Big Lottery funds £1.89 million of citizen journalism. Is that what communities most need?

I can well understand why Gary Copitch is very cross about the Big Lottery grant of £1.89 million to the Media Trust for its three year project “to establish connected news hubs around the UK to support citizen journalism and to help communities and charities get their voices heard.” But it is complicated.

At one level it seems to about be about a big organisation getting funds for work smaller groups have been pioneering for years … and those with London connections picking up opportunities without competition. However, I think it is also about the difficulty funders may face in trying to turn bottom-up innovation into something that scales-up across the country.

Beyond that it is also about what sort of communications is community-friendly, and whether we can hope professional journalists will develop it.

Gary and People’s Voice Media have run an excellent community reporter training programme for some years, and while based in Manchester they work across the UK. They didn’t get a chance to bid. Nor – so far as I can gather – did others who have done so much to promote local blogging, online communities and use of social media to benefit neighbourhoods, towns and villages. The grant was awarded without publicity or competition.

There’s now some 15 years of hard-won experience in the field, and it’s not something that Media Trust have really engaged with in the past, as far as I can see.

Gary is also cross about another Big Lottery grant under the People Powered Change programme of £830,000 to Your Square Mile, a start-up in the community development/social media scene which I wrote about here. Gary heads his post “Big Lottery or the Cocktail Party Lottery? No bidding round for the Lottery they decide”.

So how do these organisations manage to secure £1.89 million and £850k respectively? Is it secret meetings with the Lottery? Going to the right cocktail parties?  Is this the future of the Big Society: not about what you do, but about who you know?

People Powered Change says they are keen to support  projects that:

  • help talented people make their ideas a reality
  • allow people to develop and use their skills more
  • enable people and groups to work together better

Maybe they should add, ‘Have to be based in London and attend the right events’.  Fairness does not seem to matter any more and this is a real shame.

I should add that I really don’t believe Gary is suggesting any sort of impropriety, and I certainly am not.

IHis complaint is about the way that decisions seem to be made in London, with people who are well-connected in the capital and find it easy to turn up at the many  events launching publications and programmes. That’s where it is possible to have an informal chat with the staff of funding agencies and boost your latest innovative idea … and so it is important that subsequent decisions are transparent.

(It probably wouldn’t be so bad if the events were at cocktail party time: usually they are at breakfast which makes any trip from the north hugely expensive).

Richard Caulfield makes the same points strongly in his post “People powered change? An issue of transparency?”

I was, and remain, hugely disappointed at the first round of funding and how it feels as though organisations with no track record, such as Your Square Mile, seemed to access huge sums of money to carry out a programme of work which, in parts, tramples over and ignores lots of good work going on locally. Even worse in my mind, it feeds into government thinking that everything from economic development to community empowerment can be achieved by toolkits and websites.

Adding:

My anxiety levels were raised this week when I read the launch of the funding for Media Trust – not because of Media Trust, but because I am a trustee at People’s Voice Media and 90 per cent of the press release could have been about us: the language, direction of travel, just about everything.

The Big Lottery chief executive Peter Wanless was quick to post a long response to Richard’s post, saying this sort of grant is exceptional:

In a very small number of cases, BIG has judged that there could be a case for a rapid injections of investment into the supporting infrastructure, to sit around the vast bulk of our funding, that could help accelerate and develop people powered change at a local level (our ultimate desire and passion). We receive many such approaches from organisations, the vast majority of which we turn away or encourage to apply competitively to one of our programmes. For a tiny handful, where the objective being proposed is deemed potentially to be of unique value, BIG will solicit a bid. In such circumstances, the solicited organisation must demonstrate clearly what it is uniquely placed to achieve and how those outcomes will be achieved. As it happens, the new investments announced at Salford were a clutch of four solicitations. The Media Trust is a fifth. In total they represent less than £10 million of our overall portfolio. None of this has been influenced by Government but flows from decisions made by our Non-Executive Directors.

I recommend reading all of Peter’s comment here. He is highly unusual among senior policy and funding people in being prepared to engage on Twitter, and in blogs, and explain Big Lottery plans and decisions. You can see his interview with John Popham at the launch of People Powered Change, and he has in the past offered a follow-up question and answer session on Our Society if useful. Top marks for top level engagement, but in this case it is of course after the deal is done.

On reflection, a number of points occur to me, beyond (entirely understandable) north-south suspicions.

It looks as if the model for the Media Trust programme –  announced by them here – is in line with their other work in getting support from professional journalists and media networks to give voice to community groups and nonprofit organisations. They do that very well, and there is a clear attraction to funders of such large-scale, professionalised activity.

Peter Wanless highlights this in his comment:

In the specific case of People’s Voice Media, I can see that great work is being done. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding the similarities, I don’t believe that organisation can lever the national partnerships and infrastructure to benefit local action, that the Media Trust will bring through their unique proposition.

But are they leveraging the right thing? What the Media Trust is offering, as I understand it, is a way to gather and promote community-level stories through “news hubs”. It is pro-supported citizen journalism, substantially in broadcast mode.

What People Voice Media, and the many hyperlocal blog and online community sites are doing around the country – ably supported by Talk About Local among others – is something different. They are mainly telling stories, promoting conversations, and campaigning within their communities. Many of the stories won’t mean much if broadcast nationally – any more than the stuff of local papers travels well unless it meets the news values of national media.

And there’s the rub. I can see a role for both the community reporter/hyperlocal model, and that of the Media Trust … in theory.

But … in the case of community/hyperlocal reporters the ownership and accountability is local. They (mostly) write what’s relevant and useful within their community. They live or die by the support that they get there. They are part of the fabric.

In the case of the Media Trust model, the pressure on local reporters may be to craft stories that gets them national airtime. They will – it seems – be trained and supported by professionals who are good at that. But having done my time as a local and Fleet Street hack (long ago when there were papers in the Street) I know that the values of news editors are not always community-friendly. Here’s my earlier post on that.

The problem for anyone trying to judge whether the Media Trust model will be helpful to local communities (OK, I know helpful needs unpacking … another time) is that they don’t have any recognised track record in this field. They do hire freelances, but they don’t connect or share a lot with the community/social media networks.

It’s a professional model. Broadcaster and Media Trust deputy chair of Trustees Jon Snow sums it up: “Community Channel is an essential platform for marginalised voices and is dedicated to showcasing issues that inspire action and encourage involvement.”

Is showcasing what we need for People Powered Change? In part, but it’s not enough.

The issue is perhaps not so much why the Media Trust got the funding, but why Big Lottery didn’t spend some time exploring the difference between citizen journalism, community reporting, and hyperlocal media. Or if they did, could we please see the report? That would be transparency.

(Disclosure: I was in discussion with Big Lottery staff some weeks back about how social/community reporting might help local projects learn from each others across the various programmes funded by BIG, NESTA and others. I live 10 minutes away, so it was easy to pop in, and generous of staff to take so much interest. However, my suggestion was an open process of mapping who’s who, building networks and consensus about what’s needed, and co-designing the communication system that would support the activity. I’m not that’s going to go anywhere if I continue to raise the rather challenging issues above, but if it does I’ll let you know what I’m up to. I think it could be a good complement to the Media Trust model. Pitch, pitch …)

Meanwhile comments are open to those mentioned above, and anyone else. Unlike the Media Trust and Big Lottery announcements :-)

Update: Third Sector News reports that Big Lottery is going to explain how and why it solicits bids for money, which is welcomed by Gary Copitch as evidence that blogs and Twitter can produce a response from large organisations.

6 Comments

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  • June 1, 2011 - 9:54 pm | Permalink

    OFFS – can I give up please?

  • Lorna Prescott
    June 2, 2011 - 6:44 am | Permalink

    This is a great post David, I wasn’t aware that such deals were being struck and it leads to a sense of despair. I totally agree with you about the hyperlocal. Where I work, in Dudley borough, I suspect that news from Halesowen would be of little interest or relevance to people living in Gornal. Unless there was a connect for an individual around a community of interest or identity. Place is really important, and those places are usually less than a mile in radius for groups and forums who gather to address issues in those places. Which is not to say that we don’t encourage networking, but that is two-way and a hub model as you say the Media Trust might use could remove that opportunity for direct dialogue and shared learning.

  • June 2, 2011 - 10:50 am | Permalink

    The rise of community and citizen reporting and journalism and the critical need in communities for vibrant local media, as revealed by the Goldsmiths Leverhulme research we commissioned last year, is the reason that we feel a UK-wide project to connect, resource and amplify this grass roots activity is needed. It’s also in response to the increasing demand for Media Trust support from local organisations across the UK, which this will help meet.

    The news hubs project is about finding and supporting existing activity as much as it is about inspiring new innovation to take place. Our role will be to work with local news platforms – be they hyper-local websites, blogs and twitter feeds or church newsletters, local parish papers or parent-teacher news – to help them meet their own individual aspirations to improve the quality and reach of their journalism. It’s absolutely about local to local news but it’s also about celebrating what’s happening in our communities across the UK and bringing those stories to the widest possible audience – yes on TV but also online and in print.

    It’s a similar approach to our Community Voices project, which worked with many local community digital media projects around England to get projects off the ground or to add value to their existing activity. For example, we worked with Vintage Radio in Birkenhead to develop community radio for older people by older people, Meadow Well Residents’ Association on an estate in North Shields to challenge stereotypes with digital photography and on a film project with Club Soda in Croydon to address the isolation that people with learning difficulties experience, amongst many others.

    Our experience through our Press Association partnership ‘Community Newswire’ is that there is an appetite for local news stories in the mainstream media, as much as there is an appetite locally to project relevant news from further afield. We hope this project will go some way to make those connections whenever and wherever the local community or mainstream media feel appropriate.

    This is about adding infrastructure that local people can use in whatever way suits them and hopefully to play a part in improving the quality and reach of citizen and community journalism that will mean we all have our voices heard and can all create positive change in our own lives and the lives of those around us. We’ll be working with local organisations across the UK. If you want to be involved or kept up to date – let us know.

    Caroline Diehl
    Chief Executive, Media Trust

  • June 2, 2011 - 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I can’t tell whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I thought the Media Trust was focussed on charities and was sponsored by corporate members from the mainstream media. It’s not clear to me that it’s a good vehicle for nurturing citizen journalism, or providing inftrastructure to local grassroots initiatives.

    It’s good that it’s out in the open and people are discussing it, but why did it only become transparent once a very large sum of money had been committed to a project?

  • david wilcox
    June 2, 2011 - 5:14 pm | Permalink

    Nick – don’t go, we need you! How about a “help me investigate” the sort of journalism/reporting/whateveryyoucallit that we need. Seriously.
    Lorna – your insight confirms that we do need to explore what sort of communication is community-friendly. What’s community-friendly? Something for local decision, I would think. That would give us a route into the point Gordon raises. Thanks Gordon.
    Caroline … a very big and special thank you for responding so quickly, and in detail. I have reposted your comment as an update to another more positive piece here, where Noel Hatch adds his appreciation in a comment. As I mention there, Our Society now has an open group for discussion of community media, and I hope you and/or others from Media Trust will join us and find some creative ways forward.

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