The big backgrounder story for UK community reporting at the moment is the roll out of Newsnet by the Media Trust, with a £1.89 million investment from the Big Lottery Fund as part of People powered Change. That was controversial at the time. The latest development is that the Trust have appointed three large commercial consultancies, with Civil Society Governance reporting:
The Media Trust describes newsnet as “the UK’s first online network of community reporters, citizen journalists and local storytellers”. The online portal aims to provide local people with a platform to connect and tell their local stories, as well as find resources and share ideas. The ultimate aim is to support community cohesion at a local, regional and national level.
I hear that this has further upset some people in the field who have been developing community reporting for a few years. There’s a feeling the Trust is failing to acknowledge or work with these other potential partners, so the Civil Society news headline “Media Trust collaborates to deliver citizen journalism project” rankles just a bit.
Community and social reporter types may be keeping their heads down (if they’ve heard the news) because Media Trust could be a client/news distributor, and anyway who wants to upset Big Lottery Fund (BIG).
However, comments are taking off under the story, with a strong challenge from Gary Copitch of People’s Voice Media, who have been running community reporter programmes for over three years. He says: “I am afraid to say this is just another example of an organisation who receives Lottery funding only to duplicate existing provision”.
Community media veteran Steve Thompson has been working in this field since 1997: “Folks should always be cautious about claiming “firsts” as there is nothing new under the sun”.
I can add an archive of material and activities going to to the mid 1990s, when a group of us set up UK Communities Online.
(Incidently, I couldn’t find any other coverage of this story … and there’s nothing on the Newnet blog or a Media Trust press release. Strange.)
I find it particularly difficult to write about this, because like others in the field would love to work on Newsnet. I know and respect the people involved, and recent had a very cordial interview with Adam Perry, and earlier with the Trust’s director of marketing and communication services Gavin Sheppard.
In addition, I’ve spent the last few months working with BIG on how they might develop People Powered Change. John Popham and I did that by a process of open exploration on socialreporters.net, summarised here, and leading up to a very creative workshop. BIG are now reflecting on future plans, with decisions at committee next March.
The focus of the work ended up around how BIG can be more than a funder, perhaps operating in addition as a broker and convenor to help nurture the development of existing activities as well as funding new ones. At local level BIG supports the idea of Asset Based Community Development, as I reported here. With hindsight, it might have been better if this approach had extended to the big investments made under the people Powered Change banner. I reflected on the launch here: People Powered Change needs ppchange communications.
It’s always tempting to over-flatter a client, but I must say how impressed I’ve been with the way that BIG staff have given John and I a free hand in reporting, and have now started some significant internal discussions triggered by the conversations that started. There’s particular problem for a funder in opening up and taking on additional roles, because there’s usually “give us the money” in the background.
So: how to report on this story, in a way that helps move things forward positively? What’s the storylines … beyond the easy controversy angle?
- Is the criticism just sour grapes from some community media types jealous of new people in the field? The Media Trust does have the skills and resources to do things at scale. But shouldn’t they build in the skills of those with grassroots experience?
- Is there a danger that the focus on “news” in Newsnet will miss the opportunity to bring to the surface deeper insights about the ways that people are taking action locally – the sort of thing revealed by the recent micro-mapping research?
- Is BIG investment of public money (that is, our lottery punts) in Newsnet leading to some unfair competition with organisations like People’s Voice Media? I would be interested to hear also from Talk About Local, who do excellent work in the field as well.
- Should BIG give some sort of steer to their People Powered Change beneficiaries – who are listed as partners, and not just grantees?
And have I just wrecked my chances of further work with BIG, and any relationship with Media Trust? Maybe – but I don’t think you can call yourself a reporter if those jobs that verge on consultancy prevent you writing about significant issues.
I think that the solution is fairly simple … if BIG will forgive a little cheekiness on the last day of my contract. How about convening an open event in the New Year around the role of community and social reporting in People Powered Change, inviting Media Trust and other interests along … and running that as a consensus-building workshop.
The one big problem I found at the start of the work on People Powered Change is that people didn’t talk to each other enough because they were busy delivering (although I think that’s now changing). What better topic to start a new round of open conversations than with community reporting? We can’t aim to help people in local communities find their own voice, if we can’t do that among the various interests involved.
Meanwhile, comments are very welcome here, or if you spot that discussion is happening elsewhere tweet @Media_Trust @davidwilcox. The #newsnet tag seems to be mainly German rather than UK discussion. There is also a #ppchange tag.
Previously: Caroline Diehl, chief executive of Media Trust, responded to my earlier story in a comment here, explaining how they will collaborate locally and inviting people to express an interest.
Update: the Media Trust is offering to answer questions in a video interview. Add yours here.