Sometimes it feels like the journalism equivalent of the Hadron Collider – throwing a bunch of ideas, people, and projects together to see what sticks and what breaks.
We can’t yet claim to have discovered some elusive God particle. But on a good day, it can feel that we are inching our way towards discovering how, at least in our locality, we can create a model for journalism that is sustainable, independent and community-led.
JesmondLocal is a loose collective of professional journalists, educators and creatives, students and community volunteers… and anyone else we can pull in for specific projects.
But we do have a mission statement: to help people and organisations tell their own stories, in order to build cohesive communities around locations and shared interests.
And our vision of how we’ll do this is by cascading the skills of storytelling – journalism – from professionals to students to communities.
In a nutshell, we recruit a dozen to 15 student journalists each year, show and help them practise the skills, techniques, tools and values of independent, trustworthy, multimedia, grassroots journalism – then equip those students to pass on these newly-acquired skills, techniques, tools and values to would-be “citizen journalists” in the community.
To date we’ve struck successful partnerships with Newcastle University, the BBC, Waitrose and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. We’ve won some funding for community journalism bootcamps. We’ve even bagged some advertising. But most of the time, JesmondLocal runs on good will, a wing and a prayer.
I was a staff writer and section editor at The Guardian for 16 years, until I took voluntary redundancy in 2009. I freelance for newspapers (Financial Times, Guardian) and magazines (Management Today, Monocle – more details at http://ianwylie.co.uk). But a nagging itch that I ought to be better connected to where I live (Newcastle upon Tyne) brought me into contact with David Baines, a Newcastle University lecturer with a research interest in hyperlocal journalism. David encouraged me to take some of his students as volunteers and set up a news site for Jesmond, a suburb close to Newcastle upon Tyne city centre.
Two years on, here’s what we’ve learned so far:
- Student journalists need real world, grassroots work experience. For obvious reasons, opportunities for gaining experience in established news organisations are increasingly scarce. There is no shortage of classroom-based teaching, but would-be journalists, professional or otherwise, need first-hand, on-the-ground experience so they can learn the basics of newsgathering and reporting. We give each student a patch (crime, sport, health, environment etc) just as any local newspaper would do and show them how to build up their contacts book, work up story ideas, pitch them to a news desk etc. Hyperlocal/local journalism may not offer the sexy, celeb-filled material many of our students prefer to read, but we impress upon them that Jesmond, like any community, can be a microcosm of the wider world. When you learn the basics of covering a local politics story in Jesmond, you’re learning the basics of covering a political story at Westminster.
- News organisations want to recruit talent with this real world, grassroots news experience. Our students often tell us that when invited to interview with the BBC, Sky and other news organisations, the JesmondLocal experience on their CVs is what often gets discussed the most.
- What student journalists need to learn is changing all the time. The best university journalism courses are refreshed maybe once each academic year, if you’re lucky. But the tools, techniques and skills journalists need in 2012 are being refreshed almost daily. We offer our students three “semesters of learning” where, at our weekly team meetings, we run through a constantly changing curriculum of the latest multimedia tools, techniques and skills – Skyping experts from around the world to bring our volunteers the freshest insights.
- Print is not dead. Convincing an advertiser to spend even £5 on a local online ad is almost impossible. But as soon as you mention the word “magazine”, local advertisers begin to take notice, writing cheques for up to £600 per page. Before Christmas, we created a magazine around the Turner Prize in just 48 hours at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. In the previous two years we’d barely sold enough online advertising to cover our domain fees. Yet in just a week, we sold enough print advertising not just to cover the costs of the magazine, but turn us a £1,000 profit (which we then foolishly donated to charity).
- Projects accelerate learning and build community. The online news website remains the hub for what JesmondLocal does. But one-off projects, such as community radio shows and short films fast forward progress. For the same magazine project, we pulled in favours from a variety of creative professionals: illustrators, writers, photographers and film-makers. The chance to work alongside each other, including our students, gave everyone involved – professionals and volunteers – an opportunity to learn and explore new working partnerships.
- Journalists have a part to play in halting the slide in civic engagement, reconnecting journalism with its democratic roots. We live-blog council ward meetings, so that the important decisions taken about our community are heard beyond the half dozen elderly people who bother to attend in person. We hold political hustings events during local elections so that the people of Jesmond get to meet and quiz the people who will represent them. If journalists don’t do it, who will?
- Multimedia journalism, I’m discovering, can be practised by anyone. During a partnership with the BBC and local Jesmond schools to produce slideshows and short films for Radio 3’s Free Thinking festival at the Sage Gateshead, some of the best interviews were conducted by teenagers from a Jesmond school for children with severe hearing impairments. Journalists have a role to play in helping people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to tell their stories.
- Passion and professionalism are mandatory. JesmondLocal wouldn’t happen without a handful of passionate professionals (that’s me, former Newcastle University journalism students Dan Howarth and Sophie Bauckham and chief evangelist David Baines) plus the patience of our partners, children and family pets. Sustainable journalism isn’t going to develop and evolve unless more professional journalists are willing to give up time and money to pass on their skills.
- The next generation of journalists must see themselves also as educators. Those of us who have been in the business for longer struggle with the concept of sharing our skills. But in a post-Leveson world, journalists will have to work hard to recast the relationship with the public, and become more social in their working practices. It won’t be enough to be just a content creator – journalists also need to be organisers, collaborators, supporters and educators.
- We are a unique laboratory of inquiry. I’m not sure that a larger media organisation could take the risks and leaps of faith that JesmondLocal ploughs into – community radio shows, pop-up magazines, journalism bootcamps – or be able to adapt and switch the focus of its inquiry as quickly when something doesn’t work, or a new innovation appears.
What’s next? During this “semester of learning”, we’ve decided we’re going to make a documentary. Inspired (and concerned) by the government’s plans for local TV, we’re asking ourselves: what would a really good local, social, community/crowd-sourced documentary look like? We have a good idea what bad local TV will look like. But could it be something better?
Aside from some funding from Newcastle University for our pop-up magazine and bootcamps, we have yet to invest time seeking longer-term financing. Our short term goal is to secure funding so that each year we could promote one of our student volunteers to a one-year, full-time contract as editor of the JesmondLocal news website.
Beyond that… and true to our ethic…we’re open to suggestion.