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April 04 2013


The Role of Public Access TV in Covering Local Government, Debates

In recent years, "public service media" has emerged as the term describing all that's right with public media, community media, and non-profit journalism, and how those three sectors could be collaborating to function more perfectly in a new telecommunications-reformed promised land. Largely overlooked in these future of media discussions are two types of simple, non-edited televised event recordings -- local government meetings and local election debates coverage.

'united by function, not divided by platform'

Josh Stearns and Candace Clement, in their MediaShift post last October, "The Case for Unity Among Non-Profit, Community, and Public Media," quote from their August 2012 Free Press report, "Greater than the Sum":

"We need to begin constructing a new identity for non-profit journalism and media in America, one that illustrates the central role these institutions play in our nation. In addition, we must examine the media policies that have for too long served to divide non-profit media by platform instead of connecting them around purpose."

In so doing they point to the 2010 paper by Ellen Goodman and Anne Chen, "Modeling Policy For New Public Service Media Networks":

"While public media policy has traditionally been structured around specific platforms -- specifically radio and television stations -- Goodman and Chen call for a 'functions'-based approach that emphasizes: infrastructure, creation, curation and connection." Various non-profit media and journalism institutions can and should be united by function, not divided by platform, Stearns and Clement write.

In their paper's section on the creation function (what they call the "what" of public service media content), Goodman and Chen describe valid rationales for public subsidies of various types of program content. Although they mention news and documentaries, oddly, they don't include gavel-to-gavel government meetings coverage and local elections debate coverage in their examples. These two program types, essential pillars for citizen education and civic engagement, are also not discussed in the Free Press report. These content types must not be left out of forward-looking public service media public policy discussions.

Gavel-to-Gavel Local Government Meeting Coverage

In 2010 I collected data on U.S. cities' gavel-to-gavel televised government meetings coverage, reporting on it in a post for the New America Foundation, "How many cities have access TV? More than you might think." Of the 276 U.S. cities then over 100,000 in population:

256 of them -- 93 percent -- televise the routine meetings of one or more of their governmental bodies. All but two of these cities use cable television to do so ... Of the 254 largest cities cablecasting their government meetings, 197 of them (78 percent) do so on channels that they themselves manage. Non-profit organizations manage those channels in 20 of those cities, while the cable companies manage them in 28.

There are of course many municipalities below 100,000 in population who also televise their government meetings, although assuredly many more do not. The Goodman/Chen four-layer model could productively be applied to help further such program availability.

Local Elections Televised Debates

I've been maintaining an online directory of PEG access television providers' websites since 2000. Every federal election season since 2006 I've surfed these providers' websites (initially about 800 of them), noting which ones were promoting local election coverage programs. In 2010 I emailed all PEG access providers for whom I could locate email addresses, asking them, among other things, if they produced any type of local elections coverage. The results of these combined efforts are seen in this map -- at least 327 PEG access providers produce some sort of local elections coverage.

By 2012, my directory's listings -- now a Google Doc spreadsheet, U.S. Community Access TV Providers -- had grown too numerous (over 2,000 providers) to completely search manually as I had before. Instead, using an offline website reading tool, I tried downloading the contents of these providers' websites (twice -- once in the first week of October, once in the last). While I was at it, I performed the same operation for PBS stations' websites.

(This is an imperfect data collection technique -- at least the way I employed it. This tool allows you to set the number of levels deep as well as a maximum number of files you wish to download. Though I arbitrarily chose three levels and 300 files, many sites would hang during download, so I'd have to manually skip to the next site.)

Then I searched for the string "debate" among all those downloaded files, individually inspecting each returned result. I'm still in the process of compiling this incompletely gathered data, but so far, using this method I've identified 27 PEG access providers and 66 PBS stations who produced or carried 2012 local election debate coverage. They're shown in these four maps: 1) County/Municipality Elections; 2) State Legislature Elections; 3) Congressional Elections, and 4) Statewide Elections. (An additional eight commercial broadcast stations whose debates were carried on C-SPAN in October are also included here).


These maps are prominently labeled "data incomplete." In addition to the limitation described above, there are three necessary data sets which remain to be collected and analyzed: debate coverage by 1) commercial broadcast TV stations, 2) cable company-managed channels, and 3) statewide cable public affairs networks' channels.

Therefore, this data is still too preliminary to draw almost any conclusions. However, it does seem reasonable to assume that more complete data would bear out at least one picture here: As with gavel-to-gavel local government meeting coverage, county and municipal election debate coverage is probably more commonly being produced and carried by PEG access television providers than other television outlets.

Once a more complete picture has been developed, I propose that it would be worthwhile to apply the Goodman/Chen four-layer functional model (infrastructure, creation, curation, and connection) in an effort to further promote this essential component of a public service media network.

In January this year the Alliance for Community Media published results of a local elections coverage survey it conducted among its PEG access provider members. The responses the ACM received -- especially to its questions about the barriers to producing such programming -- would be an excellent place to start the collaborative conversation about how the existing 1) infrastructures of public media and community media could work together to 2) create and 3) curate more of this programming, in ways which would enhance viewer 4) connections -- that is, citizen engagement.

Examining and exploring these pathways to collaborations would be a fruitful step towards crafting new public policies that would create a more robust and provably useful public service media system.

Chopping Wood, Carrying Water

In examining policies and practices for televising local meetings and debates, I'm reminded of the Zen proverb, "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water." Televising local government meetings and local election debates, like chopping wood and carrying water, are mundane but essential activities. Come the Enlightenment (a new Telecommunications Act rewrite?) these mundane activities will still need to be carried out. If anything, we are not chopping enough wood, or carrying enough water, as it it.

Anyone with information about additional TV stations that carried election debate coverage in 2012 is kindly asked to email that information to the author, rob@communitymediadatabase.org, for inclusion in this ongoing study. Thank you.

Rob McCausland has been involved in community access television since 1979, when he co-founded the Boston Cable Access Television Coalition, which advocated for access provisions in Boston's first cable franchise. He has served as Studio and Cablecast Manager for Boston Neighborhood Network, Executive Director for Beverly Community Access Media, and most recently, as Director of Information and Organizing Services for the Alliance for Community Media. Currently he is developer of Community Media Database, a reference website launched in 2011 with pilot support from The Benton Foundation and the New America Foundation.

February 08 2012


Video Volunteers Looks to Mainstream Media for Growth

This is Part 3 in a 4-part series in which Video Volunteers is sharing what we've done over the last year, our experiences, and what we've learned. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In August, the Video Volunteers staff attended an amazing program called the Global Social Business Incubator at Santa Clara University, where we developed a new business plan focused on income from the mainstream media. Our idea is to have one rural reporter in each of India's 645 districts, set up like a rural stringers network, to deliver a pipeline of high-quality, low-cost human interest content to television stations. The maintenance costs of such a network, once it's set up, would be relatively low -- about $300,000 a year for 645 rural correspondents, or about the cost of 20-30 television producers in Delhi. 

Ultimately, we feel that the recruitment, training and generation of impact will need to be supported by philanthropy, but that production and distribution should be taken care of by the market.

We made significant progress in 2011. In May, NewsX, the Indian network, broadcast our 13-part series called "Speak Out India." We sold them eight stories a week, and they produced a show around it. It was the first time we know of where a mainstream news company has paid for content produced by people living at the so-called base of the pyramid, and the successful run of that show has given us a successful track record with the media. The problem was, they only paid us the stringer rate for the stories, so about 1,500 rupees ($30) when our costs of production are more like 8,000 rupees ($160).

Our next goal was to see if an Indian TV channel would sign a contract with us for a similar amount of content each week (about 30 minutes) at our fully loaded cost of production for a 3-minute story. Hence, Video Volunteers' earned income goal for the end of this year was $100,000, or about 40% of our total budget. This would still be significantly lower than the costs of a TV station doing these stories themselves.

In the last three months, we've made two trips to Delhi and Mumbai to meet the TV channels, and the response has been very enlightening. So far, we've met about half of the top 20 English or Hindi news channels. They all like the content. They find our community correspondents full of energy, and feel that our flip cams are generating adequate quality.

The fact that India is in the throes of an anti-corruption movement is a really good thing for us, because we have lots of great corruption stories that they want. So far so good, in that they clearly are saying, "We'll run this content." This is a big step from a few years ago, where everyone we spoke to said we were crazy to think TV stations would run stuff produced by poor villagers. 

all CVU Photos - 3853.jpg

The Rural Newswire

As for the idea of a "rural newswire," they also get the concept. One senior person at CNN IBN said, "It's a well-known secret in Indian media that abysmal stringers are a huge problem." The chief executive of CNN IBN has talked in media interviews (including when he's been interviewed about Video Volunteers) about the "tyranny of distance," and how the remote areas of the country are often prohibitively expensive to cover. Someone at a government channel even told us that our idea couldn't work with the government channel "because all our stringers are political appointees!"

But despite all this, we're not sure they're ready to pay for quality. One producer at a news channel here who was really championing us internally said, "I'm pitching this as a high-quality stringers network. Everyone knows our stringers are awful, but the problem is they are OK with bad quality."

Bottom line at the end of our first 10 TV station meetings: Stations will take our stuff for free. They would probably also pay us the stringer rate -- but not necessarily the fully loaded cost. So now we're working with one station that's going to try to find a corporate sponsor, and will probably be the first mainstream media contract to materialize for us next year.

Online Distribution Helps

Thankfully, the Internet is a space where we can produce and publicize our content without depending on a broadcaster. We are currently publishing one video a day on our site, which is searchable by issue, region and community correspondent. The good news is that we've doubled our viewers over the last six months. The less good news is that the numbers are still low. We're going to start tweaking our format to show the back story and the trials and tribulations of the community producers more.

We've set aside one day a week, Wednesday, to publish impact videos -- this will have an impact on us in terms of fundraising! And we hope to start producing our own podcasts where we club together videos on a particular theme and have someone in our office as an anchor. We now have more than 450 edited 3-minute videos on every conceivable issue of human rights, poverty alleviation, and local culture. We're sitting on a gold mine of content, and now the fun starts of repackaging it and seeing what themes emerge and getting others to comment on the content.

We're confident this will work, because when our content is on other platforms that get traffic, it does very well. We're now partnered with several online companies, namely MSN, Rediff, Viewspaper and ViewChange.org. The partnership with Rediff is particularly promising; our first video with it got 100,000 views and loads of comments.

We also reach greater numbers of people through commissioned film projects. We've been hired this year by several organizations to gather stories or footage, such as: the one day on Earth project; YouTube's Day in a Life project; and the Red Cross, for whom we produced 12 videos on hunger in rural India that they're using in campaign events around the world. We've also gathered stories of climate change for our partner organization Laya; stories of development-induced displacement for Witness; stories on domestic violence for Breakthrough; and on local farming for the Gene Campaign.

Our correspondents gathered "recce" footage on caste for one of India's major production companies, and got answers from dozens of people to the question, "Are You Happy?" for a film project replicating Jean Rouch's seminal 1961 movie "Chronicle of Summer."

Are you happy? - from Jharkhand from Video Volunteers on Vimeo.

Stay tuned for our fourth and last post of the blog series, in which we'll discuss our other activities and programs and our vision for the future.

February 12 2011


Hello My Name Is___Ben Berkowitz__

Hi I'm Ben,

I am from New Haven, CT and am one of the Co-Founders of SeeClickFix.com. SeeClickFix is a platform that allows a citizen to report anything that is broken or needs improvement in the public space to anyone else who can help fix it including but not limited to governments anywhere in the world. 

I am interested in meeting others active on the ground in community and civic projects. I am also interested in meeting anbody who has a local blog or news site as SeeClickFix has a free widget that is widely deployed around the world.  I'm also interested in meeting existing users or anyone who has felt helpless when they wanted to get a pothole fixed.

December 07 2010


Video Volunteers Launches 'IndiaUnheard' for Rural Issues

Video Volunteers recently launched IndiaUnheard, a new project (and website) attempting to create a bridge, through community media, between disconnected rural communities and web audiences who are interested in news on issues of human rights, development and corruption. You can see the result and watch the community videos here. As this is a relatively new venture -- it's only about 4 to 5 months old -- I'd love feedback from the highly knowledgeable Knight and MediaShift Idea Lab community.

Here are some videos to show you what it's about: The village of Natpura, featured in this video below, in rural Uttar Pradesh has no women left in it. Every single one of them has been sold into prostitution rings in India and around the world by their families.

At the other side of the country, in another village, impoverished children featured in this video are not able to take their national exams because headmasters demand a bribe their families cannot afford to pay.

These two stories were broken not by mainstream journalists but by people living in these actual communities -- people who themselves experience these same kinds of exploitation and disadvantage. Because of that, the reporters (or community correspondent, as Video Volunteers calls them) have a vested interest in making sure something happens as a result of the video. They are de facto activists. In the case of the second video, the teacher in question school has been demoted. After seeing that result, the people in a neighboring village asked the correspondent to come make a video about their horrible school, and the teacher in that school was also suspended. Angry villagers mounted a rally led by our young, 19 year-old community correspondent, Mukesh Rajak, himself a young Dalit from the "lowest" caste in India. Mukesh went to the government official's office and showed her the video on his cell phone. The official was furious and took action against the bribe-taking teacher. This is the power of community media and the cascading effect of local media.

How it Works

Our 30 community correspondents (CCs) are stationed across India, nearly one in every state. They make us on average one video a month and we pay them about $30 a video. We are trying to set them up as entrepreneurs -- they make videos, they get paid. If they don't, they don't get paid. This is different from the more charitable model of most community media and is possible because we are working with adults, not youth or children.

The first 30 CCs were trained in March 2010, with support from the News Challenge. They had a two-week residential training in all manner of video journalism. In our primary program, dubbed the Community Video Units, we give them 18 months of full time training that we have felt is necessary when working with such rural communities, so a short intensive training was a departure for us. We plan to take in two new batches of Community Correspondents every year.

A Diverse Network

Community Correspondents are dalits, tribals, Muslims, rural women, among others. Our CC in Chhattisgarh is Sarwat. He is a member of his village council and feels that IndiaUnheard offers a better platform for tackling real issues than local government does. Rohini is our CC from Walhe village in Maharashtra. She was married off right after she finished her 10th grade. She is determined to change the condition of women in her community and her videos bear testimony to this. She's made video stories on devdasis (temple slaves/prostitutes), early marriage and anti-women customs like dowry. Christyraj is a transgender CC from Bangalore. He is one of the only transgender journalists in India and works tirelessly to bring the issues of his community to the fore.

Since May 1 (we launched on World Press Day) a new video report on key issues such as caste, conflict, identity and education is being released every day on the IndiaUnheard website. They are also further distributed through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other online news portals like Ground Report. Though these communities in India don't have Internet access, they are speaking directly to a global web audience. The impact stories we have -- such as medical supplies being delivered to villages after an IndiaUnheard report, by a web viewer, and people getting their ration cards because of the pressure of exposure on corrupt officials -- are examples of something that is still very high tech in the developing world (cell phone video) actually seeping in to make an impact on corruption.

The people we work with are still totally unconnected, with only one cell phone shared between many family members, no computer skills and Internet cafes often hours away. We struggle with how to bring their media and their voices to a global audience when they themselves can't participate in the online dialog. We've designed some rather unusual solutions to this digital divide challenge-- such as maintaining Facebook and twitter accounts for them which we maintain on their behalf and call them on the phone when anyone asks them a question -- but the internet is still rather unreal and insignificant to them, though storytelling and the desire to be heard certainly is not.

IndiaUnheard fits with lots of efforts being made in India by the UN, the Indian government and NGOs to promote local democracy. IndiaUnheard's role is to promote democracy by enabling marginalized communities to represent themselves and their issues. Hyperlocal media models empower people with the tools to bring attention to their own issues and to come out from the shadows. India is the world's largest democracy; however, most people don't know their rights as information does not reach the poor majority. Simultaneously, government and the mainstream media cannot easily access the knowledge and perspectives of the poor. IndiaUnheard enables marginalized people to influence policies, highlight gross injustices and take a stand, so a better-informed nation can better tackle issues like rural corruption or failing rural schools or health systems.

A Business Model?

IndiaUnheard is an innovative business model for democratizing the media. I've written about this in other posts on MediaShift Idea Lab to make the point that India and other developing countries have a very small number of stringers in rural areas and those that exist are usually not professionally trained journalists. Video Volunteers believes the poor can be winners in the changing media landscape and that some community correspondents can, in time, support themselves in the market. It's not just that our community correspondents would be cheaper than other freelancers the mainstream could draw on. With the advent of citizen journalism and changing viewing habits thanks to the Internet, the world is hungry to see content they've never seen before. Our producers are in places that the mainstream media cannot or does not access so this is a window into the real India.

Mainstream journalists working in India tend to cover only a certain demographic, they do not dig deep to uncover the stories of the marginalized. Video Volunteers will be feeding IndiaUnheard stories to print and television media, giving journalists -- especially local media -- another source of interesting stories.

What Next?

Our ambition is to expand the program nationally to a point where there is one community correspondent in all 626 districts of India, and internationally, in partnership with NGOs, filmmakers and journalists. This is totally funding dependent, of course, but if we can find people to invest for a few years, I believe that eventually we can be earning a sizable chunk of our revenues from the mainstream media. The question is: is it 20 percent? Fifty percent? Eighty percent? We are trying to work that out now.

In the longer term, this low cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

So, please go to IndiaUnheard and watch some of the videos. Write a comment, ask a question of the person who made the video. We'll get on the phone to them and post you an answer. In doing this, you'll help one isolated community in rural India feel a little bit more "heard."

November 18 2010


Building a successful technology venture for the bottom of the pyramid

This is a long overdue update from our end! We were awarded a grant in the 2008 News Challenge for developing low-cost technologies for community radio stations in India. We have come a long way since then. Our systems are now in use in 9 stations in India, and growing steadily. But we have also realized that there is a lot more that needs to be done to push the community radio movement in India. Thankfully the Knight Foundation has given us considerable flexibility to tackle various problems as and when they arise. Let me first give you a context, and then tell you more about what exactly we are doing, the challenges of operating in this space, and our future plans.

The context

In late 2006, the Government of India announced a revised policy on community radio wherein non-profit organizations were allowed to set up radio stations. This was expected to kick off community radio in India in a big way. The growth has been steady since then, though arguably somewhat slow. There are now some 20 NGO-led community radio stations, and a handful of stations set up by educational institutions which also do a lot of community service.

Setting up and operating a community radio station can be quite complex though. The licensing process is twisted -- it can take almost a year to get a license! Many organizations have in fact given up the idea of setting up a radio station because of the long drawn out and painful bureaucratic process. Cost of setup is another issue. A basic radio station can be set up in less than $10,000, including the cost of transmitter, a few computers, a simple studio, and an initial training of content acquisition and production. But so far in India it has mostly been large NGOs that have set up stations, and have typically spent upwards $25,000 in studio setup. Most of these costs are covered through project grants for which the NGOs apply.

After the station is setup, the operations are complicated too. Cost is surely an issue, more so because one-time grants run out and the stations are expected to become financially sustainable over time. But this is hard, given that advertising in remote rural locations does not have many buyers. Some stations do get contributions from the community, but this is again rare because the stations have to first prove their worth to the community. Staying engaged with the community is the goal of a community radio station anyway, but it takes time and a lot of learning. The station staff need training on how to produce programs, ideas on community engagement, etc, all of which have steep learning curves.


Where do we fit in? We stated three challenges in our Knight proposal, and all three of them still stand out:

**1. Technology: **Radio stations need to be improved in low-cost ways to make community engagement seamless. With the wide proliferation of mobile phones, this means that the broadcast medium of radio needs to be enhanced with bi-directional communication through mobile phones. This is exactly what our system does -- it enables a seamless integration between radio and telephony, so that through a single console the radio station operator can make and receive phone calls, conference among multiple callers, put calls on air, archive them, send and receive SMS messages, and run polls, question and answer sessions, announcements, etc. In addition, our system also enables content management and scheduling to handle day-to-day operations of typical community radio stations.

**2. Financial sustainability: **A single radio station has too small a catchment area to be attractive for any advertisers. But a network of radio stations can still be potentially marketed to companies interested in rural areas, or even to different government departments that want to disseminate timely information on vaccination camps or employment opportunities in the area. We have therefore worked on a connectivity module in our system that periodically syncs up with a central server on the Internet to collect messages for broadcast, or report feedback. Feedback is a crucial part of any advertising or information dissemination campaign. How many people called in response to the information? Were there any grievance reports on government projects? How often was the advertisement broadcast? Such statistics are also automatically collected and shipped back.

**3. Content training: **A few organizations in India are training community radio stations on content production and community engagement techniques. But there is lots of variation. Some stations are trained in producing informational programs through narratives and interviews of experts, while some others produce very interesting and engaging content in enacting stories in drama formats. Both these stations can learn from each other by listening to content, asking questions, and giving feedback. We are building such a social networking platform for the community radio staff. This will not be a web-based system though, because many staff are not comfortable with the Internet or with typing out messages. We will build this as a voice based feedback system instead.

The technology is ready and we call it GRINS, standing for the Gramin Radio Inter Networking System. We are now talking to a few large brands and to media buying agencies to get advertising for our network of radio stations. And we are beginning to build the content sharing and social networking platform as an add-on to GRINS.

The challenges

There are many challenges we are facing though. We have been talked about sustainability problems that the community radio stations are facing, but we face sustainability issues ourselves! How can we make money to cover further development and support costs? There are a number of revenue streams we have had in mind.

**1. Commissions on advertising: **The numbers look attractive in theory, but advertisers seem to be interested only once we have a substantial footprint. Furthermore, the footprint is highly fragmented, with a few stations in the north, a few in the south, with no contiguity. This is not easily tackled because the total number of community radio stations is itself quite small, and GRINS can be installed only when a new community radio stations come up.

**2. Installation and training charges: **Four of our installations so far were pilot installations, while the rest were paid. And most of these were done through a reseller partnership we have with an FM transmitter manufacturer. We have also been trying to make direct sales but have not been very successful so far. There is an interesting reason for this. The way NGOs work is through projects -- they put up a project proposal consisting of a capital expenditure and a recurring operational expenditure. This means that for existing stations that have been running since a while, the cost for a GRINS box is to be borne out of their operational budget. This is clearly hard. It is much easier to sell through resellers so that the cost can be absorbed in the initial setup package itself. Having realized this, we are now actively trying to form reseller partnerships. We are also participating in commuinty radio awareness workshops that are being organized in a number of places in India, so that more and more NGOs come to know about GRINS and contact us when they are ready to set up their station.

**3. Commercial radio stations: **India is about to announce commercial radio licenses for small towns. GRINS is perfect for this segment. It is not high-end such as Synergy, RCS, and other radio automation systems that want to do syndicated broadcasts across a network of stations. The set of features which GRINS provides are exactly suitable for standalone stations that want to form closer ties with their listeners. Even in the higher-end segment, the features are somewhat complementary to that of other radio automation systems, telephony and SMS integration being the key here. We are therefore actively forming partnerships in the commercial segment as well.

There are clearly challenges in all these avenues, but the good thing is that we are discovering the problems, and working around them accordingly.

The future

This brings us to the present, where we are working fervently on supporting the community radio movement in India. We will continue to do that, but we are realizing that given the complexities in setting up and running community radio stations, large scale impact will only come after a while. We are all an impatient bunch of people though! There is so much that local media can fix -- corruption in public services, awareness on health and sanitation, a new means of livelihood... And community radio is not the only medium.

We are running an interesting experiment in a slum colony in East Delhi, using voice and photographs to improve the delivery of public services. The idea here is again to technologically enable a local media service for the people, through which they can put pressure on elected officials to improve public services such as sanitation, road conditions, fairness in water and electricity billing, etc. In these slum colonies for example, we have seen playgrounds that have been converted into garbage dumps, community toilets without any water taps, overflowing drains, broken pavements, and even worse. We have set up a toll-free number which community members can call to leave complaints. We also collect photos and videos in the same manner. Our plan then is to play these recordings over a loudspeaker rolled through the slum colony, to enthuse more and more people to participate and pay attention to the messages. We will also build a simple tool to generate wall newspapers that can be printed and put up all around the colony. If this runs successfully, we will begin to invest a lot more time in popularizing the set of tools to other organizations so that they can set up their own local media hubs at practically zero cost.

October 01 2010


KETC Works with Community on 'Homeland' Immigration Project

Fresh from their ambitious multi-city Facing the Mortgage Crisis project, KETC/Channel 9 in St. Louis has launched a new community-based news project on another hot topic: immigration.

Homeland aims to "apply public media sensibilities, expertise and capacity to address a complicated and polarizing issue," said Amy Shaw, KETC's vice president of education and community engagement. The project includes a website that will feature original content created by community members and KETC staff, a series of facilitated community meetings in the St. Louis area and across Missouri, and a four-hour nationally broadcast television series. This combination, said Shaw, is designed to "push the boundaries of what public media can do."

According to the site:

The Homeland initiative is the embodiment of what public media can do well -- we generate awareness around the important and complex issues that need to be addressed in our communities, and then we create impact by mobilizing people to address these issues. In the process of talking to people throughout our region, we want to show, analyze and present what we learn. We're not going to tell people what we think about immigration or what is right or wrong, good or bad. We intend to help people embrace and understand the complexity of important issues to help communities address them in a more authentic, rational way.

NineAcademy Trains Community Members

Shaw said the project is "rooted in needs of the community," and it is clear that KETC takes community engagement seriously. Homeland is teaming up with KETC's NineAcademy, a free community media program that trains locals in shooting, editing, and storytelling. The best productions will be featured on the Homeland site and on KETC.

Although NineAcademy has already trained community members ranging from middle schoolers to senior citizens, KETC is intent on "meeting people where they are." Aware that some community members lack internet access, KETC staff has made sure that phone, face-to-face and snail-mailed correspondence is valued as much as online interaction. For example, KETC is experimenting with the idea of "conversations in a box" -- mobile storytelling kits, including inexpensive digital video recorders, that are mailed to community members. When they have finished recording their stories, they send the kits back to KETC for redistribution.

So far, according to Shaw, promotion for the project has been minimal, as the project website is still developing.

Five Sections of Site

At present, the site includes five sections that demonstrate the participatory and collaborative nature of Public Media 2.0, in varying degrees.

360 Degree Perspectives is a blog that explores multiple perspectives on immigration issues, based on KETC's meetings with community members from all spots on the political spectrum, including Tea Party members, far-left groups, and the very wide swath of Americans who don't currently identify with a particular political point of view.

Fact vs. Myth takes a nuanced look at some of the common information and misinformation surrounding the immigration debate. Check out this Fact vs. Myth video created by a NineAcademy graduate DeAnna Tipton:

Your Voice is a discussion forum for community members. Right now, the conversation is heavily populated by KETC staff, but Shaw is confident that the balance will shift over time to allow for more user-directed conversation.

Homeland Series is a behind-the-scene look at the making of the four-hour series that will air in 2011. The broadcast element of this project is, as Shaw explained, "a piece of puzzle," not the be-all end-all culmination of the project. In fact, no pieces related to the project have aired yet, although there has been much activity both online and face-to-face. Community meetings have shaped the entire direction of the project, including the decision to create the four-hour broadcast piece.

Finally, From the Beacon showcases related work from KETC's newspaper partner, the St. Louis Beacon. The Beacon was a partner in the Facing the Mortgage Crisis project as well, providing cross-platform news coverage to the benefit of both organizations.


Although the project is developing smoothly, Shaw said that, "We were a bit naive in considering how challenging it would be to take on one of the most difficult and challenging issues of our time." As polarizing as this issue may be, the tone on Homeland remains congenial with only minimal moderation, indicating perhaps that people are tired of the sensationalized, black-and-white coverage of the issue that is often provided by traditional media.

In addition to the polarizing nature of the subject matter, KETC is also dealing with the fact that the station has not traditionally been a news organization. Now, as they experiment with community-based public affairs coverage, the team must constantly evaluate what works and what doesn't or, as Shaw put it, "go through a daily recalibration." The lessons that KETC's staff learn through this project could very well inform a powerful community engagement model for other stations around the country.

In the coming months, the Homeland team will continue to tweak the design and engagement aspects of the project in order to make the site more community-oriented. KETC is also working on some major internal shifting, and a rebranding effort to highlight the station's overall push toward public engagement. In the future, KETC will be taking on more than one in-depth community engagement project at a time. The subject matter for these future projects will come from -- where else? -- the community.

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media. With a background in media literacy education, Katie previously worked as a Research Associate at Temple University's Media Education Lab in Philadelphia. When she's not researching media, Katie spends her time working in the environmental field and blogging about food.

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August 25 2010


While Others Shrink, KQED Expands Cross-Platform News

Last month, KQED News in San Francisco dramatically expanded the scope of its news coverage with a new website, an increase from six to 16 local radio newscasts and the addition of eight news staffers, including six producers/reporters, a developer and a social media specialist. Its expansion will continue over the next several months (look for a new news blog in the next couple of months).

The changes at KQED reflect a system-wide emphasis on experimentation and news expansion by public media outlets. Since the release of the Knight Commission's report, Informing Communities - Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age, last October, station-based news projects have grown substantially. Large, cross-platform projects are becoming more prevalent, especially among public media organizations with the resources to produce them. See, for example, some of the innovative work being done by outlets like WYNC and WBUR.

Cross-Platform Coverage + Collaboration

KQED's news site combines coverage from KQED Public Radio, KQED Public Television, and KQEDnews.org. In addition to cross-platform news coverage within KQED, the site aims to provide seamless integration of local, national, and international coverage (thanks to extensive integration of NPR's API); in-depth news and commentary (including investigative reporting); and real-time weather and traffic updates. Eventually, the site will incorporate additional interactive features to make news stories more dynamic and relevant to Northern California residents.

According to Tim Olson, KQED's vice president of digital media and education, the expanded site is part of an overall increased push in news coverage. This shift is not the result of a new dedicated source of funding. Rather, said Olson, "It was something [KQED president and CEO] John Boland wanted to do for a long time. We restructured the budget to accommodate these changes."

The new site builds on KQED's history of successful collaborative initiatives. For example, KQED Quest is a "multimedia series exploring Northern California science, environment and nature." Quest integrates radio, television, and online coverage in a site that features maps, a community blog, and hands-on explorations.

KQED News also already has a wealth of in-depth news reports that integrate social media and Web 2.0 technologies. Take, for example, Climate Watch, which provides continuous coverage of climate-related news and incorporates mapping projects such as Reservoir Watch, which tracks the state's water reservoir levels. There's also California's Water Bond - Where Would the Money Go?, which explores the distribution of funds in recent California water-related legislation.

reservoir watch.jpg

Another special feature, Governing California, invites users to learn about California government. This feature includes a California Budget Challenge game that allows users to submit their thoughts on spending decisions, and an interactive timeline of reform history in the state.

Additionally, "Health Dialogues," an exploration of health and health care in the state, includes an interactive map of health issues in rural California and Healthy Ideas, an eight-week special project that invited health care professionals to share their ideas on health care reform.

KQED News also incorporates maps, Twitter feeds, blogs, podcasts, video and user commenting on its news stories. KQED radio dedicates a portion of airtime to listener feedback, and the integrated site includes Perspectives, a section that provides two-minute audio commentaries from listeners each day.

Listen to this recent Perspective audio report from a KQED listener:

Traffic Increase & Challenges

Since the launch of the expanded site, KQED News has seen a 10-fold increase in the number of users, an impressive feat considering that, according to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, "Measured by audience size and budget, KQED is the largest public station in the country with TV and radio under one roof." KQED is growing in terms of partnerships as well: The organization currently has ongoing partnerships with upwards of 25 other news outlets, including organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting, Youth Radio, and ProPublica, and this number is growing.

The expansion is not without its challenges, however. KQED's clear strength is in radio news, but, as Olson noted, "text and images are required for a robust online news presence." Improving the text on the site is a major priority, and as the site continues to expand, this emphasis will grow as well. Olson noted that NPR has gone through a similar transition over the past few years, which was addressed by gradually training reporting staff, and adding photo editors and copy editors.

Another challenge is balancing the "one-stop shopping mall" all-news aggregator approach with the "hyper-targeted topic verticals" approach. It's sometimes difficult for sites to combine both of these elements, and KQED is currently testing both approaches, in addition to some of the more targeted projects listed above.

Olson said the expanded site is "very much just the first step" in overall growth. In addition to a news blog, "News Fix," launching shortly, a mobile version of the site is currently in production, and will be released in the fall. "We're in it for the long haul," said Olson. "We're just getting started."

Katie Donnelly is Associate Research Director at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media. With a background in media literacy education, Katie previously worked as a Research Associate at Temple University's Media Education Lab in Philadelphia. When she's not researching media, Katie spends her time working in the environmental field and blogging about food.

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August 24 2010


KCET's 'Departures' Exemplifies Community Collaboration

I've written for MediaShift several times about journalistic collaboration between news organizations, such a the Climate Desk project, for example, or Public Media's EconomyStory. But there's another kind of collaboration that's critical to the future of journalism: Collaboration between a news organization and the community it serves.

This kind of collaboration is critical for a few reasons. First, as anyone who reads MediaShift surely knows, the line between consumers of news and producers of news continues to blur. Community blogger expertise may match that of a newspaper's Metro columnist, and the people watching the evening news post their own video of news events to YouTube. Just as formerly competitive newsrooms are beginning to work together, as limited resources encourage the setting aside of differences in pursuit of a superior news product, news organizations need to rethink their relationships with the communities they serve.

In addition, finding efficient ways to harness and apply community expertise is increasingly critical to a news organization's ability to compete. Projects like Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Network have emerged to leverage the power of networks to source stories and collect quotes.

KCET Departures

devis.jpgOne example of community/news provider collaboration that really captures my imagination is Departures, an online documentary series from KCET Los Angeles. What sets Departures apart, for me, is the passion and dedication of its producer, Juan Devis. Devis is not just passionate about community collaboration in the abstract, or obedient to the trendy importance of listening to community members; rather, he is passionate about Los Angeles, about the people of Los Angeles, and about bringing the neighborhoods of the city to life in an authentic and compelling way online.

"No one knows Los Angeles as well as the organizations and individuals working and living in the area," Devis wrote to me via email. "By bringing them in and engaging them in every step of the content development process, Departures provides an authentic, accurate and fresh take on the issues and stories most affecting the city."

For example, Devis and his team produced a recent installment on Chinatown in partnership with the Chinese American Museum and the Chinatown Service Center Youth Council, providing multimedia production training to student reporters, who in turn contributed stories to the series.


There is also a concerted effort to capture stories from a diverse array of citizens in order to paint a multi-layered portrait of a neighborhood, rather than extrapolating truths about a place based on scarce citizen interaction. For the Chinatown installment, for example, Devis and crew spoke to hundreds of people from the neighborhood, ranging from community activists Munson Kwok and Irvin Lai, to Congresswoman Judy Chu, to journalists Ann Summa and Jeff Spurrier, who covered the Chinatown Punk Scene in the 1980s.

The name "Departures" is meant to evoke the idea of traveling within your own city -- discovering new neighborhoods and cultures with fresh eyes, from Chinatown to Compton Creek to Venice Beach's Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Devis calls the series a love letter to the city. The content of Departures, then, is more evocative than provocative; it's meant to conjure a sense of place, and replicate the experience of talking to the people in a neighborhood -- Mr. Rogers would be proud -- rather than analyze issues or draw conclusions.

Non-Linear Storytelling and Falling Short

In fact, by design, Departures encourages users to form their own opinions of the city and its people.

"When you're tied to a linear narrative, you're tied to a point of view," Devis said in a video about the project. Departures is decidedly non-linear, with a series of interactive maps and murals serving as gateways to a collection of audio, video, and text stories. This approach to navigation encourages users to explore each installment the way they might explore a physical neighborhood, wandering down a series of streets and alleyways.

I admire this concept, though in practice, navigating the Departures site is not quite immersive. (I should confess that I used to write a column about intersections between documentary storytelling and the web, and have strong opinions about multimedia storytelling.) The series home page features individual stories from the latest installment in the manner of a traditional news website; I'd rather begin at a visually evocative map of the city that lets me "travel" to and from individual neighborhoods. While there is a central Departures map, it's a traditional map interface with pin points that correspond to the locations of individual stories, rather than a visual interface that evokes a sense of place.

The stories in Departures "should not be the ends unto themselves," Devis said, "but seeds: A context for engagement."

But while his team's real-world, behind-the-scenes engagement with communities is clear, online engagement with Departures seems surprisingly low. The series home page features a "From the Community" box, a design decision that seems at odds with the series' core dedication to stories from the community. The Community box features few comments, and I did not see comments integrated with the stories throughout the site. Given the series ethos, shouldn't community members' responses to the stories -- in other words, the dialogue around the stories -- be an equal part of the storytelling experience?

Expanding Departures

When I asked Devis about the interplay of Departures with KCET's more traditional news programming, he noted that now that the series has matured, "it offers a concise template that the station itself can follow, so KCET has started to incorporate some Departures elements in its more traditional media spaces." Devis also shared that beginning in 2011, his team will begin creating a series of daily TV interstitials tied to Departures. "We anticipate that, by that time, the media production teams (at KCET) will overlap in ways that we have not seen before," he said.

Devis talks about wanting to expand Departures beyond Los Angeles, and I hope he can do it. I'd love to see this kind of artistic representation of local culture depicting communities nationwide. Sure, the site itself could be improved -- but what site couldn't be? We need more rich, textured representation of local community culture, and I'd take a flawed but passionate, visionary approach over a more tepid effort any day. I worry, though, that replication will require reliance on templates, which will inhibit the site's ability to be more immersive.

"Journalism and news organizations need to become context providers," Devis said. "That is, they need to create and provide spaces -- structures -- into which users and community members are invited as full participants, and from which meaningful stories can emerge."

I agree, and I hope other news organizations will be inspired by Devis' example.


What examples have you seen of collaboration between news organizations and local communities? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image of Chinatown sign courtesy of Flickr user 7-how-7

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda's background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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July 26 2010


The Need for Cultural Translation with Community Media

The TED talk of Ethan Zuckerman, the founder of the international blogging site Global Voices, provides amazing insight into the challenges of telling international stories online. It's told in the great TED way of painting lots of pictures and using a ton of anecdotes.

Zuckerman said it's a big myth that the web is bringing us closer to other cultures or countries -- when we're on the web, we're basically in our own small islands of our social networks. Most of us who are building businesses/non-profits around non-traditional media content know this, but he has some great PowerPoint slides that add a lot of meat to the arguments. Give it a look:

Cultural DJs

In addition to providing some very telling facts -- did you know that "Madagascar" the movie is a bigger brand than Madagascar the country? -- he talks about translation. And not just the challenges of literal translation from one language to another, which is something Video Volunteers faces in our work all the time, especially now when we have community video correspondents working in nearly every state of India, a country with dozens of official languages. He talks about "cultural translation." He makes the point that we need more "DJs ... skilled human curators" who can speak the language of the West and of other cultures at the same time.

The incredible editors at Global Voices fit that bill, and so does the blog Afrigadget. Video Volunteers attempt to do this, too, in the articles that accompany the online videos made by our community correspondents in our new IndiaUnheard community news network.

This is really interesting to me because at Video Volunteers we talk a lot about the need for "unmediated" voices -- essentially, voices that are not culturally translated. This is one of the differences between community video, which to us means equipping traditionally "unheard" communities to tell their stories in their own words, and documentary film, where a professional uses his or her artistry and insight to translate community voices for outside audiences.

At VV, we believe, in fact, that so much is lost in translation that you want to keep "cultural translation" to a minimum. And so, with our newly launched IndiaUnheard community news network, we want to bring voices out voices in their raw form. As my partner Stalin K. often says, "if I say the words 'Masai warrior' you get an immediate visual in your head. You don't, in a similar fashion, hear their voices in your head."

We know from TV what the Masai look like. But we don't know what they sound like, because in traditional National Geographic-type media, we just see the Masai with a narration; their whole culture, never mind their language, is translated for an international audience.

There are real limits to the possibilities for translation. As I heard Zuckerman himself say at a Civic Media conference, it's hard enough to find cultural translators for English to other cultures. But what about all the learning that could happen between the readers of, say, Kurdish media in New York City and Haitian media in New York City? How is that translation going to happen? I don't know that we could ever have enough translators to solve that problem.

Two Videos to Watch

So how do we get people to watch -- rather, to want to watch -- videos like these two posted below, made by our IndiaUnheard correspondents? If the world had an ideal system for enabling the poor to represent themselves in the media, which I would say is something like one community journalist per village (or even per 20 villages), how would we interest people outside those villages to watch this content? Here are two recent videos to check out and see what you think:

Children Carry Trash, Not Books shows how children of poor families do not benefit from the current schemes on compulsory free education. The video is produced by Pratibha Rolta, a community correspondent from the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, who works as an activist on women's issues.

The second video, titled Children Denied Education, captures the plight of child labourers in Haryana's brick kilns who are deprived of several rights, including education. The correspondent here, Satyawan, was a Sarpanch (village head) for five long years before joining IndiaUnheard, and has in-depth knowledge of corruption within the local administration.

Besides our own website and within the communities where the producers work (where most of our work is shown) there are some forums for videos like this. I showed these two videos two weeks ago as a panelist at the IFP/UN-sponsored ENVISION 2010: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries, an event organized by the IFP, UN Communications Department, and New York Times. This was a one day conference on education and documentary films and, happily, there was space for user-created content.

A few years ago there probably wouldn't have been. I was on a panel about the impact of user-generated media, along with with Mallika Dutt of Breakthrough, John Kennedy of World Without Borders and Ryan Schlieff of Witness -- all good friends in the field of media and human rights. People in the world of documentary film, or in the UN sector with its huge budgets for traditional communications, were getting a taste of what's possible when you turn the camera over to communities. This is progress towards the acceptance of these voices.

More Global Than Ever

With our work, I take a long term perspective. (Wanting every village in the world to have someone skilled and motivated to represent his neighbors' concerns in the media kind of requires that!) I think that media preferences are not fixed in stone. What Americans liked on TV and in the movies in the fifties is different from what we liked in the seventies and today. Who knows where people's tastes will be twenty years from now?

I'm an optimist. I think we will only get more global and more curious, and more open to raw, unfiltered reality. I believe there are even studies that show that kids today who've grown up with mashups and social networks are much more open to gritty media that their parents wouldn't look at.

In the meantime, we keep telling our correspondents to tell their stories in their own words, with their own style, their own analysis -- no matter how challenging it may be for outsiders to understand without translation.

July 20 2010


AOL Patch and MainStreetConnect Expand Hyper-Local News

content farms logo small.jpg

It's difficult for media people to search any job site these days without running into an ad for AOL's Patch. It seems equally difficult to read media news sites without finding a feature story about Connecticut's MainStreetConnect. MainStreetConnect has appeared in recent days in both Columbia Journalism Review and Journalism.co.uk. Like Patch, the community news organization is hiring, though on a smaller scale as it expands from four sites to 10.

The attention being paid to them isn't surprising: These two companies are leading the charge to create a new, sustainable model for hyper-local, online community news. Both are pursuing a strategy based on scale and local reporting, both are still experimenting and looking for ways to generate revenue -- and both have big national ambitions.

"We've sort of built the car and now we're tweaking it," said Carll Tucker, founder of MainStreetConnect.

Strategy and Some Local News History

For Tucker and AOL's Patch, which now has 83 sites, the goal is to attract advertising aimed at local audiences. They hope to do this by providing content generated by an inexpensive workforce that has been grouped strategically to leverage resources. In that respect, the methods echo the techniques traditional newspapers used during the suburban wars of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, metro dailies fought smaller newspapers in the suburbs for advertising supremacy by providing local news through targeted zones. One of the bloodiest battles happened in Atlanta, when the New York Times bought the suburban Gwinnett Daily News and went head-to-head with the Atlanta Constitution.

The preferred tactic at the time was to flood the zone with inexpensive local content. But in the years since, metro dailies have scaled back circulation and news coverage, leaving a vacuum of under-served businesses and local readers. Those are the advertising and reader markets that Patch and MainStreetConnect are targeting.

"Community business is the worst-served market in America," Tucker said in a May interview I conducted with him. He noted that, "This company could not have been started five years ago" because the vacuum in the local advertising market was not as large as it is now.

Patch executives say that local readers also feel under-served.

"People are way more hungry for news at their local level than even we imagined," said Brian Farnham, editor in chief of Patch. "There's a lot of good sources for news existing at the national level and beyond, but at the local level the cohesive experience is missing."

Site Design and Sharing

Tucker has built his sites with colorful tabs that reflect the vertical advertising markets that were the mainstays of traditional newspapers: "Wheels," "Real Estate, "Food, "Wellness," and "Home and Garden." Those pages hold feature stories that almost always include a local businessperson. These stories are often shared between contiguous sites. The pages also hold business directories for advertisers. The "Wheels" sections at MainStreetConnect sites also display large auto ads.


Tucker has a deep newspaper background with The Patent Trader, which he said covered 90,000 people over 10 towns before Gannett bought it in 1999. His company, which plans to have eventual affiliates across the country, began with the core of four Connecticut sites, with the flagship, TheDailyNorwalk.com, in Norwalk, Conn. Since mid-May, it has added six sites:

The other three original sites are:

The company's current goal is to expand to 50 sites by the end of the year, with 12 in Fairfield County, Conn. When we spoke in May, Tucker downplayed any competition with Patch, even though Patch is in some of the same territory in relatively wealthy Connecticut. Norwalk had an estimated median household income in 2007 of $70,672, and the national average was $50,233 for that year, according to the U.S. Census. Patch also has sites in Fairfield and Westport, just like MainStreetConnect.

"In no way do we compete with them," Tucker had said. When we spoke again this month, he explained that his company's focus is on covering local people, including local business owners, with the goal of attracting "Main Street moms."

Patch's sites have more subtle design and more social-networking features, such as "boards," which are like Facebook walls and are where readers can send feedback to specific writers. Those writers have profiles that list their current stories and sometimes recent tweets, as well as bio information and a statement of political and religious beliefs.
Patch's focus appears to be more on hard news.

For example, a fire in early July in White Plains, N.Y., injured 33 people and destroyed seven businesses. The Patch news story ran in clustered New York Patch sites: The Rye Patch, the Harrison Patch, the Yorktown Patch, the Scarsdale Patch, and likely others, with local sidebars, video and photos.

Advertising and Visibility Packages

MainStreetConnect's ads are sold as "annual visibility packages." In May, Tucker said the smallest "visibility package" the company aimed to sell cost between $5,000 to $6,000.
In our recent interview, he said the company has found ways to accommodate smaller businesses with less immediately available funds. Some advertising can cost as little as $60 to $70 a week.

"We've widened our net for our smaller advertisers," he said, noting that the company has had local success with real estate ads, hospital ads and banks.

"It's not about a price; it's about what you get for the money," he said.

Tucker explained that the company's visibility packages include extra service, such as a salute to advertisers' customers in the upper right of site pages, in a feature called "Our customer comes first!" These include the company name and a photo and name of a customer.

patch.jpgAt Patch, Farnham said the advertising focus goes beyond banner ads to directories and self-service ads as well.

"We think the applications that are most interesting are around our listings operation," he said. "We're sending teams to communities who will go door to door and collect data about those places, structure it in our templates, and have a really rich Yellow Pages."

Yes, They Have Job Openings

AOL's Patch continues to recruit editors and open sites across the country, with sites up in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York. New sites are promised soon in Illinois, Rhode Island and Maryland. The company was recruiting in early July for more than 20 editor positions in the suburbs of Atlanta and Los Angeles. Farnham, the Patch editor in chief, said the company is looking for tomorrow's journalists.

"It's basically one full-time professional editor, who is the reporter and editor and curator of that site, and they also hire local contributors and freelancers to round out that coverage," he said. "You're not thinking about column inches, you're trying to get up-to-the-minute information out there. Should this be a video or a slideshow or some other sort of multimedia?"

MainStreetConnect is also hiring, on a smaller scale, with ads on Mediabistro and Indeed.com. It is seeking experienced news reporters with five to 10 years of experience, preferably in local newspapers and with local knowledge.

Top staffers get a salary of about $40,000 a year, and rookies get less, Tucker said. His wife, personal finance writer Jane Bryant Quinn, serves as editorial director and coaches journalists on writing skills and headline writing. Twenty newsroom employees produce content for the 10 sites. The stories focus on local people, and the company currently does not rely on user-generated content.

"News gathering is a real profession," Tucker said. "Citizen journalism is a completely false rabbit. It's simply not going to succeed."

Patch, by contrast, solicits citizen contributions for news tips, feedback and announcements and calendars.

What Happens Next?

Both Farnham and Tucker spoke about the move into hyper-local online sites as experimental, with adjustments along the way.

"We're learning as fast as we can," said Tucker, mentioning his local advisory boards and social media.

Farnham acknowledged that Patch is moving into some territory where local online ecosystems are already well formed.

"What we do when we come into a market is certainly not just announce, 'Hey we're the only game in town,' " he said. "What we want to offer is a cohesive comprehensive experience. There is that ecosystem."

Farnham said the company is open to working with others.

"We are always open to exploring ways we can work with existing media outlets in communities where we are launching a Patch site. No option is closed off."

Tucker's company was formed with the idea of franchises or affiliates, and he said partners aren't out of the question. "We have had interesting conversations with many of the major players," he said.

For both, the focus is finding a way to make money to sustain local journalism. "There's no free press unless it's a profitable press," Tucker said.

To read more stories in the Beyond Content Farms series go here.

MediaShift editorial intern Davis Shaver contributed to this article.

Andria Krewson is editor for two community sections of the McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer in Charlotte, N.C. She posts at Global Vue and is @underoak on Twitter.

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June 29 2010


hyperlocal 101: Should journalists edit community correspondents?

An interesting post for local news journalists and editors in particular on whether reports, articles and posts submitted by “community correspondents” and readers should be substantially edited before publication. Shields Bialasik, who has experience of running a hyperlocal newspaper in the US called LocalsGuide, says he asks for all submissions for sites, such as blogs and hyperlocal sites run by larger news groups, to be ready for publication in terms of format and readability.

(Putting the issue of legal checks to one side for the moment) Bialasik explains why he holds back from editing:

My job as I see it as the owner of the media machine is to deliver the message. Similar to the job of the post office. I deliver the mail, not open it up along the way, change the message and then deliver it.

Yet, if you take some time to think about this you will realise this is exactly what is occurring with practically all mainstream media. Who’s voice is really being heard, who’s point of view are we really being convinced of or represented?

Full post at this link…Similar Posts:

March 29 2010


Better Coordination Needed to Map Local Media Ecologies

Back in 2008, I co-organized a conference called Beyond Broadcast. That year's theme was "mapping public media," and was designed to both call out the rising importance of maps as a platform for sharing digital media, and to "map" the fragmented universe of public service media projects.

The maps I found at the time underscored the siloed nature of news production. There were maps of public TV stations, community media projects, and citizen bloggers, all maintained separately by different entities and aimed at very different users. Such isolation made it difficult to trace the relationships between these different kinds of outlets in any one place.

However, as concerns about local media ecologies have sharpened -- spurred in part by the focus of the Knight Commission on the information needs of communities -- such mapping has taken on a new urgency. Knight provides interested locales with a starting point: A simple survey for assessing the health of their information environment. The Knight Media Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation (NAF), where I'm now a fellow, has begun to develop a set of analyses of local media/governance ecologies.

The goal is to "align policy recommendations with needs on the ground," said Tom Glaisyer, who is coordinating NAF's initiative, and plans to work with others seeking similar information. Various scans of the community media landscape have already been launched, including a survey by the Free Press, a field scan by NAMAC, and this crowdsourced directory of cable access stations. One-off accounts of local news ecologies have also become more common, like Pew Research Center's January study of Baltimore's "news ecosystem" -- the disarray of which was famously chronicled in the HBO series "The Wire." Pew's study suggests that, amidst a rapidly expanding universe of local news projects, newspapers are still leading the pack in providing original reporting, but also notes:

The array of local outlets within this snapshot is already substantial, and as times goes on, new media, specialized outlets and local bloggers are almost certain to grow in number and expand their capacity, particularly if the Sun and other legacy media continue to shrink. New outlets such as local news aggregators, who combine this increasingly mixed universe into one online destination, have cropped up in some other cities such as San Diego. There is a good deal of innovation going on around the country, much of it exciting and promising. But as of 2009, this is what the news looks like in one American city.

A Bird's-Eye View

In order to get a better sense of community news across the country, The National Center for Media Engagement (NCME) embarked on an ambitious project to combine several media maps into one using Google Earth.

Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the NCME generally works with public radio and TV stations to help them develop outreach strategies for local communities. This map emphasizes those stations, but also includes a variety of other "layers" that represent possible community allies for media makers, such as historically black colleges and universities. Also noted are rising efforts to wire communities for broadband access, and news projects underwritten by funders, including Knight, the Ford Foundation, MacArthur, and CPB.

san francisco map.jpgLayer by layer, the map provides a fascinating look at the geographic distribution of different funding priorities, such as grants that provide media resources to communities facing waves of foreclosures. When all of the layers are clicked on, the map offers a snapshot of how particular locations -- such as San Francisco, pictured at left -- are thick with overlapping projects and outlets, while other parts of the country go begging for resources. Lone stations -- take KILI Radio in Porcupine Butte, South Dakota, for example -- dot the map among blank expanses of terrain, while a cluster of dots in a big, blue stretch remind us that Hawaii has its own public media presence.

This map is just a start: NCME promises its members that, "soon, we'll implement a similar mapping interface to help you discover funding partners, potential local partners, and stories about public media's profound local impact." But there are other layers to be added, too, that would tell a more complete story about all of the various outlets and independent projects providing vital news and information across the country.

Mapping From the Bottom Up

For Sandra Ball-Rokeach, a professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication, a crucial missing layer is ethnic media. Ball-Rokeach heads up the Metamorphosis Project, which studies how the communications habits of urban communities are shifting as they become more diverse and globalized.


The project boasts its own map of neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles where researchers have been deployed to interview residents, organizations, and business and community leaders. Their goal is to develop a deep understanding of what they call "indigenous storytelling networks."

Their research reveals that stories about diverse communities are often reported by local ethnic media outlets, which might be speaking only to one portion of the community. These stories are then passed along through both personal networks and through community organizations, like local non-profits.

In this model, the health of the storytelling network is contingent upon other aspects of the community, what Metamorphosis researchers call "the communication action context." These factors include the availability of public spaces, neighborhood safety, and transportation resources, as well as more familiar infrastructure provisions like broadband access. If community residents are discouraged from talking to one another because their context is lacking, then simply establishing new news projects won't fix the problem.

"People put together these ecologies," said Ball-Rokeach. "They're not put together for them."

While NCME's map uses technology to aggregate information about existing and proposed media projects, Ball-Rokeach and her team use a variety of face-to-face investigation methods, including long-form interviews and focus groups, to determine how people are actually sharing and using news to "accomplish everyday goals."

She describes a current USC local media project, called "Alhambra Source," which builds upon Metamorphosis research in the city of Alhambra, bordering Los Angeles to the east. With a population of less than 100,000, Alhambra has large numbers of Latino and Chinese residents. Ball-Rokeach said much of the local reporting is conducted by outlets who communicate with their users in Mandarin. The "Alhambra Source" site will translate news summaries into Spanish, English and Mandarin, allowing stories to be shared more easily across different parts of the community, as well as providing opportunities for residents to share their own stories.

"It's kind of exciting," she said. "We understand that the likelihood of success is low, but we think it's worthwhile because creating sites for homogenous populations is probably not where the action is, given that even medium-sized communities are becoming more diverse."

Bridging the Gap

In order to make sophisticated funding and policy decisions, national efforts like the FCC's current Future of Media Project will need to find ways to bridge these disparate approaches. Right now, communications researchers are still asking very different questions, and attending to different priorities.

Developing common questions and data collection standards will require time, effort and focused collaboration. The challenge is not small, especially given the rapid changes in communications technology, and the pace of experimentation.

"It's a very dynamic process," said Ball-Rokeach. "People resist our efforts to make them static."

Jessica Clark is director of the Center for Social Media's Future of Public Media project, a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, and the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media.

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March 25 2010


Herald Online: AOL’s hyperlocal network Patch gets charitable to fund community news

Patch, AOL’s growing network of hyperlocal news and information websites in the US, has announced the foundation of a new charitable arm, Patch.org:

Patch.org will partner with community foundations and other organisations to launch Patch sites and bring objective local news and information to communities and neighborhoods around the world that lack adequate news media and online local information resources.

The Patch.org sites will employ a local journalist to produce original news and content, and aggregate material and information created by the community. Any revenue earned by the sites will be invested back into the community they serve, a press release says.

Full release at this link….

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March 15 2010


Must-read: PEJ’s annual State of the News Media report goes live

Each year the US Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) produces a report on the State of the News Media, aggregating other reports on what has happened to news organisations during the previous 12 months and providing its own research into what lies ahead.

The 2010 report weighs in on paywalls, and why there’s still a “hill to climb”; the increasingly niche-focus of both traditional news organisations and new online-only players; and features a special report on the state of community media or citizen journalism projects.

It’s an incredibly thorough survey – featuring figures on changes in advertising spend across all sectors and analysis of news sites’ traffic figures – and is best read in full at this link.

Some highlight quotes:


  • 79 per cent of those surveyed said they had never or rarely clicked on an online ad.

News content:

  • “When it comes to audience numbers online, traditional media content still prevails, which means the cutbacks in old media heavily impact what the public is learning through the new.”
  • Online news coverage is still geared towards breaking news. New technologies for live reporting can provide a less vetted version of releases/press conferences;
  • BUT: “While technology makes it easier for citizens to participate, it is also giving newsmakers more influence over the first impression the public receives.”
  • News organisations are becoming disseminators rather than gatherers of news, and becoming more reactive than proactive.

Social media:

  • Eventually, the news operations that develop social networking strategies and distribution mechanisms well might be able to convince advertisers that they have special access to attractive news consumers – especially those who influence the tastes of others;
  • Blogging, amongst news consumers, is declining in frequency;
  • 80 per cent of links from blogs and social media sites studied are to US legacy media.

Niche news:

  • “Old media are trying to imagine the new smaller newsroom of the future in the relic of their old ones. New media are imagining the new newsroom from a blank slate.”
  • “Online, it is becoming increasingly clear, consumers are not seeking out news organisations for their full news agenda.”

More on the report’s take on niche news at this link…

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January 29 2010


Creating Community Video Entrepreneurs in Brazil

Late last year, Stalin K., my partner in the Knight-funded project Video Volunteers, and I were seated in the video laboratory of VCU.br in Sao Paulo, Brazil. We were joined by nine of VV's new Brazilian Video Fellows.

We were there to conduct a workshop about entrepreneurship in the creative field of video. The purpose of our recently-launched program in Sao Paulo is to create "video entrepreneurs," and this post is a snapshot of one of the exercises we did while we were there.

The nine young people were all from favela/periphery areas of Sao Paulo, and on that day we were conducting a workshop on how to market to clients. One young man started to read aloud from his introduction:

My name is Allan Jones. I'm 24 years old and live in the Guarulhos municipality of Sao Paulo State. My parents were born in the Amazon. My mother works as a seamstress and my father, I do not know who he is. I graduated high school only last year because the work I had to do did not allow me to study. I've worked in several areas, including as an installer of air conditioning, and around this time I had the opportunity to visit several theaters and see many shows. It was there that sparked my desire to work with theater and learn video.

Today I'm part of the project VCU.br, which is about how young people can work as independent videomakers, and I want to work in the area of script and production. I'm making a video about community theater in my area. My video tells the story of Mrs. Santa Catarina, an independent artist. She is self-taught and without resources or support, but manages to run a theater workshop in the community of Vila Isabel, in Guarulhos."

h2. Turning Disadvantages Into Advantages

The primary purpose of the exercise was to teach these young people to write compelling video proposals for different clients. But the deeper purpose is to teach them to turn their disadvantages into advantages, and to inspire others to see it that way.

If they are going to go into the market and compete with professionals, they must be able to communicate the value of their personal perspective. Why? Because their perspective as people who live close to the stories they are telling is the only thing they have that a professional does not. The problem is that they have spent so long hiding the fact that they're from the disadvantaged parts of the city that they're reluctant to write about it.

The personal narratives they wrote during the workshop revealed the challenges faced by the poor in the big cities like Rio, Sao Paulo or Mumbai. These include the long distances the poor have to travel from their homes to work in the city centers; the high costs of public transportation; the need to support their families financially; and insufficient public schools. In terms of our exercise, they all also highlighted the fact that they didn't have any professional contacts.

For one participant, all it took was a kind word from a TV reporter covering a story in his favela when he was 16 to give him the courage to ask for advice and tips about breaking into TV news. That was a turning point, and it gave him the conviction to pursue a career in media. Compare that to the 101 pieces of career advice that a privileged young person will receive by the time she is 21. Is it any wonder our Fellows seemed a little incredulous when we told them that their backgrounds are in fact a strength?

"It's because we live there that we're unique!"

As the days went by, the Fellows learned the step-by-step process of managing an independent video business, from identifying clients and writing proposals to creating a budget and rate sheet and "closing the deal."

But, really, they were learning to tell and celebrate their personal stories, and to find the personal connection that makes all work meaningful. We told them that they need to dig deep inside themselves to find this connection. Being an entrepreneur, ultimately, is about finding your personal power and confidence, and believing in yourself and your ideas.

The reality is that even if they send a compelling favela story to a television producer, the TV producer will always have the option of sending his own more "professional" freelancers to cover it. Our Fellows/Producers need to learn to convince people that they have something the professionals don't -- a perspective that will enlighten and captivate the audience.

After a couple of hours of them slightly struggling to "get" this concept, Beatrice jumped up. She is a beautiful and lively girl. Over the course of our three weeks together, her hair transformed from extension corn braids to a Nefertiti-style tall wrap to, finally, a beautiful disco-inspired Afro.

"I see!" she said. "It's because we live there that we're unique!"

From there, they started making the connections. One girl, Layla, used to work handing out fliers on the street. She knows what it's like to feel invisible on the street and have people walk by you as you try to get their attention. That's why she can tell an interesting story about street artists that have to fight for the acknowledgment of passersby. Another girl, Juliet, is the right person to tell a story about schizophrenia because her brother is schizophrenic.

A third person felt inspired to tell the stories of stray and injured animals because he used to see dogs getting run over when he worked as a delivery driver. This was just one exercise, but the process, I think, was key to the whole idea of community video as a social venture for the poor. Community producers need to be their own agents in terms of convincing the "market" of the value of their background. That means not just having self expression -- a voice -- but also self-reflection, and a large degree of self-awareness.

Identifying Entrepreneurs

Going into this project, one of our concerns was whether we would we be able to find people who were entrepreneurial, and who would want to run their own video business. The reality is that other jobs are less satisfying, but they can guarantee work. We had our doubts about whether entrepreneurship could be taught, so we needed to find that drive in our Fellows/Producers.

Business skills are easy to teach, but personal drive or motivation is another thing. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. If we were to tell our staff one day, "from today onwards, no one is getting monthly checks; instead, everyone needs to earn their own salary," most people would quit. Yet that's what many people in the NGO sector expect the poor to do.

As we saw our group's business plans develop, we became convinced they were the right people. All are committed to a career in video; all are committed to developing their own creativity, and to working for their communities.

For example, Rafael is now writing government proposals for him to create video projects in the slums. Luana is pursuing internships with TV stations they connected with during the project. Another participant, Layla, had this to say:

My experience in VCU.br was so good and the other Video Producers are such interesting people. Next year, I hope we'll get together to make some production companies. I want to really go ahead with videos, and I think I also have the capacity for fiction, too. I don't want everyone here to go off on their own and leave the group, so I'm thinking about how to make the idea of a group production company happen. Some of us love to write, some like to produce, others to edit. For me, we have a production company right here.

Stalin and I are convinced, as we always are with our community producers, of one thing: there is an abundance of undiscovered talent and knowledge out in the world, and we need to start tapping into it. When you give people opportunities, and you help them find their voice, there is no end to what they can achieve.

January 27 2010


An Overview of Community Media in Brazil

Almost undoubtedly, Brazil is the country with the largest public investment in community arts and culture. There are dozens of groups teaching video, hip-hop, graffiti, circus arts, carnival-related arts and digital media to youth from the favelas. In Rio alone, we visited five groups doing community arts, and between them we calculated there were roughly 500 kids from favelas this year alone learning video up to a semi-professional level.

By contrast, when we started Video Volunteers in India, there were only two other groups in the country running permanent programs in community video. So the difference in Brazil, where we recently launched, was amazing and wonderful to see.

Below I've collected some of our observations about Brazil, and listed a few of the inspiring moments and facts regarding Brazil's community media that we learned during our month spent visiting the different groups. (I hope I've gotten all the facts correct, but please correct me if you see any mistakes in what I've written below; much of this information is from notes I took during fascinating discussions.)

Brazil's Commitment to Community Media

The Brazilian government is committed to supporting community arts and culture. There is a three percent tax break for corporations that support the arts, and this only applies to the arts! The government created a "points of culture" program around the country, where they have invested in 150 community arts projects to the tune of R$150,000 (around $75,000) per year, for three years. Many of the media NGOs we visited were funded in this way. The singer Gilberto Gil is currently the minister for culture and, given that he's one of the most revered celebrities in the country, this focuses citizens' attention on the importance of the arts.

It makes sense that this level of investment would be happening in Brazil and not in countries where poverty is more prevalent. One of the major societal challenges in Brazil is to keep young kids from favelas out of gangs and drugs and violence. Speaking to them in the languages they understand and love -- hip-hop, graffiti, video -- is possibly the best strategy for reaching disaffected youth.

Susan Worcman, director of the Brazil Foundation, said this is because "artistic talent in Brazil is generally very high. We have a lot of creative people." Driving around Sao Paulo seems to confirm this. The city is the graffiti capital of the world, and some artists from favelas have exhibited in major museums in Europe.

All over the city, as much in the hipster area of Villa Madelaina as in the favelas, you see incredible graffiti murals. It integrates the middle classes with the favelas in powerful ways. For instance, there was a community fresco program in Sao Paulo a few years ago, where kids from favelas worked with professional artists to create frescoes on the sides of buildings all over the city. All of the works included plaques reminding people that they were produced by slum kids.

The quality of community arts work is generally very high. Several NGO programs were started either by famous film directors (such as, Cinema Nosso which grew out of the film, City of God), TV producers (Instituto Criar in Sao Paulo, which was started by a Globo Executive) or musicians (such as Afro Reggae, which was started by a hip-hop artist).

As a result, community video work has been seen on TV, won awards, and one even resulted in a feature movie deal ("Cine Cufa," though the project may now be on hold). For us, we've put less emphasis on how artistic a community film is and focus more on how it will inspire action. But because of their quality, these Brazilian films are more marketable to the mainstream.

Photography Class at Observatorio de Favelas

The purpose of most of the community media groups we met is to empower youth to fight stereotypes about the favelas that dominate Brazilian media. One great organization we visited is the urban planning organization Observatorio de Favelas. Its very name implies changing the point of reference of who is watching whom. It is about the favelas observing the rest of the city, and this is a very different way of doing urban planning. Instead of talking about the "city center" and "periphery areas," they highlight areas of high and low public investment.

Portrayal of Favelas in the Media

It is clear after spending even a brief time in Brazil that the image presented of the favelas in the media is as sites of violence. They are never shown as the culturally and creatively rich areas they are. This creates real fear among the middle class population of Brazil.

The receptionist at our hotel begged us not to go to a certain area when we asked her for directions. Cab drivers refuse to take people to some places. The point of most of the community media we saw is to challenge the stereotypes and teach the kids to be critical of the media. (As a result, there is relatively little community media/journalism being done the way VV does it, where the purpose is to screen media back to communities.)

Arts and Culture vs. News and Information

Each country VV has worked in has a different outlook or way of using community media. In India, at least in terms of our work, media is a tool to empower people to take action; it is a tool to accelerate other social change efforts. In the U.S., the scene is much more about news and information, and how we can respond to the current crisis in journalism.

In other parts of South America, there is a very strong indigenous media scene that unites different tribes. In Brazil, the focus is definitely "community arts and culture." It's about community media as a right in itself, and as an educational tool. Most of the organizations we met were focused primarily on training, as opposed to the distribution of that content or its use.

Brazil Media Stats

We learned some interesting media and policy facts from our conversations with Flavio at Ashoka, Bia Barbosa at Intervoces, and John Prideaux, the Economist's correspondent in Brazil. Newspaper readership in Brazil is extremely low compared to other countries. TV is by far the dominant information source in the country, and nearly everyone watches only one channel, Globo.

We saw for ourselves how media-watching habits seem much more unified in Brazil. A recent and very popular "telenovela" was a drama set in India, and everyone mentioned it to us. People were coming up to my Indian partner Stalin in the subway, giving him a Namaste bow and repeating "arre baba." It's just one of the ways you see these two incredibly strong emerging markets coming together through globalization.

Ninety percent of the country is reached by terrestrial TV, thanks mainly to the efforts of Globo. Very few people have cable or satellite TV. We asked Barbosa at Intervoces if media activists and community media organizations had tried to jointly create a TV channel, given that there is such a huge amount of content produced by community media groups. She said an impediment to this is the fact that terrestrial TV is the only option.

All of Brazil media is controlled by six families/companies, and there are no limits on cross ownership of media, or on how much of the audience one company can reach. Barbosa is fighting for the introduction of these limits, because as it stands corporations are able to heavily influence public opinion. Other policy efforts undertaken by media activists include:

  • The creation of independent public TV, a la BBC, which doesn't currently exist. The government recently created an education channel, which did create more space for socially relevant media -- but it is controlled by the government.
  • The increasing of diversity on television. Barbosa said that with so many community media groups and productions, the government should make space for programming that truly reflects the diversity of the country.
  • The liberalization of Internet laws. One upcoming fight will be to allow political parties to use the Internet to gain support. What Barack Obama's did with the Internet would currently be illegal in Brazil.

There is clearly much more to learn about the movements in Brazil to reform and democratize the media, and these are just our first impressions.

January 11 2010


Lessons Learned When Expanding Video Volunteers to Brazil

Video Volunteers recently started a new program in Brazil that is focused on using video as a way for young people from favelas to earn a living. Starting a project in a new country has been an interesting, but also challenging, process.

When I started VV in 2003, we did a few projects in countries such as Brazil, Rwanda, Uganda and the U.S. in addition to India, where we are currently based. But at that point, what we were doing was relatively easy: identifying volunteers, designing some basic video training modules or film script ideas, and sending them off. Once we came up with the idea for the Community Video Units, we realized we needed to focus on one country. The work was too intense for us to be able to manage in several countries, especially given the hands-on nature of community media.

Making the Decision to Expand

In our experience, social change initiatives that are based on empowerment, voice, and creativity are hard to replicate. This is because the training needs to be of such high quality, and the projects need a lot of hands-on management. So we focused on India for three years, always telling ourselves, "next year... next year... we'll be ready to launch outside of India."

Our board and other mentors seemed to be divided about whether we should expand. Will it detract from the work in India and spread us too thin? Do we need to be in other countries in order to continue to learn and test our models? Are there practical issues like availability of funding or being perceived as "global" that make it smart to expand? These are some of the questions we debated.

In the end, one thing really convinced us: the Brazilian community arts and culture scene. It is so rich and fascinating, and probably the biggest in the entire world. It's also producing some amazing media. We had to be there.

Lessons Learned

Now that we have finally expanded outside of India, here are some lessons we've learned that might be relevant to organizations of a similar size.

Understand Cultural Differences: This is the hardest -- and the best -- thing about working in another country. One big difference between Brazil and India are the priorities and outlooks of the groups working in citizen/community media/journalism. In India, community media is generally seen as a tool, never as an end in itself. So for VV, though we are motivated personally by the belief that the right to speak and be heard is a human right, we also see our work as a tool for community-led development, strengthening local governance, etc. In India, media and information are seen as tools for poverty alleviation or human rights -- probably because India's problems in these areas are so much deeper than in a richer country such as Brazil.

In Brazil, by contrast, community media is first and foremost a form of creative expression for youth. The primary purpose is giving people a voice to combat misrepresentation. That's what funders and the government seem to demand. As a result, the videos are very high quality, and the young people in the youth media/journalism programs are free to express themselves about whatever they wish. But because the environment (meaning primarily the funding environment) allows these groups to stay focused only on empowerment and self-expression, issues like mainstream distribution, sustainability and job creation seem like they are not happening at the level they could.

We found people in Brazil seem to doubt the importance (as well as the feasibility) of young people earning a living as a result of these programs, which I think is a big cultural difference between the non-profit world in Brazil compared with the U.S. and India. Livelihood, sustainability, and revenue creation are ingrained in the thinking in the non-profit world in the U.S. and India. The issue they are dealing with in urban Brazil is youth violence and disaffection. Perhaps people have realized that the best way to combat these issues is not livelihoods and jobs, but empowerment and self-expression. I wish there was actual research on this fascinating question.

Think About Organizational Setup: Do you want to start with your own office in a new country, or partner your way in? In Brazil, the pro bono lawyers at Lex Mundi told us we had two options. We could register as a Brazilian non-profit, staff it locally, and then begin work. Or we could identify a partner NGO to hire as consultants. At VV, to say the least, institution-building is not our strong point. We could not imagine starting in Brazil by first taking a year or two to go through legal and government processes of registering. (Also, registering and opening an office would have been prohibitively expensive for us.)

We knew we first needed to do a pilot project in order to gauge the possibility of success. Then, with that completed, we could work on registering. That said, there were also drawbacks to the other option. Working through consultants and partners means less control and potentially less ownership. Some people might see you as a funder in their country, and people will question how committed you are to the country for the long term. But on the plus side, things can get going really quickly.

Choose Your Partners Carefully: We initially developed a proposal with one organization in Brazil. Then, for various reasons, realized we should go our separate ways. It took us almost a year to find another partner, and we interviewed several different groups to find one that would be suitable. After speaking to several of the leading media organizations in Brazil, we decided that the most important thing for us was to go with a group we trusted and felt like we knew well. A good "gut feeling" about the organization was more important than going for the most experienced group in our field. Very vague, I know.

Our eventual partner, Casa Das Caldeiras, did not have any video experience when we started this project, but I could tell that, as a relatively new organization themselves, they would make this project a priority. They have as much riding on its success as we do. I could sense integrity, energy, passion and creativity -- and these were the most important qualities. So far, it's been a great partnership. They are focused on the visual arts, and run artists-in-residency programs, as well as working with lots of Sao Paulo non-profits that run programs in the slums on hip-hop, painting, graffiti, and more. So all of this creativity is influencing our project.

Expect Some Things to be Lost in Translation: Managing things at a distance is hard. For our project, it's been a challenge to run the entrepreneurship side of the project from afar. CDC has managed the video production side of things fantastically. They've selected great fellows, who are producing exactly the kind of videos we need in a very short period of time. But the video entrepreneurship elements are harder for them, I think, because it is so new.

VV has been obsessing about the issue of earned income for three years now, and we have a lot of ideas and learnings to transfer to the project in Brazil. But this transfer of knowledge has been harder than we expected. It's an area where face-to-face contact is critical, and so it was very important that Stalin K., a VV board member and media and human rights activist, and I could spend the whole month of October in Brazil.

All in all, going beyond India has been a good step for Video Volunteers. I'd love to hear from other people running small or medium-sized NGOs who can share their own stories and lessons from expanding to different countries. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

January 04 2010


The Fascinating Innovators of Brazil Community Media

During our month in Brazil working on our new project VCU.br, my partner Stalin and I met with more than a dozen different community media groups. Every meeting was too short, with us starting off by explaining why we had called them and explaining our work, and then them explaining theirs, and then a brief -- too brief -- discussion about what we could do together.

All the while we typed away at our laptop, eager to capture all the innovations and unique stories of the Brazilian community/alternative media innovators. Below are our meeting notes, which we hope give a little snapshot of some of the amazing work being done here. I apologize to all the people we met for any mistakes and misrepresentation. When you're eager to get the full picture in a whirlwind meeting, sometimes the details get lost!

Karen Worcman of the Museum of the Person

The Museum of the Person started by Karen Worcman is an archive of 12,000 personal stories which they have been recording from private citizens the world over for decades. These stories are captured in several ways, many unsolicited by the museum itself -- people wanting to share their stories, write their personal histories and mail them to the museum, knowing they will be archived for history; people come to the museum's recording studio and are interviewed; and museum staff go out into the world to gather the stories.

They also do workshops with NGOs around the world, such as one with Dream Catchers in Tamil Nadu, or by putting up "story booths" in buses and train stations, and going into public schools in Sao Paulo to teach kids to document the histories of their neighborhoods. The stories are archived in a state-of-the-art manner, and most will eventually be online. Already they are searchable and highly used by academics and researchers and school teachers who use the archive to research particular themes -- such as trade unions, war, death, family, etc.

We asked Karen about the purpose of the histories. Is it for social change, community action, personal transformation, or a political statement about everyone's right to a voice? She said one major purpose is to create a record of the personal stories of everyone on the planet. This is a museum after all.

We also asked about the process and the methodology. Because most of the personal histories are in video and they work with the Center for Digital Storytelling (with whom they organize the "day of sharing life stories" once a year) in the Bay Area in the U.S. which has a very set process for story creation, we thought she might have a training methodology that we could incorporate in our work. She said the methodology changes for the purpose of the project, but that when she conducts the interviews, her methodology is that of a historian. Though most of her materials were in Portueguese, she offered to share with us her curriculum that she created in Tamil Nadu which is in English, and we will surely incorporate this methodology into our training.

Stalin pointed out the power of this method for documenting village histories in India, as he has done with KMVS, where they wrote the personal histories of everyone of the 900 villages in Kutch, for broadcast on the community radio stations. Karen's methodology could be very useful for the community radio scene in India, which (with licenses only being allowed for the past three years) is struggling for methodologies for creating content.

A few things struck us in particular in meeting Karen: one is the documentary use of this content for research and academia. We have wondered whether there is interesting anthropological evidence in our raw video tapes from the CVUs, and Karen has demonstrated the importance of community media for research purposes. The other is the seriousness of the archive. She has made dozens, if not more, written publications of these personal histories. The third is, of course, the importance and uniqueness of the idea of the world's history as a collection of millions of personal stories and histories. This was too rich and important an idea for us to explore in such a short meeting!

Bia Barbarasso, Intervoces

Bia is a young Ashoka Fellow who is one of the leaders of the movement to reform media policy in Brazil. The premise of her work is the lack of diversity in the media in Brazil. We met her on our last day in Brazil when she was kind enough to come to the house where we were staying, and it was a great way to end the trip. She was one of the few people we met with a truly multi-pronged approach that combined grassroots action, networking and movement building, training and policy. If Video Volunteers were to work in Brazil in a much deeper way, we would want to work like this.

We contacted her because of an amazing victory she had which we read about on her Ashoka profile, and which we wanted to know more about. A few years ago, she brought a case against a major television station saying that their programming had consistently discriminated against gays and violated their human rights. The basis for the case was a law that says that, because TV licences are granted by the government and are public property, they must show content that is helpful for society. The court agreed with her and ordered the TV station to show human rights focused programming for 30 days in a row!

They were also ordered to pay a small -- way too small -- amount to assist in the creation of this programming. So Bia issued a call for programming to the documentary producers and media NGOs in Brazil, and received over 500 applications! This was one of her first contacts with the video-producing groups, and it deeply impressed her to see how huge the alternative media scene was. So much great content, and no spaces to share it!

She used the small sum of money for editing, and combined the different video submissions into hour-long programs on a particular theme for one evening's broadcast. She has since used the success of this project in her lobbying efforts, arguing with the government that Brazil has masses of quality content and the government must give them space to distribute these alternative views. This story fascinated Stalin and me as it was one of the only examples I've heard of people successfully using the law to create space on TV for alternative programming.

These are short descriptions of only two of the amazing media activists in Brazil. As I continue to work my way through all my notes, I'll try to keep writing up these short profiles.

December 16 2009


Video Volunteers Launches in Brazil

How can the disadvantaged earn a living from their creativity? Why are nearly all the "base of the pyramid" micro-businesses supported by microcredit agencies based on manual labor, or super-local activities like driving a rickshaw or running a small shop? Since much of the music we love today, or design that we see in stores, has its roots in folk traditions, why don't the rural and urban poor today earn much of a living through their creativity? This is the question Video Volunteers is asking with a new program we've launched in Brazil, called VCU.br. We're exploring how video can be used by slum ("favela") youth to earn a living.

Picture clipping 2.pictClipping

The project, funded primarily by the Art Action Foundation of Singapore, is taking place in Sao Paulo. Over a nine month period, we're working with nine Brazilian youth from the favelas to help them learn to run their own video businesses. After conceiving of the project and getting the grant, we found an amazing arts organization in Sao Paulo called Casa Das Caldeiras. with whom we have partnered to execute the project locally. They run artist in residency programs for artists and are part of lots of interesting community programs with youth focused on graffiti-ing, hop hop and many others. They are based out of an incredibly beautiful space in Sao Paulo, a converted factory from the 1920s, and they use the revenue they generate from renting this space out for events (it's one of the prime party venues in the city) to fund their community projects.

Our Entrepreneurship Curriculum
We're giving them entrepreneurship training in things like how to make contacts in the TV industry, how to write a proposal for grants or for NGO films, and how to write a "pitch" to a TV station. They are learning about financial planning for themselves and for a small business, and how to work with clients. Most crucially, they are learning about the spaces that exist for people like them in the new world of "citizen journalism" and low cost technologies, and are thinking deeply about the kinds of unheard stories from their favelas that they may be uniquely poised, above even the "professionals," to tell. We are trying to turn their background, which until now was a huge disadvantage for them, into an advantage, something unique and valuable. Over nine months, the Fellows are attending six hours a day of classes conducted at CDC, and are each producing three videos. The first video was a videojournalism-style piece through which they learned about producing for news. The second video, which they are making now, needs to be for a particular client who agrees to use the video. (So one boy is making a video on abandoned animals for a chain of pet stores to play in their shop, others are making videos for different NGOs to use in fundraising, etc.) The third video needs to be for a paying client.

Filling a Gap in Existing Youth Media/Journalism Programs
The nine Community Producers were selected in June, with the following criteria: they had to be from a needy social background, had to know the basics of video production already, and had to demonstrate that they had tried but failed to continue with their video work after their initial training. So, for instance, one young man had tried to enroll in a university course in media, but didn't have the right high school qualifications. Another had applied for a job in a TV station and was told he needed a degree.
All of the Video Producers had been through some video course already, run by different NGOs, but had never been able to earn a living from it. When we had visited Brazil three years ago to see where VV could be most relevant, it was clear there was no need for more video training programs. There were a huge number of groups doing amazing video training in favelas to help kids find their voice and to make media that might change perceptions about the Favelas. But the problem was that their graduates were not finding jobs in video, and when they left they faced either unemployment or menial labor. The impact on the youth was therefore not very sustained. In addition, a huge pool of talent - kids with great computer and camera skills - was being totally under-utilized. And thirdly, it might be counter-productive. To raise people's aspirations but then fail to meet them is often a mean thing to do. We'd learned this ourselves the hard way in some of our early VV projects. So, we decided that livelihood is what VV would work on in Brazil.
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Can Young People in Slums REALLY Earn a Living in Video?
But, you will surely ask, how can people from slums earn a living through video? News is in crisis and even many professionals cannot earn a living today! Well, the options we are exploring for these Video Producers include lots of non-news options such as starting a small production company that makes films for NGOs, local businesses and even wedding videos; getting a job as an NGO's videographer; getting funding to create community video projects in the favelas with NGOs; and running "cine-clubs" in the favelas that show films. In time, citizen journalism on the web will become a way for communities to earn revenue. Even though they may end up producing more for corporates, we are still focusing the training to prepare them to produce TV news, as that also fulfills the Community Producers' desire to increase the visibility of the favelas they come from.

The Economics of Video Production in the Favelas
Ultimately, the economics of this are quite interesting. Our Video Producers in Brazil say they need around $460 a month to live on, plus they need to get equipment. So is it possible for them to earn around $5500 a year (including equipment) through video? In India, one of our community producers would require half or a third of that. Does their lesser financial requirements make them financially competitive with professionals? Could TV producers from slums become part of the market, not just because they are low cost but also because they have access to great stories? It's not guaranteed, but I think it's likely.

I'd love to hear people's advice on this, as it is a question VV is thinking about in all aspects of our work. We have a partnership with the Indian Institute of Management, the best business school in Asia, to explore revenue models in community video. And we are about to launch a new community journalism program focused on rural video producers being able to produce for TV markets. This is what it means to make a community-based social venture based on creativity, not manual labor. This is what we mean by one of the taglines we use a lot, which says our goal is to create "a media industry at the base of the pyramid."

So where will this project in Brazil go? Well, we recently visited about 20 of the leading media NGOs in Brazil, and hope that this project will be useful for them. We'll be writing up our experiences here into a kind of training manual that other organizations can use to build in a video entrepreneurship element into their work. We also see real opportunities for VV in Brazil in other areas: for instance, our experience in using video screenings in slums/villages to result in real impact is relevant here. We would like to offer Fellowships in our new Community Journalism program to students of the various media organizations we've met here. And if we could be really ambitious, it would be fascinating to work with the different media producers and activists here to create a TV channel. There is so much amazing community-produced content in Brazil, that it seems the perfect place to launch a TV station focused on social issue documentary and alternative voices. But that's for the very long term!

But our future plans depend entirely on whether this current project is a success. So we are saying it here now: if, in a year or two, the nine Community Producers who will soon graduate from VCU.br are still making videos and earning from it, it was a success. If they are not, then it was a failure. So please hold us to account, and demand to know how many of these new favela video entrepreneurs succeed.

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