Could the BBC co-design its new community services?

Here’s a try-out for socialreporter as collaboration co-ordinator, on the lines of “wouldn’t it be a good idea if…” rather than “here’s a problem, let’s stir things up”.
I wonder if it’s possible to organise a get-together between people interested in how new BBC services may support social action, local democracy and online communities.
It seems timely because the BBC is planning something substantial which could, for the first time, link their “professional” services to online material produced by citizen journalists and other local community media projects. Proposals will soon be put to the BBC Trust, which has to approve the plans.
Before that happens it seems to me important that all parties take a realistic look at what’s possible, and think out how to co-design something useful to local democracy.
The problem is that the community side of the deal may not hold up. Recently Charlie Beckett, champion of networked journalism, raised the issue of what happens if no-one comes … that is, the citizen journalists don’t materialise in the form the professionals hope. The BBC’s Robin Hamman offered some useful insights from the Manchester blogging experiment, including:

People don’t necessarily blog or post content about the topics, stories and events that media organisations might hope they would – and, in our experience anyway, rarely post about news and current affairs.

Now another media commentator, Martin Moore, has trawled through the Annex 8 of OFCOM’s Public Service Broadcasting Review similarly trying to work if there’s a future for local news, community and social action on the web. In Still waiting for local community web sites, he writes:

When it comes to local content – particularly community / social action, or news (outside major news organisations) there is, according to the report, precious little out there. There are exceptions of course – hyperlocal independent sites like Urban 75 (for Brixton) – but these are few and far between. ‘Local, regional and national sites’ the report says, ‘tend to have limited ambitions and low production values’.
And then there are the local newspaper sites. Unfortunately many of these are ‘heavily templated and homogenous between regions’ (p.38). Trinity Mirror is trying to break the mould slightly with its postcode project (e.g. see TS10 Redcar), though it’s unclear the extent to which this is a vehicle for news or for classified advertising (though you could argue this is the same for many local print papers).
It’s very difficult, in other words, to find successful examples of thriving local community sites (as compared to the US, say) and even harder to find examples of local sites performing the ‘watchdog role’ of the Fourth Estate (a role that appears conspicuously absent from OFCOMs definition of ‘public purposes’).
We already know that local broadcast news is in serious trouble (not least because OFCOM tells us it is), but going by this study it’ll be quite some time before local community sites can fill the gap.

So who might be interested in a get-together? I keep bumping into people from different innovative parts of the BBC who say, yes, interesting things are happening but it’s not actually in their department. … love to know more. The BBC Trust are thinking about how they might develop an online presence after their experiment in engaging with bloggers last year. I should think Charlie and Martin would be interested, and my friends at Involve, who specialise in public engagement.
On the local front it seems a must for Bristol, home to many excellent local e-democracy projects, led by Stephen Hilton and his team. The Connecting Bristol blog has hosted some lively discussion recently, and Stephen picked up on the BBC plans in The BBC, Democracy & The Internet – Job Done. As part of the discussion there I wrote:

Maybe the BBC will venture into networked journalism, as hinted in the Action Network closure statement.
I hope that the BBC Trust – who have to agree the plans – will give us a chance to engage with them online as well as running their traditional consultation process.

Professor Stephen Coleman, who was guest blogging, kindly responded:

David – I agree. The BBC Trust certainly ought to connect with the e-democracy community. I’m sure that there’s much valuable advice that you and others could offer them. The Centre for Digital Citizenship at Leeds University would be happy to set up a forum for such an exchange of views. Let’s see if we can take this forward in a way that will help the BBC to make the best possible plans.

Birmingham is another place with some online civic activity, and I do hope Nick Booth and Paul Bradshaw might be interested. They have been selected as the only UK finalists in the Knight News Challenge, a competition based in the US to develop and fund innovations in online journalism. Nick is a former BBC producer, and in his podcasting and blogging is one of my inspirations for social reporting. Paul is a City Birmingham City University lecturer whose Online Journalism Blog is another inspiration.
So there’s a start … and I’m sure there are plenty of other people potentially interested. I had hoped that the RSA would act as a convenor for this sort of project, but their journalism initiative sounds like a professionals-only affair. Maybe the Centre for Digital Citizenship could step in, perhaps with some of the other organisations? I think a good first step would be something fairly informal that allowed everyone to get to know each other and be, well, collaborative.
After that, wouldn’t it be exciting if the BBC decided to join in a co-design process with people trying to make community media work – rather than invent something top-down which may or may not work?


  • lilashana
    April 21, 2008 - 11:48 pm | Permalink


    a worthy attempt and one that should gather support and steam. As a non- journalist I would be interested.

    Lilly Evans

  • April 22, 2008 - 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to have to print this one out! As it happens I’ve been invited to speak to BBC editors and Innovation Unit so may raise this (I’ll be inviting readers to record their advice to the BBC on YouTube).
    BTW I’m a Birmingham City University lecturer – your post may make people think I work for City University in London.

  • April 22, 2008 - 2:32 pm | Permalink

    OK, read it now. Definitely up for that. Was also talking to a colleague, Professor Tim Wall, who is working with the BBC on some research into radio audiences online – and he’d be interested too.

  • socialreporter
    April 22, 2008 - 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Paul … I think Bristol might be interested too. Do follow your contacts, I’ll try mine, and see if we can organise a first get together.

  • April 23, 2008 - 12:48 am | Permalink

    The answer to your original question, David, is yes, of course it could! Whether it will or not is another matter I guess.

    I have touched on the role of news journalism a few times on my blog recently and I think these topics are relevant here too:

    * Nick Davies and Flat Earth News – what role can social reporters and citizen journalists play to help the professionals claw back some trust?

    * How can journalists help us in drawing together the ‘fragments’ generated by both social media and 24 hour news reporting into cohesive, ‘whole’ stories and narratives? (Gordon Burn)

    * What role can local news organisations play in drawing together local, geographically focused groups around common tags and distributed communities? Eg, could a local paper promulgate a certain tag to be used by those active in the social media space within a certain locale, and actively monitor that tag?

    * What possible interactions are there between local press, local government and groups and communities whether through the web or some other means?

    Am rambling somewhat, but in my defence, it’s late. I do think, though, that through the various discussions happening in various places (blogs, newspapers, podcasts, books!) various seemingly unconnected threads are starting to entangle themselves: participation, journalism, civic society, localism…

    I’m not sure if we need a space to gather together stuff on this topic. By the lack of activity, it would appear that the RSA Networks effort is hardly making huge strides in terms of providing a platform for debate and engagement. I started to put something together at – is it worth persevering with? Or should we wait to see what Prof. Coleman and his folk at Leeds come up with?

  • October 7, 2008 - 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I am interested and will drop Steve Coleman a line to see if Leeds are planning anything, or are willing to do so

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