Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Parish Pump: It wasn't the vandals that stole the handles - let's take them back

IN a quaint turn of co-incidence for a neo-Habermasian community journalism advocate like myself, to be in agreement with internet impressario Jeff Jarvis is remarkable.
With the advent of Google Wave, the new all-singing-all-dancing browser/ interface from the internet collosus, the focus is again towards a hyper-local model for newsgathering and presentation.
A browser which unites and aggregates every aspect of our online lives is the ultimate goal for Google and a more fulfilling life under the cloud seems to be only a matter of months away. We can create and upload content, blog and flag content with simple keystrokes.
But, it still does not solve the problem of paying for newsgathering - it is still parisitic. But news still has to be gathered in a meaningful and accountable way for any number of ethical and democratic reasons.
And this is where hyperlocal has to come in.
Local is important to us in Britain and Ireland or we wouldn't have the vast numbers of local news outlets that we have sustained for more than a century since the development of affordable press and broadcast technologies.
But, at the local and regional level of news in Britain, the depth of content and engagement in local communities is being corroded by successive rounds of damaging cuts in personnel at news organisations.
In Februrary, and at one fell swoop, a couple of hundred years worth of accumulated local knowledge and talent left the Liverpool ECHO and wasn't replaced - even with cheap recent graduates or the even cheaper work experience/ interns.
We have to understand the uncertain business climates of the big news organisations making staff cuts face. The inherently fractured nature of the internet is not the friend of the centralised conglomerate news organisation - there are too many options for the consumer and these companies have always worked best moving towards monopolies where they could.
But Liverpool, like any similar sized city with a vast history and a highly defined identity needs news organisations rooted in its communities. News organisations, in this way, need social and intellectual capital - people who have knowledge and empathy with their communities in a micro and macro sense.
So how about this: let's summon the power of the community or third sector and devise and implement wide ranging education programmes and outreach initiatives aimed at media education which allows everyone to be part of newsgathering.
Let's have paid-for community workers and teachers embedded in their area telling us what is going on in their communities rather than newspapers and radio stations just reprinting missives from PR organisations paid to portray the activies of regeneration quangos in best possible light. (Among other travesties)
My example of how this could work is in the twin communities of Kirkdale and Kensington in Liverpool. I cycle through Kirkdale and am struck by how there is a huge degeneration of the area but that story hasn't been told - parts of it look like the Baltimore of The Wire.
Likewise the wholesale closures of shops and pubs throughout North Liverpool, thanks in no small way to the huge investments in city centre retail area, are stories which have not made any local media.
There are community groups in nearby Bootle who were working to highlight the injustices of regeneration programmes filtering money to big business 15 years ago - I know because I went to the Strand community centre to interview them. These people have not gone away - let's give them cameras and blogs and let them do their adversarial work. And let's train them to do so in an accurate and engaging way to maximise engagement with readers.
In Kensington, the Kensington Vision group have been highlighting the inadequacies of multi-million pound regeneration agency, Kensington Regeneration, via social and public journalism activism which points the way for the future of media at a macro level in the city.
Crucially, they also train 'ordinary' people to make their own radio, video and print products and get them up on the net. Now, that's a great social history project laden with that most corny of values - empowerment. (As Lewis Black says: 'I learned that word from Oprah'.)
The parish pump was the big buzz word for those of us involved in local and regional journalism until quite recently - it's just that there is no-one left to document those operating the handles.
In recent times, and in keeping with Dylan's lysergic visions of 1965, if the vandals had stolen the handles no-one would have been there to report it. That is, apart from the community activists who had no cash or means of accessing the regional media without first going to PR companies with the contacts to get published.
Let's train people to both operate and document the use of the parish pump. You'll see it will work, it is a no brainer.
And you know what? Free global social networking with the need of vast bandwidth and no visible means of raising the cash for it via advertising is not the answer. At least it is not the ultimate answer and is, at best, only a part of the overall solution for news' revenue quests.
Those of us involved in the media are too much in thrall to blogging, twittering and facebook poking and the fact that we can tell someone in Spokane, Washington that we think Peter Andre is standing strong.
This blinds us to the vast numbers of people who hate the blowhard, egotistical world of social networking's telling to one and all what you (mostly irrelevently) are thinking or doing at any one time.
The future does not lie in 140 character synopses of 'wa gwan' with you and your 'bredren' - no-one, to any meaningful extent, gives a Rat's A.
You may need a lie down and you also may be able to tell everyone from Starbucks in Tianamen Square to the Copper Kettle in Waterloo about it via your @dickhead Twitter account, but ultimately it's never going to be the future of journalism some contend it could be.
With this in mind, look to the blogs and pictures from Iran over the last two days and marvel at the true glory of community and activist journalism. Its glory is in the ability not to tell millions of people that Ronaldo may have shagged Paris Hilton but that a popular revolution is taking place in a nation which has huge ramifications for the rest of the world.
But also remember that journalism when done properly can make a difference to a pensioner whose bins haven't been collected by the council or 40 people opposing the closure of a community centre or thousands opposing the closure of a hospital or primary school.
Regional journalism's power is felt most keenly at the local level.
As Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh said in Epic, the 1938 poem recently voted Ireland's favourite,

"That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance."
(Emphases blogger's own.)

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