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We need to talk about Media Trust Newsnet

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.

Media Trust explains how local news hubs will work

The Big Lottery grant of £1.89 million to enable the Media Trust to develop a network of news hubs, supporting citizen journalism throughout the UK, caused a stir recently because it was awarded without competition, organisations with a track record outside London felt excluded … and in the age of localism should we have central systems or something more bespoke? Read the backstory herethe original announcement, and the latest response from BIG’s CEO Peter Wanless.

Fortunately a more positive story emerged when I was able to talk to Media Trust CEO Caroline Diehl, chairing sessions at the Third Sector Social Media Conference, and the Trust’s director of marketing and communication services Gavin Sheppard.

In the interview Gavin explains that their proposal was based on research commissioned from the Goldsmiths Leverhulme Media Research Centre, led by Professor Natalie Fenton, and published last year.  That argued for the need to support quality local reporting at a time when local papers where disappearing, and for better aggregation through news hubs of the emerging work of  citizen journalists and community reporters. read more »

How helpful is journalism for People Powered Change? Further thoughts.

What sort of community media and support for knowledge sharing, learning and innovation do we need – both locally and nationally – when the big society policy agenda expects so much more of citizen-led action?

The significance of this issue - which I touched on rather theoretically here – is now given more practical import by the Big Lottery fundingfor the Media Trust’s ambitious £1.89 million programme of news hubs for local communities, which I reported here and here. read more »

Big Lottery, Media Trust and People Powered Change. Positively.

Update: Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the Media Trust, has provided more detail about their approach in a comment to my earlier post.

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.

I wrote what follows before seeing the comment, but I think the main points are valid, and hope the approach Caroline outlines offers some scope for collaboration. What do you think? read more »

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. read more »