An update on social reporting, including support from BIG

A couple of things came together recently to re-convince me that “social reporting” is a useful banner under which to promote the blending of new and old media and skills for collaboration and social benefit. (Here’s how the idea started, for me.)

The biggest and most thoughtful bottom-up support for the idea, and a big contribution to its practice, has come from the Transition Network, where Charlotte Du Cann and Ed Mitchell are editing and producing a social reporting project.

Twelve writers around the country are compiling a national blog about their real life experiences of being in Transition … moving towards low carbon, lower energy lifestyles and communities. I reported recently from the Transition Network conference.

Charlotte was kind enough to quote me on social reporting, with a definition that Bev Trayner and I developed a couple of years back.

Social reporting is an emerging role, a set of skills, and a philosophy around how to mix journalism, facilitation and social media to help people develop conversations and stories for collaboration.

While mainstream reporting is usually about capturing surprise, conflict, crisis, and entertainment, and in projecting or broadcasting stories to audiences, social reporters aim to work collaboratively with other people, producing words, pictures and movies together. They may challenge and even provoke, but social reporters are sensitive to the resources and parameters of the group, community or organisation they reporting for. They are insiders rather than outsiders.

Put more simply, as I explain here, I think it is about making sense, joining up, helping out.

The Transition social reporting project has been very well planned, and involved Charlotte in a trip around the country to meet, brief and support reporters, plus workshops and practice at the conference. Charlotte’s “welcome” post sets out the process, and you can read the emerging stories here.

The more strategic endorsement has come from work with BIG – the Big Lottery Fund – and their People Powered Change programme. Together with John Popham and Drew Mackie, I’m helping BIG and their partners explore how social reporting can help people share stories about community-led action through events and networking, and in the process make ppchange more of a learning space for all. We are doing that at

I’m hugely grateful to Linda Quinn and Shaun Walsh, who lead the BIG communication and marketing team, for officially letting us loose on their patch, giving us partner status … and paying us. Earlier unofficial reporting of ppchange here.

We’ve made a start with reporting on Your Square Mile, leading up to a live chat last Friday with YSM MD Jamie Cowen, hosted by Our Society. I hope to have a full plan for our work within a week or so.

As additional encouragement, I got an email from Matthew Kalman Mezey, the newly-appointed senior networks manager at the RSA asking whether I would help write some guidance on the use of social reporting in the 26,000 strong organisation, and do a video explaining social reporting.

Matthew has made a great start here, and I’m delighted to help not least because it follows through ideas developed last year with Tessy Britton. I’m no longer an RSA Fellow (which is a longer story) but definitely a fan. Jemima Gibbons and Roxanne Persaud have worked terrifically hard to keep the RSA digital engagement group going, and help create the context for Matthew’s appointment.

The examples I’ve mentioned above relate to social reporting in networks, and that’s where I think the practice is a useful counterpart to community reporting, which uses similar approaches at a local level.

For example, People’s Voice Media are growing community reporters through their training and projects, and Talk About Local are supporting and developing a growing network of hyperlocal blogs and online communities. A recent study by Networked Neighbourhoods shows how they “enhance the sense of belonging, democratic influence, neighbourliness and involvement in their area”.

Where social and community reporting come together, I believe, is in seeing communities as networks, and vice-versa. Not the same, but intertwined in practice through the reporting and facilitation of conversations and storytelling, and helping build relationships

But is social reporting simply a niche, and social reporter just a label that’s a bit more expressive than blogger, and bit more acceptable (in some quarters) than journalist … with that added enticing whiff of digital?

Here’s a couple of references that help connect us to the mainstream.

First, Charlie Beckett provides an update on Why we need networked journalism in an age of complexity and uncertainty, building on the ideas in his earlier excellent 2008 book Supermedia. Charlie writes

Increasingly, journalism is created by individuals, groups, organisations and governments as well as by newsrooms. Whether you fund it with foundations, paywalls, adverts, student fees, taxes or a lottery ticket, journalism has to be networked now to make a business case.

If I have changed my mind on anything over the last five years it is probably this. I probably over-estimated the way that a kind of natural process or market force would create new institutions to support good journalism in the networked era – the kind of civic, ethical, quality, independent journalism that I hold dear. I don’t mean we have to preserve current organisations like newspaper groups. I think they have a lot of value left but if they are to survive then they really have to be much more radically overhauled in terms of management, staff and enterprise.

I hope to see a blossoming of new structures – including a much more vibrant freelance or indie culture – but the danger is that the major media organisations will cream off the popular market and won’t invest in the rest – as they used to do – leaving niches such as the Economist, or public bodies such as the BBC to dominate in glorious isolation.

The tough issue Charlie raises is, of course, how to get paid as a freelance, or make money as an organisation operating in this environment. For the RSA it will be how to encourage their Fellows to volunteer as social reporters; for hyperlocal bloggers, how to keep up their enthusiasm, or turn that into a paying proposition. For organisations, it is how to adapt hierarchical cultures and structures to the challenge posed by a shift in control to social media savvy members … something I and others explored here a couple of years ago.

Naturally I hope that organisations like the Big Lottery Fund will see the value of social reporting in making sense, joining up, and helping out in the development of learning and sharing environments.

That leads to my other reference from Beth Kanter, the US-based non-profit social media specialist who is one of the best examples I know of someone sharing insights and references, training, consulting, fundraising and raising a family with extraordinary energy all at the same time. Supreme social reporting inspiration.

Beth has co-authored The Networked Nonprofit with Allison Fine, which in my view sets out why organisations like the RSA need to develop both staff and member social reporting skills and attitudes.

More recently Beth wrote about the Connected Citizens Report, which is all about using networks for citizen-centered social action, and what this means for network-centric grant making. Defininitely one for BIG. The report highlights five themes:

  • Listening to and consulting the crowds: Actively listening to online conversations and openly asking for advice.
  • Designing for serendipity: Creating environments, in person and online, where helpful connections can form.
  • Bridging differences: Deliberately connecting people with different perspectives.
  • Catalyzing mutual support: Helping people directly help each other.
  • Providing handrails for collective action: Giving enough direction for individuals to take effective and coordinated action.

Phew. That was a bit of a ramble, but I needed to get it down for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t really know what I think until I have to write it. Secondly, it’s a lot easy to write about some of the specifics if there is an easy “as I wrote here” compendium reference point.

As well as following through on the topics I’ve touched on here, I’ll try and develop more of a framework for thinking about reporting, collaboration and social innovation, as I started here.

Reporting – including social reporting – is about making a difference, change, disruption … not just carrying messages. Back in 1997 Donella Meadows wrote about twelve leverage points to intervene in a system, and ranked these in order of influence. The least impact, she suggests, comes from constants, parameters, numbers, and the greatest from the power to transcend paradigms.

Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.

That’s certainly a big enough banner to fly.


  • October 11, 2011 - 5:22 pm | Permalink

    A great post, and lots here to absorb (particularly with the various link references). I think it’s in there somewhere, but maybe not as explicit as I would like, but social reporting is more than just sharing stories, or recording facts and opinions. It requires understanding of the issues and the ability to help the reader make some sense of the event they are reporting on. Maybe this is where the journalism skills are required, but these skills are somehow underplayed and mistakenly (IMHO) assumed to naturally exist in the world of social networks.

    You make a reference to RSA encouraging their Fellows to volunteer to be social reporters, as if the only requirement is to be able to write. As we know, anyone can be a blogger, but not many people are (a) interesting and (b) make sense. For me this is the difference between reading half a dozen blog posts about an event, posted by people I probably don’t know, and inevitably focusing on the elements they found most interesting; and reading something by an experienced/skilled social reporter, who can connect themes/discussions/stories to help develop a more rounded understanding of the event.

    So, personally I don’t think that just anyone can be a social reporter, and I’m wary of recruiting an army of bloggers who believe that is the role they are fulfilling. Because the other dimension in this is the issue of trust and reputation. With 500 million blogs out there (or whatever the number is), I’m now quite choosey about the sources I read. If I’m not too worried about accuracy and context, then I’ll build my own picture up of an event by maybe reading a few random blogs. If I want to get a more detailed understanding of a topic or event, and want to ensure reasonable accuracy and freedom from bias, I’ll seek out sources I trust.

    Social reporting is a label we can give to anyone who records and publishes information about an event; but in fact, it needs to be differentiated from the amateur, keen, or ‘volunteered’ blogger.

  • david wilcox
    October 11, 2011 - 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Steve – I agree wholehearted about the sensemaking, along with making connections and helping other do that too. Some video on this was buried in one of the many links, although you make the point more clearly.
    There is a danger that unconsidered reporting just adds to the noise. We need tweets from events, for example, but also the round-up and analysis too.
    At the same time I think we need to find some ways for people to explore the potential, without feeling they have to go on a course first. Maybe some mentoring?Your further thoughts on how to develop the practice (if not yet a trade or profession) would be most welcome.

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