April 9, 2020

Media and Citizenship

Mellon Project Focus Area

The citizen-first bloggers


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As standard journalism business models corrode in the potent chemical soup of online technologies, fragmenting audiences and vanishing advertisers, the industry urgently needs models that re-engineer the relationships between journalists and their publics. Legacy news outlets have long adhered to sacrosanct conventions of independence, balance and fairness, but more nimble news start-ups could offer different mindsets and values. One critical shift is the welcome commitment by some news entrepreneurs to much higher levels of engagement with media audiences.

Writing and Editing lecturers in the School of Journalism and Media Studies have for over a decade involved their students in the production of Grahamstown’s legacy, school-owned community newspaper, Grocott’s Mail. But, these same lecturers recently required their students to launch four new beat-related blogs in parallel to Grocott’s. All four blogs are committed to helping their audiences feel like they are part of a common purpose and foster the information and engagement that we believe citizens need to be active participants in our democracy.

One of the blogs, Embizweni (meaning ‘meeting place’) is concerned with the ‘public life’ beat in the geographically-based ‘community’ of Makana, while another, Ukufunda (meaning ‘to read, to learn’) is an education beat blog aimed at the diverse ‘communities of interest’ in Makana who are invested in the local education system: parents, teachers, learners, civil society/volunteer projects and networks, NPOs, academics, expert consultants and government.

Both blogs are marketing themselves as ‘citizen fist’ media platforms and are leaning heavily for inspiration on some of the guiding principles for engaged journalism developed by academic-practitioners like Joy Mayer at the Reynolds Institute at the University of Columbia in Missouri.

For Mayer the first level of community engagement is outreach which entails pro-actively reaching out to audiences by sharing the blog’s content and helicopter view of public life with as wide a range of people as possible. This involves taking content to the audience, rather than hoping they’ll find us. News must meet the needs of audiences and be distributed to them in a way that makes sense.

Embizweni’s student journalists set up social media channels – Facebook and Twitter – to market the blog stories, but they also resolved to track down all citizens who have set up or joined locally-based Facebook groups. Internet penetration in Makana’s poorer areas is believed to be low, but the students have discovered that a surprisingly high number of residents – in all sections of the community – are communicating with each other through these groups. Posts seldom include links because these would quickly burn up scarce data reserves. So the student journalists must learn to post full cut and paste versions of their stories, rather than hyperlinks to the original posts.

Embizweni has close and valuable ties with civic organisations, such as the Public Service Accountability Monitor PSAM and local government researcher Thabani Mdlongwa attends weekly beat meetings. This has helped the blog tap into expert intelligence on local government and collect an impressive collection of ‘citizen resources’ on the blog – information citizens might need to be an active citizen in Makana – including the Government policy documents, the Municipality’s annual reports, minutes from council meetings, contact lists for ward committees, ward maps, a calendar, legislation, listing of churches, citizen groups, and the like.

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The blog also has a relationship with a unique online monitoring project, called MobiSAM. The MobiSAM Facebook site exploded into life recently as it provided regular updates on the serious water outages affecting the city. Embizweni developed an impressive series of in-depth profiles and backgrounders on the water crisis as it unfolded, but will need to learn to post notice of the existence of these stories to the relevant Facebook groups more timeously.

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There is increasing evidence that Embizweni journalists can effectively used Facebook to crowd-source information about breaking stories. Student journalist Heather Cameron curated online conversations to construct an intriguing story about the mysterious appearance of a controversial and disruptive building development in the middle of Grahamstown’s main mall parking lot. The following week, another journalist, Megan Whittington, was just one hour into researching on Facebook which franchises locals would most like on the building site when she was notified by a survey participant that the sheet iron barricades were in the process of being dismantled. She drove down to the mall and posted her ensuring ‘scoop’ to a number of Facebook groups who were taking an interest in this breaking story. She told her readers that while she had contacted the main protagonists in the story, she did not yet have an explanation for the abandonment of the site – but, that they should be ready for updates as they unfolded. This was an example of a journalist who was willing to participate transparently in online community conversations as they unfolded, thereby building connections and personalizing the brand.

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A second level of engagement, then, is conversation. Being in conversation with the community means listening as well as talking, and adjusting what journalists do and cover based on what they hear. It involves hosting discussions in person and online on topics that matter to the community, and participating actively in conversations journalists are not hosting.

Embizweni’s public life focus necessarily entails municipal reporting about the ‘delivery’ of essential municipal services like water, electricity, sanitation, roads, and libraries (which, with the recent melt-down of local government in this district, are often in short supply). But, rather than casting citizens as passive receptacles of goods and services dispensed by the state, it aims to focus on the thoughts and actions of active citizens rather than the agendas and self-serving pronouncements of officials and experts. Embizweni is concerned with what citizens are saying and doing about their own safety, about the dissemination of public resources, about the development of shared public spaces, and about their own welfare and human rights – especially of the most vulnerable.

In the medium- to long-term, the blog plans to do some civic mapping work in Makana’s 14 diverse wards, leading to participatory, hyperlocal news coverage of neighbourhood life. Journalists will be taught to value how a continuing dialogue can make them better journalists and improve their journalism. Ultimately, this journalism must be seen as a process, not just a product, and involving more voices in the process means more diverse journalism.

Like Embizweni, Ukufunda is committed to going beyond providing standard reportage. While Ukufunda has already provided some strong journalism about education projects and issues, it aims to eventually transform the blog into a bustling forum for debate to help facilitate public problem solving processes around education in our city. Despite its excellent university, private and model C schools, Grahamstown education results are similar to the rest of the Eastern Cape, which are the worst in the country. The administration of the provincial Education Department is manifestly incapable of carrying out basic functions, like supplying teachers, books and stationery to schools or complying with court orders to replace mud schools with proper structures. But, Ukufunda hopes to go beyond run-of-the-mill adversarial, watchdog reporting – it hopes to partner with existing civil society formations within the province and help facilitate a series of sustained public-problem-solving efforts in the sphere of education in Makana.

The holy grail of engagement, then, is collaboration with communities because it means they have a shared investment in and influence over journalism. It involves soliciting and relying on user contributions and input about what journalism should cover and how journalists should allocate resources. Both, Ukufunda and Embizweni have ‘Your Say’ sections, based on the active solicitation of user contributions. Journalists should value the role the users play in reacting to and sharing their content and recognizing that much more can be accomplished with the cooperation of the community than alone.

Ultimately, both Ukufunda and Embizweni are imagined as a public meeting places, where active citizens can exchange information, deliberate respectfully and act together to solve common local problems with each other, but also with state officials, business leaders, experts and others who may have the resources and decision-making power to help effect citizen-led social change.

In her recent book, Saving Community Journalism, Penelope Abernathy writes that local journalism is “not in a cycle from which it will emerge relatively unchanged – rather, it is in a cyclone”. She says that the experience of other industries teaches us that it is possible to find a new path that leads to rebirth and renewal. “But, doing so involves more than a mere adjustment: it involves a whole new way of thinking and acting.” Ukufunda and Embizweni are hopefully helping South Africa’s future journalists to prepare for these paradigm shifts.

By Rod Amner