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January 05 2011


Combining Radio, Mobile, Web for Local News in South Africa

People in Grahamstown, a small town in South Africa, now know about 300 things we would never have known if it were not for citizen journalists. Some of what we know comes via big breaking news stories, while other information comes from small blog-like posts. Some of the stories are moving and some have clearly made a difference.

Perhaps all of them made something of a difference to someone. That's one of the great things about journalism -- you never know!

What these stories have in common is they were all reported and written by citizen journalists, all of whom have a little bit of training, via the Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project. Almost without exception, these stories are about issues that Grocott's Mail, the local paper that is also South Africa's oldest independent newspaper, would not have been able to cover due to meager resources. (Like so many other community papers around the world.) Many of the stories have also been facilitated in various ways by mobile phones, even if it is mostly via straightforward use of the phones to call sources to get and check information.

Among the stories is one that reported about plans to close a particularly poorly performing school in Grahamstown, and reports about protests by poor residents due to the lack of basic services such as water and electricity.

There's also a report about an automobile accident and a story about rising student use of flavored tobaccos through Hookah-like instruments, written, in this case by a student journalist.

A Town Talking to Itself

Since August, many of these stories have also been discussed on our new community radio show, Lunchtime Live. We've always believed that radio and print are a very powerful combination in a small town, creating simultaneous depth and immediacy, and allowing for real participation and debate. Stories can be broken on radio, or via our SMS line, given greater nuance in print, and deeper airings on phone-in debates.

This all requires a great deal of coordination and management, but the results are worth it. Part of the focus of the Iindaba Ziyafika project is to get a town "talking to itself," and to open up information streams and public debate about issues that really matter. Radio is a great medium for this, but to take a story to the air, whether before or after it appears in print, still means it has to be well researched, fact-checked and fair. As I mentioned in my previous post, human interest stories generate a lot of interaction, but our recent (November) discussion of a hot new/old topic -- changing Grahamstown's name -- brought us stellar audiences via an overtly political issue.

Name change was one of the original issues that formed part of our proposal to the Knight Foundation in 2008. Throughout South Africa, a fraught and fascinating process is taking place that entails the "decolonizing" of names of places, airports, rivers, and of course towns and cities. For example, our nearby apartheid era institution, the "University of Port of Elizabeth" is now called "Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University"; Johannesburg's "Jan Smuts Airport" (named after pre-apartheid Prime Minister Jan Smuts) has been renamed "O.R. Tambo International Airport" after the man who served as president of the ANC while Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years.

These processes can generate intense debate. Grahamstown is named after its founder, Colonel Graham. He was in charge of a strategy, outlined by his commander John Cradock (which our neighboring town is named after), to ensure that enough violence was used against local people to "impress on the minds of these savages a proper degree of terror and respect."

Over 100 years, the indigenous iziXhosa people fought nine wars with white colonial settlers and Colonel Graham stood out as one of the most effective colonizing soldiers.

As Guy Berger has written, plans to change the name back to the original "iRhini" -- which is thought to derive from characterizing the town as "the place of reeds" -- has "evoked massive resistance from white residents, many of whom are descendants of British settlers who began arriving in numbers in 1820, and whose business interests are often linked to the brand of 'Grahamstown.'" (That passage is from Berger's paper, "Empowering Citizen Journalists: A South African Case Study." It was presented at the AEJMC conference in Denver last August).

Many people have argued that local government in South Africa is using "symbolic issues" merely as a way of distracting voters from a poor record of delivery. Changing names is an expensive process, no doubt, and many question the priority of name changes in the face of so much social need.

Late in 2010, the name change once again became a big issue in Grahamstown, and Iindaba Ziyafika arranged what turned out to be an excellent on-air and in paper/web discussion of the name change debate. Iindaba Ziyafika has helped the local community radio station, Radio Grahamstown, get back on its feet precisely so such debates can take place. Listen to the debate here. It's a complex issue, and there are strongly held views on both sides.

Local Elections

2011 is going to be a big year for South Africa -- although not as big as hosting the World Cup in 2010! -- because we have local government elections where local town councils and mayors are chosen. These are highly contested every five years, often with a dozen candidates standing for a single ward seat. Although the dominant ruling party, the ANC, won two-thirds of the national vote in the 2006 municipal government elections, results vary dramatically from town to town. Many independent candidates, who are not formally aligned to any political party, run for election, so final results are never easy to predict.

It is at these elections that the kind of mobile/radio/website/newspaper "broaden the public sphere" project like ours can really earn its stripes. As this is the final year of our three-year Knight grant, we now have the platforms to inspire greater levels of participation in the election -- possibly more so than any small town in South Africa.

We'll soon be conducting a large public opinion survey of our various mobile-centric platforms to see what is known about them, how they are used, and how we can make them work better. It is our aim to use the Iindaba Ziyafika platforms to get Grahamstown debating issues across class, race and gender divides and, hopefully, electing representatives who respect the more engaged citizenry we are helping to create.

July 19 2010


South African Paper Uses Mobile Services to Engage Readers

In Grahamstown, South Africa, getting and sharing news is a mobile experience. Grocott's Mail, a local paper, incorporates mobile phones into many aspects of its news service -- from disseminating headlines via SMS, to encouraging readers to text in their opinions and making it a part of a Knight News Challenge-winning citizen journalist training program.

The paper, which sells 6,400 copies each week, is a good example of how mobiles can create a richer news experience for both readers and publishers. Idea Lab contributor Harry Dugmore, is a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. He runs the Iindaba Ziyafika citizen journalism program with Grocott's Mail.

"The inspiration for the whole project is trying to democratize news and information and put it into the hands of more people, give people more access to it, and create more participation -- not just one-way, top-down communication," he said.

Creating Reader Engagement

Grocott's Mail, which published its first print edition in 1870, launched an online version of the paper in 2006. The website, now called Grocott's Mail Online, uses a customized content management system called Nika that is built on Drupal and allows for a smooth computer-to-mobile transition.

Grocott's Mail Online has a page for SMS opinions from readers in addition to the normal editorial content; readers can text the paper with their responses to articles, tips for stories, or general information and see those texts translated into non-text speak and put online or in the paper. Nika sorts SMSs and incorporates them directly into the newspaper's system, automating what had previously been a manual process. The SMS pages let local citizens share their opinions, and see their words in print.

Another way in which local citizens are engaged is through the paper's citizen journalist training program. However, Dugmore is quick to differentiate the citizen journalists from the general online community saying, "We think journalism and citizen journalism is quite a special thing, and we make quite an effort to distinguish it from user generated content and from community participation."

The six-week training program teaches students how to frame a story, how to create a narrative, how to access sources, and how to interview them. (Read more about it by going back through Dugmore's posts here.) So far, the course has been taught four time and, according to Dugmore, the program has evolved to be an important part of the paper. "We've gone from getting two pieces of citizen journalism a month to one for almost every issue," he said.

The citizen journalists use mobile phones as a supplementary tool in their work, not as a substitute for old-fashioned journalism techniques. Dugmore explained that although the students use their mobiles for sharing breaking SMS news alerts and taking photographs, they've often found it easier to take notes with a paper and pencil and then write out the stories on Grocott's Mail's computers. However, he said that they still train the citizen journalists on using the phones as cameras and for audio recording, and that the use of mobile phones is part of the curriculum.

Getting The Word Out

For readers who want to stay up to date on the latest headlines, Grocott's Mail has an SMS headline alert system. The free program, which users text to sign up for, sends out the paper's top headlines twice a week. (The print edition comes out every Tuesday and Friday, as do the SMS headline alerts.) The program launched a few months ago, and Dugmore said there are several hundred subscribers so far.

In addition to SMS alerts, the paper is also developing another way to reach its readers -- using mobile instant messaging to directly send the news to their subscribers. Dugmore said this will be a good addition to the current SMS headline system because it will give subscribers a more thorough news experience, while being a cost-effective news dissemination tool for the paper (which covers the cost of the SMSs).

"The other nice thing about IM is that you're not restricted, like SMS, to just headlines," he said. "If you want to, you can send a whole IM or the whole story "

The paper has already developed a GoogleTalk version of the instant messaging system and is currently finalizing a MXit version; they plan to launch the tool by the end of the summer, meaning that users without high-end phones can still have what Dugmore calls a "smartphone experience."

Grocott's Mail's initiatives show how mobile phones can be a great way to keep readers engaged.

"We were looking for ways to create more spaces where people could get news and information about things that were useful, and [also] looking for ways that possibly people could come together to see if there were common issues or areas where they might be able to make a difference in their own lives," Dugmore said.

May 24 2010


South African Paper's Mobile Site Focuses on 'Nowness'

There are no magic wands in the digital transition. Everything has to be built slowly and surely, as with legacy media. And failure is as likely, maybe even more likely, than in the analog world. But you have to keep trying because cell phones, the first true mass digital channel in Africa, are getting faster and smarter; if you don't exploit the power of the new channel, you're toast because others will and are.

Grocott's Mail has been serving the small community of Grahamstown, South Africa with local news and information for a long time (140 years precisely on May 11). Grocott's Online -- which got going properly a year ago -- caters to those who prefer pixels to paper, but until now, locals with mobile phones haven't had a comprehensive way of being informed about what's on the go in Grahamstown.

Launch of Grahamstown NOW

grahamstown now.jpg

Enter Grahamstown NOW, the first concerted attempt by Grocott's Mail to provide news and real-time information to Grahamstonians on a mobile platform. It's part of the Knight-funded Iindaba Ziyafika project and is led by Michael Salzwedel. Here's what Michael emailed me when I asked for some info about the technical side of the project:

It's not fancy or shiny - on the surface it appears to be just another mobisite. But there's a lot of depth below that surface. What it lacks in glitz and glam, it makes up for in its ability to serve up a snapshot at any given point in time of what's just happened, currently happening, or about to happen in Grahamstown.

Grahamstown NOW focuses on providing practical, immediately usable information directly related to the living out of the daily lives of people in Grahamstown. The idea is that Grahamstown NOW should become the central aggregator of as much as possible of Grahamstown's news and informational content, ultimately enabling citizens to make more considered decisions.

The launch version of Grahamstown NOW provides the following content:

  • Event listings: These are pulled in from the Grocott's online events calendar. Users can submit their own events directly from their phones.
  • Business specials: What's currently on special (at registered businesses) at any given time in Grahamstown, and how much longer those specials are on for (or time until they start).
  • News items: The latest and most popular stories from Grocott's Online.
  • Webcam snapshots: Users can see current views from a number of webcams across Grahamstown.
  • Movie screenings: What's coming up next at the local cinema.
  • Radio shows: What's on now and coming up next on local radio stations.
  • Weather conditions: Should you grab a jacket or an umbrella? Check on Grahamstown NOW.
  • Tweets: Latest tweets from @grocotts, and the latest tweets mentioning Grahamstown.
  • SMSes: Latest SMSes received by Grocott's Online (MMS support coming soon).
  • Ride offers/requests: A simple matching service.

The emphasis is on time and timing of events and specials and happenings around town. There is also an emphasis on freshness and "nowness." So while many sites allow you to see what's on in the next few days or weeks, or tomorrow's weather, Grahamstown NOW focuses only on today's happenings, weather, shows and commercial specials. If you want to know what's on tomorrow, check in with us again closer to that time.

All About Now

This approach might not work for congenitally forward-planning people, but it is, in testing at least, proving to be a great way to cut through the clutter of most sites, and curate information and news through the singular lens of currentness. Grahamstown NOW only gives you the very latest news story or two, not all of them. If you want to know what's coming up next on the local radio station, we'll tell you -- but not about the show after that.

Instead of comprehensiveness, Grahamstown NOW is much more like Twitter or a Facebook wall. It's about the latest, most current information. If you snooze, you lose that part of the stream.

Michael and his team are enthusiastic about how useful this could be.

"Most of the above can be displayed according to time (countdown until something begins or ends), so the home page and section pages are dynamic and never look the same," he said. "Users might see that a jazz concert is starting in an hour and 30 minutes, or that a 2-for-1 pizza special at a local restaurant started two hours ago, or that the next showing of a certain movie begins in 20 minutes, or that a public council meeting is scheduled for two days' time."

Grahamstown NOW is primarily meant to be accessed with a mobile phone, but there's also a desktop version. For now, that's simply the mobile version contained within a mobile phone graphic, with additional Javascript and AJAX functionality to enhance the user experience by allowing easier inputs and no page reloads.

Users can also interact with the site by leaving "chirps" (comments), submitting their own events and ride offers, and easily sharing content with friends via email or WAP pushes.

Integration With Nika

I asked Michael to outline why Grahamstown NOW will work in our small town, and how it fits in with what we're trying to do with the Nika system we developed. He replied:

The average Grahamstownian is not rich, does not have an expensive phone, and is very conscious of how much they're spending on data. Thus, the first version of Grahamstown NOW has been designed to be accessed on even the simplest of Internet-enabled phones, and the HTML has been 'minified' to reduce bandwidth consumption.

Later in the year, Grahamstown NOW will be integrated with Nika. The aim is for Nika to become the central CMS for all Grocott's Mail's offerings: The print edition, Grocott's Mail Online, Grahamstown NOW, our SMS headline service and our upcoming instant messaging offerings (which will include selected Grahamstown NOW content).

Nika 2.0, which is now available as a free download, is evolving into a more comprehensive and mobile-orientated CMS. At its heart Nika is an editing workflow suite and digital content manager; but Nika also has additional functionality for community newspapers in that it can take SMS and instant messages directly into editing streams, and send SMS and IMs back to cell phones. Overall, Nika is great for generating user generated content and for easily getting headlines (and soon whole stories) back out to users' cell phones.

Future versions of Grahamstown NOW will have more differentiation between what is served up to PCs and to mobile phones, will include geo-location functionality so users can see business or event locations on a map or tag their social networking interactions or content submissions with their location, and will have tighter integration with Facebook.

For now, we think Grahamstown NOW offers immediate benefits for citizens -- with a particular emphasis on "immediate."

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