for Preston due to its unique significance as a Guild year, which is only celebrated once every twenty years. So editorially, we are being kept busy covering local events and breaking new stories.

We are also working closely with a number of organisations to collaborate and increase our readership through joint ventures. We are in talks with lots of important people, which is exciting. Our main aim going forward is to grow the editorial team, to put us in a position where we can call on some of the best local writers and reporters to deliver the best content for Blog Preston readers.

Hyperlocal Voices: Rachel Howells, Port Talbot MagNet

The second in a new series of Hyperlocal Voices looks at the Port Talbot MagNet, a not-for-profit community co-operative which has been set up to provide a local news and information service to the people and communities of Port Talbot.

Board Member Rachel Howells took time out to reflect on developments since their launch in 2010 and to tell Damian Radcliffe about some plans for the future.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Port Talbot Magnet was started in 2010 by seven professional journalists from South Wales who had all been casualties of redundancy or cuts in freelance budgets in established magazines and newspapers. First and foremost, we are a workers’ co-operative, but we are also a social enterprise and so we are keen to ensure we a force for good in the community. Two and half years on, we still have seven directors, as well as around 20 co-op members and lots of volunteers.

2. What made you decide to set up the blog?

As NUJ members, we found ourselves sitting in so many meetings talking about cuts and closures and it felt sometimes like the local media industry was falling down around our ears. When redundancy hit most of our local Union branch committee we decided that we would do something proactive about the situation to try to ensure good quality journalism was still a viable, sustainable career.

As we were setting up the co-operative, we heard that the weekly newspaper in the town of Port Talbot was closing and it seemed an obvious gap for us to try to fill – here was a town of 35,000 people without a dedicated newspaper and here were seven out-of-work journalists who could supply news. Making the one pay for the other was, and in many ways still is, the problem.

3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

The blog came along much later. Our first ambition was to go into print and we spent about a year applying for funding and trying to get the project off the ground in some way. The funding applications weren’t successful unfortunately, and we had a crisis meeting where we decided to change tack and concentrate on what we did best – journalism. This turned out to be a good move, because we could show what we were capable of; people suddenly understood what we were trying to achieve.

In a more practical sense, we had no capital apart from donations from the directors and so we set up a WordPress blog, paying a modest amount for a theme, and we got in touch with local companies and the council and asked them to put us on their mailing lists for press releases. Then we spent lots of time learning the patch and making contacts. Facebook has been a particularly good way to reach the online community in Port Talbot (not many are using Twitter yet), and drives about half our website traffic.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

We set up our own crowdfunding model called Pitch-in! which was hugely influenced by Spot.Us, although we changed the idea a bit to suit a more hyperlocal audience. I love what Spot.Us has done to empower freelance journalists and as this was at the heart of our enterprise we have been really keen to offer this as a service to our members.

5. How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

We would like to be more like one, I think, but we don’t have the resources at the moment. As we are so reliant on volunteers we don’t have the consistency that a traditional newsroom can offer – for example we can’t always cover local council meetings because our volunteers have other commitments as well. But I think we all believe in the principles behind traditional newsrooms and the power they have to be a force for good in the community as a watchdog or a voice.

For right or wrong, journalists can ask the questions that perhaps get ignored when members of the public ask them, and even with our limitations we are able to perform this aspect of newsroom journalism.

In future we hope we will become more sustainable so we can pay journalists and operate a more professional service, but this will always be in co- operation with the local community. We always have a day every week where people can call in to the office and speak to us, which is what all local newsrooms used to do.

6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

Aside from launching the website in the first place, a successful system has been our ‘editor of the week’ rota, which has seen a team of five journalists taking it in turns to supervise the website, commission volunteers and respond to emails. This has meant there’s always been a clear point of contact every week and that things don’t get missed. Another big milestone has also been paying journalists for their skills, which we have started to do in the last few months. So far we’ve only been able to pay for court reports but we plan to do more of this as finances allow.

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

We get a consistent 3,500 unique visitors every month now, which has more than trebled in a year. We have seen some great peaks around some of our coverage, too – notably stories about The Passion, a landscape theatre production which took place in Port Talbot in 2011 and starred locally-raised Hollywood star Michael Sheen. We have also had great responses to our coverage of protests and campaigns, crime and local elections.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

The lack of funding and the lack of resources. Three of our seven directors have full time jobs, one has failing health and the other three have freelance or other commitments, and so progress can sometimes be frustratingly slow as we try to recruit or train volunteers and manage the website, finances and keep our contacts live. But we are still here, and the project continues to chalk up successes.

9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

I think our coverage of The Passion was pretty impressive.

We had twelve volunteers covering the three days of live theatre and we produced a hugely comprehensive mix of written reporting, photography, video and audio – some of which we still haven’t had time to edit and upload to the website more than a year on.

It was a unique production that took place all over the town in both scheduled and unscheduled performances, and therefore a unique challenge to cover it all. I think our archive shows how daunting a task it was and how well we worked as a team to do it. I don’t think any other media outlet managed the comprehensive coverage we produced. I look back at it now and wonder how on earth we managed it.

10. What are your plans for the future?

There was an anniversary exhibition over Easter which commemorated The Passion and, in partnership with National Theatre Wales, we produced the official souvenir programme for it. This was our first foray into print, and we made a modest profit from advertising. It showed us that going into print would be an obvious move in the future, and so now we are developing ways we could make the website work alongside a printed news-sheet.

More generally, we would like to keep growing, pay journalists and establish a sustainable model that could benefit other communities who are facing similar ‘news black holes’ following the death of a local newspaper.

And we’d really like to persuade the local council to let us film their council meetings…

Hyperlocal Voices: Zoe Jewell and Tim Dickens, Brixton Blog

We haven’t any Hyperlocal Voices interviews for a while, so Damian Radcliffe has agreed to remedy that. To kickstart this new series he talks to Zoe Jewell and Tim Dickens from the Brixton Blog in South West London.

The site relaunched earlier this year, with an aspiration for the “website to perform the role of the now all but defunct traditional local paper.” Interestingly, Tim left his job at a local paper (run by Archant) to concentrate on a venture which seeks to be: “a focus point for all section[s] of the community to come to and read, share and discuss. A voice that you can trust amid the frenetic tumult that is Brixton.”

Here the Editor’s answer ten quick questions about the history of the blog and outline some plans for the future.

1. Who were the people behind the blog?

Zoe Jewell, who works in television production, originally set up the Brixton Blog in 2010 to cover some of the interesting stuff happening in the area where she lives and grew up. In January 2012 she relaunched the website with local newspaper journalist Tim Dickens as a comprehensive online news resource for people in Brixton. We are now helped by a team of more than a dozen regular talented contributors.

2. What made you decide to set up the blog?

We felt there was a massive gap in the provision of news in Brixton, an area where news is made all the time and where lots of change is happening that was previously unreported. We wanted to hold the local authorities to account by covering council meetings.

It is vital that the community can come together to discuss big issues like gentrification and housing, so we wanted the site to report facts and stimulating discussion on them.

3. When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

We relaunched the Blog in January 2012. We met and came up with the idea in November 2011 and very quickly got the idea up and running. First we spoke to local business owners, bloggers, community leaders and councillors about the idea and what was needed in the area from a resource like this.

We also spoke to hyperlocal experts and bloggers from across the country to find out about their own experiences and ask for advice. We tweeted that we needed help from graphic designers and website designers and managed to find people who felt strongly about contributing to the brixton community and would, very kindly, help us out for free.

4. What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

Se1, Herne Hill Forum, The Londonist, Hackney Citizen

5. How did/do you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?

As trained journalists and media professionals we see our role as a replacement to traditional local newspapers. We aim to report timely news accurately and in a balanced manner, giving all points of view and enabling discussion through the comments thread. The launch of our printed paper, the Brixton Bugle, this month will take this one step further.

At the same time, the nature of web and the relationship we have built up with our local readers means we can have more of a personal relationship with our readers than most traditional media and be much more flexible – we can very much have our own personality online, especially on Twitter. That also means we are, quite rightly, held to account too – when you might to meet your reader in the local shop buying a pint of milk or having a pint in the pub you want to be sure you’ve done good!

6. What have been the key moments in the blog’s editorial development?

Other than our campaign victory regarding the Lambeth Country Show, we are proud of the time we began “live blogging” council meetings. We had three reporters in the council chamber all tweeting, writing and blogging simultaneously during the budget setting.

7. What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time?

We currently have an average of about 1,500 page views per day from just under 1,000 unique views. This has been steadily rising.

8. What is / has been your biggest challenge to date?

By far our biggest challenge has been monetising the site and trying to find advertisers to support it. It is also a challenge to prioritise our time: There is so much to write about, and so many potential projects, but so little time!

9. What story, feature or series are you most proud of?

Two weeks after our relaunch we learned that the local council, Lambeth, planned to cancel a popular country show, which attracts 250,000 annually. Although they blamed the Olympics we felt there was more to it and began a petition to reinstate the popular event.

We began a community campaign to reinstate the show that attracted almost 1,000 signatures in just a few days. It prompted responses from councilors, MPs and the police borough commander. A few days later they announced that the show would in fact go ahead. We believe that it was the pressure exerted by the Blog’s campaign that led to the u-turn. (Ed: see this report from the Evening Standard.)

10. What are your plans for the future?

Later this month we plan to launch the Brixton Bugle, an 8-page hyperlocal newspaper on newsprint. It will be distributed to about 5,000 commuters at Brixton tube station and across the town centre in shops, cafes and libraries.

We are also in the process of organising a series of “offline” debates about issues we have raised on the site.

We have ambitions to create a mobile app edition of the site (NESTA funding allowing) as well as developing the listings side and in

2011: the UK hyper-local year in review

In this guest post, Damian Radcliffe highlights some topline developments in the hyper-local space during 2011. He also asks for your suggestions of great hyper-local content from 2011. His more detailed slides looking at the previous year are cross-posted at the bottom of this article.

2011 was a busy year across the hyper-local sphere, with a flurry of activity online as well as more traditional platforms such as TV, Radio and newspapers.

The Government’s plans for Local TV have been considerably developed, following the Shott Review just over a year ago. We now have a clearer indication of the areas which will be first on the list for these new services and how Ofcom might award these licences. What we don’t know is who will apply for these licences, or what their business models will be. But, this should become clear in the second half of the year.

Whilst the Leveson Inquiry hasn’t directly been looking at local media, it has been a part of the debate. Claire Enders outlined some of the challenges facing the regional and local press in a presentation showing declining revenue, jobs and advertising over the past five years. Her research suggests that the impact of “the move to digital” has been greater at a local level than at the nationals.

Across the board, funding remains a challenge for many. But new models are emerging, with Daily Deals starting to form part of the revenue mix alongside money from foundations and franchising.

And on the content front, we saw Jeremy Hunt cite a number of hyper-local examples at the Oxford Media Convention, as well as record coverage for regional press and many hyper-local outlets as a result of the summer riots.

I’ve included more on all of these stories in my personal retrospective for the past year.

One area where I’d really welcome feedback is examples of hyper-local content you produced – or read – in 2011. I’m conscious that a lot of great material may not necessarily reach a wider audience, so do post your suggestions below and hopefully we can begin to redress that.

20 recent hyperlocal developments (June-August 2011)

Ofcom’s Damian Radcliffe produces a regular round-up of developments in hyperlocal publishing. In this guest post he cross-publishes his latest presentation for this summer, as well as the background to the reports.

Ofcom’s 2009 report on Local and Regional Media in the UK identified the increasing role that online hyperlocal media is playing in the local and regional media ecology.

New research in the report identified that

“One in five consumers claimed to use community websites at least monthly, and a third of these said they had increased their use of such websites over the past two years.”

That was two years ago, and since then, this nascent sector has continued to evolve, with the web continuing to offer a space and platform for community expression, engagement and empowerment.

The diversity of these offerings is manifest in the Hyperlocal Voices series found on this website, as well as Talk About Local’s Ten Questions feature, both of which speak to hyperlocal practitioners about their work.

For a wider view of developments in this sector, you may want to look at the bi-monthly series of slides I publish on SlideShare every two months.

Each set of slides typically outlines 20 recent hyperlocal developments; usually 10 from the UK and 10 from the US.

Topics in the current edition include Local TV, hyperlocal coverage of the recent England riots, the rise of location based deals and marketing, as well as the FCC’s report on The Information Needs of Communities.

Feedback and suggestions for future editions – including omissions from current slides – are actively welcomed.

Learning about community strategies: 10 lessons

Back in February I blogged about the process of teaching journalism students to think about working with communities. The results have been positive: even where the strategy itself wasn’t successful, the individuals have learned from its execution, its research, or both. And so, for those who were part of this process – and anyone else who’s interested – I thought I would summarise 10 key themes that came through the resulting work.

1. A community strategy isn’t something you can execute effectively in one month

Perhaps the number one lesson that people drew from the experience was that they should have started early, and done little, often, rather than a lot all at once. There was a tendency to underestimate the needs of community management and a need for better time management.

Communities needed time to “grow organically”, wrote one; it wasn’t a top down approach. Members might also have felt they were being “manipulated” when weeks of inactivity were followed by a flood of posts, links and questions.

Continue reading

FAQ: How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Here’s another set of questions I’m answering in public in case anyone wants to ask the same:

How can broadcasters benefit from online communities?

Online communities contain many individuals who will be able to contribute different kinds of value to news production. Most obviously, expertise, opinion, and eyewitness testimony. In addition, they will be able to more effectively distribute parts of a story to ensure that it reaches the right experts, opinion-formers and eyewitnesses. The difference from an audience is that a community tends to be specialised, and connected to each other.

If you rephrase the question as ‘How can broadcasters benefit from people?’ it may be clearer.

How does a broadcaster begin to develop an engaged online community, any tips?

Over time. Rather than asking about how you develop an online community ask yourself instead: how do you begin to develop relationships? Waiting until a major news event happens is a bad strategy: it’s like waiting until someone has won the lottery to decide that you’re suddenly their friend.

Journalists who do this well do a little bit every so often – following people in their field, replying to questions on social networks, contributing to forums and commenting on blogs, and publishing blog posts which are helpful to members of that community rather than simply being about ‘the story’ (for instance, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ questions behind the news).

In case you are aware of networks in the middle east, do you think they are tapping into online communities and social media adequately?

I don’t know the networks well enough to comment – but I do think it’s hard for corporations to tap into communities; it works much better at an individual reporter level.

Can you mention any models whether it is news channels or entertainment television which have developed successful online communities, why do they work?

The most successful examples tend to be newspapers: I think Paul Lewis at The Guardian has done this extremely successfully, and I think Simon Rogers’ Data Blog has also developed a healthy community around data and visualisation. Both of these are probably due in part to the work of Meg Pickard there around community in general.

The BBC’s UGC unit is a good example from broadcasting – although that is less about developing a community as about providing platforms for others to contribute, and a way for journalists to quickly find expertise in those communities. More specifically, Robert Peston and Rory Cellan-Jones use their blogs and Twitter accounts well to connect with people in their fields.

Then of course there’s Andy Carvin at NPR, who is an exemplar of how to do it in radio. There’s so much written about what he does that I won’t repeat it here.

What are the reasons that certain broadcasters cannot connect successfully with online communities?

I expect a significant factor is regulation which requires objectivity from broadcasters but not from newspapers. If you can’t express an opinion then it is difficult to build relationships, and if you are more firmly regulated (which broadcasting is) then you take fewer risks.

Also, there are more intermediaries in broadcasting and fewer reporters who are public-facing, which for some journalists in broadcasting makes the prospect of speaking directly to the former audience that much more intimidating.

Teaching community-based journalism

Image by AndYaDontStop

Image from Flickr by AndYaDontStop

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about ‘Universities Without Walls‘. At its heart was a belief that community is an asset for news organisations, and reputation in at least one community is an asset journalists should be actively cultivating.

I’ve recently been asking students – at both City University London and Birmingham City University – to complete assignments that ask them to do just that.

The first assignment is a Community Strategy Analysis (you can read the brief here). This was given to students across the 8 Masters degrees at City University. They are required to identify a community that they can join and contribute to, with the objective of becoming a better journalist as a result (because they will have access to a wider range of sources, and sources will have access to them, they will build a diverse distribution network, and most of all they will have built reputation and relationships that form the basis for all the above)

The other assignment was given to Birmingham City University MA Online Journalism students last week. This is a Communities of Practice assignment, where students are asked to join groups of practitioners (e.g. online video makers; data journalists and developers; podcasters; and so on) to improve their multimedia journalism, contribute to the field, and build support networks for ongoing skills development.

Here’s what I’m learning so far.

I have to explain why community matters

The vast majority of my work with the City University students has been cultural. The idea of ‘the audience’ is so persistent, so resistant, that it takes a huge amount of work to unpick.

We are so precious about ‘our’ journalism, it seems, that we will do anything but let other people into it. More worrying, we seem to see journalism as either a glamorous profession, or a paternalist one. ‘Public interest’ is ‘our interest'; the ‘public sphere’ is ‘our sphere’.

Students understand the importance of building a network of contacts; they understand why they should make themselves contactable; and they are happy to get involved with distributing content online. But many expect all this to happen without building relationships. Some, indeed, worry about this being a “waste of time”.

I’m not sure whether this is a result of news organisations increasingly becoming content factories, or whether aspiring journalists have always expected ‘being a journalist’ to mean that the hard work of building relationships had already been done for them by the newspaper and their predecessors. It might be an inherited cultural attitude that sneers at readers. It could be all of the above, or none of those reasons. Whatever the reasons, I find it rather depressing that the communities we are supposed to serve are often seen as something we cannot be bothered with.

Common misunderstandings about community

At the module’s midway point I asked students to submit a draft of their community strategy so that I could make sure they were on the right track. It was a useful exercise in what you might call ‘Agile’ teaching – it allowed me to pull out some common misunderstandings and correct them. Normally this doesn’t happen until you’ve taught a module for the first time, and adapt it for the second and third times.

One recurring problem was students being too focused on content, or community, rather than both. The content-centric strategies started with what they were going to do – write a blog, etc. – and then positioned the ‘audience’ as a compliant distributor and contributor, with little thought around why they would do that.

The strategies that were too focused on community failed to identify the journalistic objectives that should remain important. The journalist was left helping a community, but without necessarily playing to their own journalistic strengths of communication and investigation.

Two key questions to ask were illustrated by one particular student, whose draft contained a brief section titled ‘What do I have to offer them?’ and another titled ‘What do I get back?’. Addressing both questions ensures the project is balanced.

A good strategy is specific – but too many failed to specify what they were going to do to stimulate interaction. Exceptions included one student who noted that many successful blog posts ended with an open question; and another who identified the questions that she would use to stimulate debate.

Likewise, tools needed to be chosen based on where the community is, and what the tools did. There’s no point starting a blog if all of your chosen community are using Facebook. And there’s no point choosing Facebook if you want the information to be available to search engines.

Finding the community at all was a problem for some, a problem which came down to their search techniques. There’s plenty of advice on this, from the search engines you use to the phrasing, but the key issue is to imagine what your community is saying, not who they are: so don’t search for “twins”, search for “my twin sister” because that’s the sort of thing that only a twin is going to say.

How do you measure success? Many students saw volume as the key, aiming for round numbers of followers on Twitter, fans on Facebook or hits on their blogs. But engagement would be a much more relevant metric: how many comments do you want? How many @ messages, or even retweets?

Other problems including not looking at what else there was serving that community, and why it was successful, or trying to compete with it instead of working with it. If your community is mothers then best to build a reputation on Mumsnet instead of trying to beat it.

Assessment

As the assignment is inherently experimental, I’ve borrowed the marking scheme from the ‘Experimental Portfolio’ assignment on Birmingham City University’s MA Online Journalism. This is designed to allow students to ‘fail’ to meet their own objectives without necessarily failing the assignment itself. Put another way, they are assessed on process, not product (and online, of course, the process itself is often the product).

The three assessment criteria, then, are: research; creativity and viability; and analysis. So as long as the student’s community strategy is based on research, and they critically analyse the results, that is A Good Thing. This is Masters level education – they should be learning something from their work, and yes, that means being prepared to fail. The assessment of creativity is aimed at both ensuring that taking big risks is encouraged, and that creative and effective executions are also rewarded. Few things depress me more than a student who is afraid to learn anything because they might lose marks.

Communities of practice

The assignment for MA Online Journalism students is different. It is an acknowledgement that in a field like online journalism, where technology and knowledge is evolving all the time, Masters level education means having the professional contacts that allow you to remain at the forefront of the field in 2 or 5 years – not just in 6 months.

There are many similarities with the other assignment: the focus is on building relationships, and contributing something to the wider community, rather than just taking from it. The difference is that the objective is skills-based, not story-based.

One of the key features of education is what you learn from the people around you – not just the person lecturing you. That’s why e-learning has failed to take off in quite the same way as expected, and why the Open University still does it so well (they recognise that it is about more than content).

Having a ‘university without walls’ where students learn as much outside the classroom as they do in it is a key development in this respect. And as lecturers we need to help make that happen.

Universities without walls

@majohns Economist believes in future their distinguished and knowledgable audience is as important as their editors #smart_2011

This post forms part of the Carnival of Journalism, whose theme this month is universities’ roles in their local community.

In traditional journalism the concept of community is a broad one, typically used when the speaker really means ‘audience’, or ‘market’.

In a networked age, however, a community is an asset: it is a much more significant source of information than in other media; an active producer of content; and, perhaps most importantly, at the heart of any online distribution system.

You can see this at work in some of the most successful content startups of the internet era – Boing Boing, The Huffington Post, Slashdot – and even in mainstream outlets such as The Guardian, with, for example, its productive community around the Data Blog.

Any fledgling online journalism operation which is not based on a distinct community is, to my thinking, simply inefficient – and any journalism course that features an online element should be built on communities – should be linking in to the communities that surround it.

Teaching community-driven journalism

My own experience is that leaving the walls of academia behind and hosting classes wherever the community meets can make an enormous difference. In my MA in Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, for example, the very first week is not about newsgathering or blogging or anything to do with content: it’s about community, and identifying which one the students are going to serve.

To that end students spend their induction week attending the local Social Media Cafe, meeting local bloggers and understanding that particular community (one of whom this year suggested the idea that led to Birmingham Budget Cuts). We hold open classes in a city centre coffee shop so that people from Birmingham can drop in: when we talked about online journalism and the law, there were bloggers, former newspaper editors, and a photographer whose contributions turned the event into something unlike anything you’d see in a classroom.

And students are sent out to explore the community as part of learning about blogging, or encouraged to base themselves physically in the communities they serve. Andy Brightwell and Jon Hickman’s hyperlocal Grounds blog is a good example, run out of another city centre coffee shop in their patch.

In my online journalism classes at City University in London, meanwhile (which are sadly too big to fit in a coffee shop) I ask students to put together a community strategy as one of their two assignments. The idea is to get them to think about how they can produce better journalism – that is also more widely read – by thinking explicitly about how to involve a community in its production.

Community isn’t a postcode

But I’ve also come to believe that we should be as flexible as possible about what we mean by community. The traditional approach has been to assign students to geographical patches – a relic of the commercial imperatives behind print production. Some courses are adapting this to smaller, hyperlocal, patches for their online assessment to keep up with contemporary developments. This is great – but I think it risks missing something else.

One moment that brought this home to me was when – in that very first week – I asked the students what they thought made a community. The response that stuck in my mind most was Alex Gamela‘s: “An enemy”. It illustrates how communities are created by so many things other than location (You could also add “a cause”, “a shared experience”, “a profession”, “a hobby” and others which are listed and explored in the Community part of the BASIC Principles of Online Journalism).

As journalism departments we are particularly weak in seeing community in those terms. One of the reasons Birmingham Budget Cuts is such a great example of community-driven journalism is that it addresses a community of various types: one of location, of profession, and of shared experience and – for the thousands facing redundancy – cause too. It is not your typical hyperlocal blog, but who would argue it does not have a strong proposition at its core?

There’s a further step, too, which requires particular boldness on the part of journalism schools, and innovativeness in assessment methods: we need to be prepared for students to create sites where they don’t create any journalism themselves at all. Instead, they facilitate its production, and host the platform that enables it to happen. In online journalism we might call this a community manager role – which will raise the inevitable questions of ‘Is It Journalism?’ But in traditional journalism, with the journalism being produced by reporters, a very similar role would simply be called being an editor.

PS: I spoke about this theme in Amsterdam last September as part of a presentation on ‘A Journalism Curriculum for the 21st Century’ at the PICNIC festival, organised by the European Journalism Centre. This is embedded below:

Slides can be found below: