Bringing Hyper-Local, Citizen-Driven News to South Africa

    by Harry Dugmore
    May 8, 2009

    Is hyper-local journalism interesting enough to engage its own audience?

    And is the prospect of being more “in the know,” and more connected and more involved in one’s community, attractive enough to inspire people to take the time out to do citizen journalism?

    The old adage that “all news is local” does hold a great deal of truth. News can be locally generated or outside news can be made local. The implications of any big news story – like H1N1 virus, a.k.a. swine flu – can almost always be localized to create stories about how this impacts on you, where you are right now.


    You might want to know about local stocks of anti-virals, and you would certainly be interested if the hospital near you started treating cases. In fact you’d probably be unhappy not knowing.

    But “big story localized” is not what we mean when we talk of hyper-local. We usually mean something that emanates out of a defined geography. Benedict Anderson theorized the idea of “imagined communities” in the 1980s, providing us with a powerful way of understanding nationalism and group identity. We live in collectives like nation states that are so big that we can’t know everyone face-to-face, and we have to build a collectively imagined (but often contested) set of ideas of what such a community looks like, what it stands for, and what value we place on belonging to it.

    But in small geographic areas, like a school, or a city block, we don’t have to imagine our community as much. Or do we? We live right in it, even if we don’t know everyone in it. It is much more face-to-face, and in many ways, there is less need for it to be imagined.


    Hyper-local coverage is about locality, build around a boxed-in closeness and a physical terrain. We are interested in knowing more about what is going here because it is literally where we are at — so the thinking goes.

    How the Local Paper Fits In

    But there is also an argument to be made that we are interested local news because it allows us to imagine relationship with our space, and other people in it. We’ve seen just this week, with the 140th anniversary of the local community newspaper, Grocott’s Mail (an essential component of our Knight News Challenge Iindaba Ziyafika project), just how central a local paper’s reporting is to how people think about themselves. It is about how to make sense of geographically-based location in relation to other people living there.

    With South Africa’s history of division, and of rigid apartheid of geographical space, building a new sense of community-hood and nation-hood is clearly a very important social task. Contributing to this is a big part of our overarching objectives.

    In Grahamstown, South Africa, we have a perfect laboratory to test what works and doesn’t work in hyper-local media and journalism. But there are dangers when areas of greatest likely interest to those who live here — say a few square kilometers around where people live or work, or your school or campus dorm — still largely reflect the segregation of apartheid-era social planning.

    Might hyper-local in this context not simply reinforce ethnic and class ghettos, only slightly less strongly formed now, even though all legal compulsions have been removed?

    This week, we’re starting our training for what will eventually be a dozen local school “cell phone media clubs.” Young volunteers with an interest in making a difference in their communities through learning to use and make media will learn about digging up and reporting interesting stories, both in their schools and in their communities. Building on the work of the 2008 class, we’ll be focusing on getting the news in to a central point — Grocott’s website and even into the Grocott’s print edition — primarily via SMS.

    But in 2009, we’re channeling a lot of energy into creating something like a school newsletter as a basic building block for getting into the swing of hyper-local journalism. In South Africa, better-off schools have weekly newsletters. They are mostly filled with sports news, but also carry some cultural and club activity, and sometimes news of a new teacher arriving, or an old one leaving, for example.

    Poorer schools often don’t have these kind media channels, and that might be why in many poorer schools there seems to be a greater sense of distance between parents and the schools their children attend.

    Might being able to read about what is happening at the school make parents feel more involved, or maybe want to be more involved? Do they play a role in helping people connected to the school — parents, teachers, learners, families, communities — imagine a particular role and relationship to that school. And, if they do (we think they do), how can they help everyone take a great stand for improving educational and life experiences in these schools?

    Basic Training

    Getting practical, cell phone media club members are going to get some fun basic training and then they going to choose news beats. Someone is going to be responsible for reporting on the debate club, or the chess club, or the football team. There will also be social news, “what’s on,” and opinion pieces. They’re all going to write short stories and take photos on their cell phones.

    These highly local school-based news will then be edited professionally, and appear on Grocott’s Mail Online and sometimes in Grocott’s print edition. Our first examples should be up and running in June.

    We are also finding ways of getting this news and information back to schools that often don’t have much access to the Internet (and, indeed, few computers for any purpose). We are going to use SMS, Mxit and Facebook to do this, once we’ve built that capacity, and figured out ways to pay for it, but we’re also going to make print-outs on big A3 sheets and paste them up in a specially designated “news wall” at each school.

    Combination of old and new media channels, but suited for purpose.

    We’re taking this approach even though some voices within and outside our project are asking: “is this journalism or just information provision?” Is allowing schools to report on their sports results, on a public website, really journalism?

    Our view is that getting learners reporting about things that are important to them will generate, on its own, a whole range of topics we’ve not even thought about, some of which might have greater social import then say, a soccer score.

    But starting with sports scores (and match reports) or news of the School’s choir’s performance at the regional choir competitions, for example, and with other very (hyper) local news, is a great way to build audience rapport and reporting skills. In any case, who’s to judge what social import is, if not the communities and schools themselves?

    Over time, we’ll add instant messaging, twitter and Facebook feeds, so that these spaces can be updated consistently. We’re also looking at providing public information, where available — like a school’s graduation rates — on the site.

    Contentious Issues at Schools

    Watch this space: Schools in South Africa are sensitive places and we’re faced with a huge range of interesting issues that arise simply from having a space to report about what’s happening, not matter how banal that might appear to some in the first place. Just posting graduation rates can cause controversy for example; many schools are not proud of their achievements and with good reason.

    And other issues can be equally contentious: for example, recently, some pupils (or learners as we like to call them in South Africa) expressed some critical views about the dominance of rugby football at local high schools (because the rugby authorities make money available to promote the sport at grassroots level), as opposed to ordinary football (soccer) which is hugely popular in South Africa.

    Some of the school teachers were very upset to be criticized in this way. How will we handle this kind of issue? How do we support our learner citizen journalists to do their jobs, but also how do we stay out of it, and just let it happen?

    Schools are in fact, hugely contested places. In the current set of newsletters that we are looking at — from wealthier schools in Grahamstown — you see all sorts of power relationships leaking out. Boys’ sport is often given more prominence compared to girls’ sport, for example. What’s that all about? How do we make sure we don’t inadvertently reinforce a whole bunch of gender stereotypes, to cite just one area of obvious contestation?

    We are clearly going to have very interesting issues come up simply by creating the space, and providing some skills and resources, for school-based hyper-local reporting.

    Tagged: citizen journalists communities hyper-local news schools south africa user-generated media

    9 responses to “Bringing Hyper-Local, Citizen-Driven News to South Africa”

    1. Guy Berger says:

      It’s long overdue that someone problematized the notion of “hyperlocal”. The sense of community is, as pointed out, an imagined reality – which is why it can be delinked from spatial considerations. For instance, communities of interest that range across the globe. But that cuts the other way too: “local” is also an imagined space. Geography does not per se compute to identity and community. Two people in the same street may still imagine the “local community” differently. So, isn’t the key task then to try and “construct” a shared imagination of what’s “local” – and thence a shared public sphere where opinion and information comes together – precisely dealing with the character of that metaphorical space and its articulation to spatial dynamics?

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    3. MichaelJ says:

      Harry, Thank you for posting. School based hyperlocal reporting with a print piece makes sense in so many ways.

      Every parent is vitally interested in their children. The notion that some parents don’t care about education is a fallacy. Based on my experience in American bottom of the pyramid high schools, the problem is one of time not interest.

      The public schools in every society are where power relationships emerge. It’s different only in the details here in the States.

      Given the new digital print technologies the process are well defined to move easily from wikis to Print. Given that tech, it should be possible to create learning materials in print to join communities of parents interested in their children’s future with the geographical areas in which they live their real lives.

      From my experience it says that learning history and science can be reframed as a natural activity instead of an academic exercise.

      Please get in touch if you would like me to share what I think I’ve learned about digital printing techniques.

    4. Harry says:

      Thanks for the comments Michael. I’m just getting to know “dr. droock” through your links. I’ll be in touch. I really liked your insight about schools being where ‘power relations emerge’ in every society. Its made think wait, schools here don’t start the problem of dis empowerment, passive parents and our sad no-real-accountability culture in our schools (with teachers running second jobs from their classrooms and worse!), high absenteeism etc. I think you’re right and this rather REFLECTS something going on in our society and culture. If you’re interested take a look at some new long term scenarios that were produced in SA last month (I come from a bit a of scenarios background), called the Dikoneng Scenarios http://www.dinokengscenarios.co.za/, where they decry the growing lack of ‘civic engagement’ with, for example, fewer parents, especially poor parents, getting involved in PTA’s, school governing bodies etc. The scenarios look at the long-term implications of people opting out politics, even community politics and school structures etc. Ironically, in SA, we worked hard and won ways to make it easy for parents to get onto a school governing body,and these Governing bodies have a great deal of power, and if parents wanted to they could take over the school! Really be in charge of important things, like hiring and firing! But grinding poverty, long distances to work (because of apartheid geography not yet gone), lots ill-health, low wages for those who do have jobs, and I don’t know what else, just keeps pushing levels of participation, even in political parties and trade unions, once so popular in SA, down every year.
      So schools are reflecting that. Maybe our project will provide a platform (we want it too) for a bit of rage from parents and teachers in under-performing schools to write about it and say we want this to stop. We want teachers to arrive on time, stay the whole school day (and not leave at 11am!), prepare good lessons and teach! A lot of good teachers are battling against the odds to do just that, but we need to connect them with concerned parents to get our schools off the floor. And that’s just one of the projects that we think Hyper-local journalism can be a bit crusading about in South Africa

    5. Harry says:

      that lack of local construction is exactly what is happening, and what we must get to grips with in Grahamstown. As a newby here, I’m struck by how this is so much less an apartheid city spatially — sure it is still segregated into largely white and wealthy and largely poor and black areas– but there are so close by, all in this one valley. Most places in SA, black South Africans were forced to live miles away, often 3 or 4 miles away in small towns, and 10 miles or more in bigger towns (I’m using miles not kilometres for no good reason!) But despite our closeness here, we’ve got a way to go to creating a local sense of what ‘local’ is. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure we need a wide range of civic campaigns that address issues where well-off and struggling can find common interests but more than that, we need to some real big crusades to get the roads, water, schools, health facilities, levels of crime in the poorer parts of Grahamstown to improve. We’ve not succeeded too well in getting wealthier Grahamstown to see that we’re all in this together. Having said that, it was clear from the 140 celebrations of Grocott’s Mail, our local paper, and from our work on with school kids in the Iindaba Ziyafika, that Grocott’s Mail IS the single biggest contributor, for good or bad, of people imagining what this place is, what it could be, what the overlays are between the still so separate spatial components, economic inequality (having the biggest gap between rich and poor in the world, which South Africa has by a Gini coefficient country mile doesn’t do much for helping people grasp and imagine a common sense of ‘local’) and even generational gaps are. Grocott’s and soon the new Grocotts online 2.0, embrace this role of making the 120,000 of us living in Grahamstown figure what it means to be part of this community. I think the time for bigger campaigns, to really burst wide open this segregated public sphere, are needed, and I this might be one of the few places in the world where the newspaper and its website (and the new approach to citizen journalism en mass) could actually make a massive difference to the quality of life of its readers, and their sense of belonging, not just to a place, but to each other too.

    6. MichaelJ says:

      Fascinating details to a blogger in Brooklyn. I think it would be fair to say that at a thought model level, the situation you describe is perfectly replicated at bottom of the pyramid high schools in the States.

      Our graduation rates for urban schools is aroudn 50%. With all the money are resources being invested, improvements in educational outcomes are haphazard and unpredictable.

      Now we are ready to invest literally billions of US debt to try to get it to work.

      Here the reality is that our schools have evolved not to educate but to time train rural people to work in an industrial society. There are studies that show that the marginal added value of formal education in the States, once you hold constant for family values and culture is and always has been negligible.

      I understand this may sound silly, but the research I’ve seen comes from Stanford. I don’t have the link handy but will search for it and post at my blog when i do.

      The enormous opportunity I think you have is that you don’t have to deal with legacy social enterprise. It’s a typical organizational innovation problem. You can take the best of what we’ve learned from our experience, modify it to work in a much different environment, and deliver back to the Metropole the new models we need.

      A couple of things that I think I can prove but not in this context:
      1. There are no bad students.
      2. The teaching process is setting the stage for the emergence of teachable moments. Then being ready to intervene appropriately when those fleeting moments occur.
      3. The primary focus of administrators is not about curriculum, methods or blablabla.
      4. The primary focus of administrators should be on organizing time, movement and space.
      5. The issue is not teaching. The issue is removing the barriers to learning. Every child, no matter what their history is a finely evolved learning machine. That’s just Darwin.
      6. When a system is designed to curb creativity and unexpected behavior in the service of industrial labor the job is stop learning. The legacy communication ecology of the American educational system has evolved to do that job brilliantly. it’s not anyone’s fault. Just a natural evolution given the constraints and opportunities of the past.

      The tipping point changes are possible very quickly once the constraints and incentives change.

      This is the thread I’m starting to explicitly explore at my blog.

    7. MichaelJ says:

      Just one more note for here:
      you said “Maybe our project will provide a platform (we want it too) for a bit of rage from parents and teachers in under-performing schools to write about it and say we want this to stop.”

      Rage is finally counterproductive. Too many unintended consequences. The issue is mutual respect and clear constraints and incentives.

      If one were to wax a little poetic, it’s more about tough love than rage.

    8. Harry says:

      Thanks Michael Those are all great points. And you’re right about rage thing to; there are too many unintended consequences. I’m keen for people to channel their anger (and feel it the first place, because poor education is failing their families and it doesn’t have to be that way) into constructive channels, like getting onto governing bodies and PTA. And, in the good schools I know, even some very poor ones, the admin is supportive and get out of the way, as you suggest, but also very hard on anyone who doesn’t want uphold a culture of teaching and learning.

    9. MichaelJ says:

      Agreed. It’s the same in Brooklyn and probably every other urban area in the States. in NYC we legislated “community control” in the early 70’s. Fast forward it mostly means that community people fall into the same groupthink as the full time professionals before them.

      Just curious: Do you have any connections to any of the global print vendors in South Africa?
      Among the names are Oce, HP, Xerox, Ricoh or Canon. The reason I ask is that you might find some support to help subsidize the costs of doing versioned customized print publishing.

      One possible path is to find some of the best designers. They have the printer relationship, and the printer can get to the vendor.

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