Organise social reporters? Up to a point.

I’m delighted that the idea of social reporting, which I first floated a couple of years ago,  is taking off without much promotion from me. Maybe there’s something in it. My friend Paul Henderson of Ruralnet came up with this admirably brief definition, applauded by Nancy White, and Bev Trayner has posted a thoughtful analysis of the role, about which more later.

Now Clare White has pitched an ambitious proposal to website of the Ministry of Justice Building Democracy Innovation Fund for a Social Reporters Network of 700 people.

The aim is to help those in communities with high levels of deprivation find their voice online.

This project builds a network of social reporters who will train around 700 community activists in the use of social media.

Using a wiki and tagging tools, freelance social reporters will develop a common resource bank and workshop content in order to deliver a training session for community activists who have themselves volunteered to become social reporters for their organisations.

My belief is that potentially anyone can become a social reporter, because it’s what we all do already by asking “what’s new”, passing on (useful) gossip, telling stories about our experiences. What’s different is that we now have a lot of new online social tools to do that. Where social reporting, as I would aim practice it, may differs from much journalism is attitude and values.

Nick Booth, broadcaster turned blogger, podcaster and (I think) social reporter, says we need a culture shift from  traditional cynical newsroom values that rely on conflict, criticism and celebrity for stories. I agree – and believe social reporting can be most useful where it helps people move from “official” language and cliche to “ordinary” conversation and narrative that helps collaboration.

This social reporting may be in local communities – as Clare proposes – across networks, and also at events, as I’ve been doing for 2gether08. At community events Bev Trayner sees the role of social reporting as:

  • Keeping a shared memory of “what happened” through more than one people doing it, often in quite random ways, and brought together by tags;
  • Using different types of media for reporting, each media type being accessible to different types of people with different purposes for “reading” the (social) report;
  • Extending the conversation beyond any one mode (such as face-to-face mode, telephone conference mode, lecture mode) making sure you include people who were not “there”.
  • Puting reporting in the hands of more and different types of people with access to different tools, technologies and approaches.
  • Modeling different ways of helping people to make sense of an occassion.
  • Shining a spotlight on periphery voices by looking out for and recording what they say.
  • Advocacy – raising awareness, highlighting good practice, having an impact in ways that incorporate a wider type of audience than just those who will plough their way through traditional written text.

Much of this can be translated into other situations, and I sense that Clare favours a similar approach in local communities. I’m really pleased that she is promoting the idea of local social reporting … although I wouldn’t under-estimate the challenge of putting it into practice. (I should declare some history on this front, having started UK Communities Online with others back in the mid-1990s and tracked civil society developments in the field more recently).

It can be difficult to find local community activists who are also prepared to embrace social media; it takes more than a one-day workshop to change that; it is difficult to maintain local community sites; few people in local projects find time to throw themselves wholeheartedly into tagging content, developing wikis etc. in order to build a shared resource.

At the same time, there are a lot of people like Nick, Paul, Clare and others on the social innovation landscape who do share experience, and might do that in a more organised way … whether they call it social reporting, technology stewardship or whatever. A few of us have been talking about a get-together that might be the basis for a loose, open, community of practice. Perhaps this could be a first step towards something bigger.

But then another reservation emerges. A long time ago I was a “proper” journalist, paid by the likes of Lord Copper to put ink on paper. The only successful collaborations I recall my fellow reporters managing were leaving parties. Could social reporters be different? Up to a point, perhaps. Scoops drive hacks. Where’s the comparable, collaborative buzz for social reporters? Good news if Clare can help us find it.


  • September 7, 2008 - 7:16 pm | Permalink

    It might be too recursive, but it also might be a good way to explore “the new news” to report in detail about how a change from competition to collaborative learning happened. That would be a change worth reporting on!

  • September 7, 2008 - 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks John – that exploration and learning sounds just what we need, if people from different perspectives will join in. Thanks for the start!

  • September 8, 2008 - 10:12 am | Permalink

    I really like the idea of an army of social reporters – might this fit in quite nicely with the idea of Digital Mentors, as proposed in the CLG Communities in Control white paper.

    In their own words the role would be to “Government will pilot a ‘Digital Mentor’ scheme in deprived areas. These mentors will support groups to develop websites and podcasts, to use digital photography and online publishing tools, to develop short films and to improve general media literacy. The Digital Mentors will also create links with community and local broadcasters as part of their capacity building, to enable those who want to develop careers in the media to do so.”

  • September 8, 2008 - 11:19 am | Permalink

    Thanks Louise – and I agree with the possible fit with digital mentors, also explored by Dave Briggs
    I think social reporters ideally need to be digital mentors – helping others – with perhaps a stronger emphasis on developing content.
    I really welcome Clare’s proposal as a way of promoting the idea. I’m just mindful of how much work it would take to put into practice. Maybe a good route would be to pilot some social reporting/mentoring, gather some collaborators, and be ready for government programmes next year.

  • September 8, 2008 - 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Reading your post, David, I was thinking digital mentors throughout – nice to see Louise picked up on the overlap there.

    Clare’s proposal is great and there’s an obvious gap for a community of people who are into digital content creation to get together and share experiences and knowledge.

    As you rightly say, a hell of a lot of work to get going. Perhaps the most appropriate way is to create some kind of distributed community. After all, every social reporter is going to have their own blog, and/or flickr account and/or several different video hosting accounts.

    I see social reporting as being the generating of fragments (of text, of video, of images) which can then be used to build up the narrative of something that happened. Maybe this principle should be applied to the wider community of social reporters: we all provide our fragments to the community, allowing others to put them together in a way that suits them.

  • September 8, 2008 - 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Just thought – one thing that could be very useful for any social reporting community, especially one engaged in training others, might be a social reporting game, based on the social media game but more explicitly focused on the type of issues a social reporter is likely to have to deal with.

  • September 8, 2008 - 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this, David.

    I spent over a year trying to make my newspaper ( work, hardly online at all but having thousands of stimulating conversations in a completely different community than I’d been used to working in. Having accepted that I needed to give the paper side a break for a while until I could get it started again with stronger revenue streams, I’ve been able to come back online again and remind myself what the outside world looks like. Now I’m hoping I can achieve a mixture of the two worlds, hopefully working to connect them better.

    I think what’s interesting, and what really shows the importance of journalists, is that your definitions of social reporters exactly fitted what I’ve been trying to do, but I’d been struggling to find the right language to describe it. So that’s part of our role: to not get sucked into the tiny circle that is the UK mainstream media and be able to bring fresh ideas, or better words for existing ideas, into a mainstream context so that other people can pick up the idea and share it.

    I think I see two strands emerging. First of all, there’s the idea that ‘social reporter’ becomes a role in organisations and community groups just as they have secretaries and chairpeople. That person would take responsibility for fitting their group into a wider context on whichever different social tools are available to them. Those people as part of their role would connect to the mainstream journalists and news organisations, the other community websites and this would raise their group’s profile, encourage participation and give their groups a voice in the national or local political dialogue. Of course, this is what a number of people are now doing in their jobs when they take responsibility for blogging or twittering.

    Then there is the professional strand and that is an avenue that, I think, provides hope to all those jobless journalists and those that don’t want to work for the mainstream media industry for whatever reason. As freelance operators we can work for different clients serving their need for authentic voices, collecting ‘stuff’, training staff members in online tools, operating from particular communities as writers or connectors, twittering conferences etc. Encouraging volunteer participation but also filling in the gaps where people don’t have the time or the confidence to communicate socially or just giving an online community a kickstart until it is successfully operating. I think for all the investments companies are making in technology and social networking, they will realise that there is still a need for people to populate those sites with content or that they can add value to a conference by building in online reporting and participation.

    Many of the same skills and practices of the social reporter will be those developed by reporters working for the newspapers. Although this will benefit them, I think the newspapers are somewhat mistaken to stretch their journalists so thinly. There are still the core skills of journalism that stand slightly separate and deserve to be paid for in their own right. Time-consuming work like investigation, conversation, accuracy, legal considerations – this work is what leads to the type of stories that provide meat to all the bloggers and the conversations. This of course could be another line of work for the freelance social reporter or by the volunteer citizen journalist but I think media organisations will do well to invest in staff who can just concentrate on solid news gathering, who aren’t just effectively like processing machines, reformatting the same information for ten different editions of their media brand. That, I would suggest, is now the role of the people formerly known as the audience.

    As for your final reservation, David, I think this very conversation is expanding the possibilities for those of us interested in this field to make a living. I am in a place where you have to be creative and flexible if you want to earn any money because our opportunities are so limited and for whatever reason we want to work close to home. Journalists, I think, have often lacked imagination and compromised their values to stay in work. Cost-cutting and centralisation has led to a lazy culture of conflict-based reporting and PR that doesn’t tell us enough about what’s actually happening or empower anyone to be involved in building a better community. Like politics, people are switching off from that and I think both ‘sides’ are going to realise they have to change, but it will take a while to filter through.

    This, on the other hand, is a direction I find exciting and full of possibilities and I’m grateful to all of you who have articulated the idea so clearly.

    This is an awfully long post. Sorry 🙂

  • September 8, 2008 - 5:18 pm | Permalink

    “Digital Mentors” alarms me. Sounds to me like Technocrats. It’s that same feeling of power that I have when I’m holding a BBC TV camera – once let loose I can shoot anyone I want and turn them into a hero or a buffoon. The technology needs to be so simple and so addictive that it’s as easy to find as the Sky button, and those who know it inside out should be encouraged to share it and not monopolise it.

    I’m not sure about fragments either. Fragments get lost in the gutter. Fragments need craft people to combine them into a collage at worst and at best a mosaic.

  • September 8, 2008 - 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Dave – thanks for plugging the game! As you’ll probably know from past discussions there’s a kind-of social reporter version of the social media game here
    This is designed for an organisation to plan its communications and engagement strategy using a mix of methods. Social reporters could then work within that strategy. In game terms you could use cards to develop the strategy, then storytell the SR role.
    I guess we could also develop a game solely around the SR role. This would involve taking different situations and working through what tools, activities an SR might use.
    That raises the interesting issue of how far – in organisational, event, and local situations – a social reporter can just use new media themselves, or how far the SR may have to help others first.
    Hmmm – interesting workshop session?

  • September 8, 2008 - 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Clare – thanks for such a full and thoughtful explanation of your thinking about what’s needed. Do keep in touch on development of the network.

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  • September 9, 2008 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    For anyone who is interested in signing up to be a possible leader of the network (obviously it’s really early days for this particular proposal), I’ve issued a call-out with some very loose qualifications on Unltdworld:

  • September 9, 2008 - 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Every community has loads of people who need to communicate – whether to run a planning campaign, call for school governors, publicise a fete or organise the neighbourhood wacth. They mainly do it through email lists, txt networks or community newsletters.

    As everyone on this discussion knows, when someone in the community learns how to use say a blog platform or a set up a bulletin board it can have a transformative effect on the efficacy of local community networks. What were closed networks suddenly become public and accessible with more influence, voice and accessibility.

    As Clare’s proposal points out all it needs is some very very simple training to show someone how to say use Typepad. I have six people writing for me at – all it took was a simple intro email to get them up and running – I only had to train one face to face for 15 mins (much of which was spent making tea).

    The ‘social reporter’ concept is fascinating but might risk over egging something very simple: find the community activists and train enough of them until a public online voice emerges. Which is I think the heart of Clare’s proposal – train enough people and some persistent community voices will emerge.

    This discussion here is especially pertinent against a background of print and broadcast media in big trouble economically, especially locally. And a counter-cyclical drive by CLG to promote community empowerment – for which communication is a vital.

    I haven’t found this community before (thanks to jeremy gould for pointing me to clare’s proposal) – it’s great that quite a few people are thinking the same way. In August I was emailing around a slide deck similar to Clare’s proposal and have just set up a blog to discuss what makes a good community site. There is a link to the slides at

    It might be good to get a few people together to kick this around – anyone up for it ?

  • September 9, 2008 - 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks William – how encouraging. I agree … keep it simple, don’t get hung up about over-smart titles, help people do stuff that works for them. At the same time, it is helpful that MoJ and others are helping us find each other by encouraging pitches. Yes, let’s get together. I’ll do more to contact others I know.
    London venue? And/or other?

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  • September 10, 2008 - 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating – I have done some work like this with arts and community organisations, and have come away with some very similar conclusions.

    I’d also like to join a meet if there’s one happening and put my tuppence in 🙂

  • September 10, 2008 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Antonio – I’ll post more here on developments, and/or you can join the group here

  • September 11, 2008 - 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Immediately makes me think of the catalyst award projects – especially Savvy Chavvy (who trained young travellers to be social reporters) and Harringey Online (as the kind of community who could benefit from the training project).

    I suspect that the more that social reporters are reporting on stuff with social / local impact, the more tha advocacy aspect will come to the fore. How about ‘social reporter meets saul alinsky’s “rules for radicals”‘…?

  • September 11, 2008 - 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Dan – Savvy Chavvy and Harringey Online both look rich in socialreporter expertise. Any ways next phase catalyst plans to encourage shared learning? Or maybe we should just have a practical and social get together –
    Oooyes new rules for radicals sounds fun. Just another set of tools … and sense of being able to make more impact perhaps. But can you be a campaigner and collaboration-broker as well? Or will we see different types/styles of reporter …

  • September 12, 2008 - 10:19 am | Permalink

    David – just working on proposals for the next phase of catalyst, hoping to put out a call for an ideas-meetup soon. Catalyst 2.0 will probably debut at the chain reaction festival.

    The debate over ‘campaigner or collaboration-broker’ is a much wider one :). There’s an interesting report called
    Contentious citizens: Civil society’s role in campaigning for social change
    which basically says they’re symbiotic.

    One reason i like the affordances of the digital is it enables people to cut straight to solutions (‘campaigning by doing’).

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  • Clare White
    September 25, 2008 - 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Because there’s a lot of enthusiasm about this, and lots of people doing overlapping work, and because I haven’t had the time to get in touch with all the people who have expressed an interest, I’ve decided to focus these resources on a Gathering. If the proposal goes forward, I’d like to host a group of 70 or so in a real-life disconnected area – none of this plush conference centre stuff (but there is wifi).

    Participants would go away with the slickest and best workshop to go away with and deliver using whatever resources they can muster (which, I believe, would be an awful lot seeing how in vogue this is all becoming).

    The proposal is at
    and I’ll be submitting it first thing tomorrow. Since it would feel wrong to just stick something in like this without a chance to edit it ruthlessly on a wiki first, please feel free. You’ll need a wikidot account to edit.

    What’s very clear is that the Social Reporter network is a reality already and it’s a very exciting time for those of us exploring it.

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