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Community development and community journalism: reflections on the @C4CJ #CJ15 conference

c4cj

I recently had the pleasure of attending the ‘What Next for Community Journalism?’ event held by Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism (Storify of the event here). Since it is a topic with which I am not much familiar I attended with a degree of trepidation and, indeed, found myself surrounded by a number of journalists, both of the ‘traditional’ and community variety (the distinction between which came to be much more blurred by the end of the day), and lots of talk of business models, meta data and coding.

Wales, and Cardiff/Caerdydd, was well-represented with Wrexham.com, Tongwynlais.com, Port Talbot MagNetGrangetown Community Action and my own Llandaff North/Ystum Taf community in the shape of Llandaff North Post among others in attendance.

lnpost

There were several English and Scottish-based hyperlocal news sites in presence and the keynote address came from Dan Gillmoor an esteemed American journalism academic and commentator. It was pleasing to see a Communities First area present in the form of North Merthyr cluster where a Cardiff University hyperlocal journalism project with young people operates. And there was also on show a copy of the Butetown, Grangetown and Riverside Communities First newsletter

The day was fascinating, in fact I was a little punch-drunk by the end of it. There’s a live and fluid regulatory landscape that hyperlocals need to aware of; against a backdrop of profits of as little as £100 a month (and seldom above £500), the financing and staffing of hyperlocal news is fraught; there is research into different business models in Europe and elsewhere in the UK; there was a plea for input to an effort to merely count how many hyperlocals exist in the UK; and there were two terrific examples, from Bristol and Greenwich, of investigative hyperlocal journalism. The former in particular pricked my interest as it is a member co-operative and one case study it highlighted was of an investigation into working conditions in Bristol’s catering sector, a sector in which many of the co-operative’s members had had poor experiences.

The thought occurred to me that sound community development principles underpinned this particular venture: collectivising to challenge power imbalances and effect positive change. That the Bristol Cable does so with a satirical and entertaining style only served to enhance its appeal.

If I have a criticism of the conference it was the extent to which it creates the impression that hyperlocal news only exists in English.

There was only the very briefest, blink-and-you-missed-it of references to Pobl Caerdydd and given that the Papurau Bro culture in Wales is so long-established – and judging by this directory in relatively rude health – this is a shame.

Equally, the American examples of hyperlocals cited in Gilmoor’s address were all English-medium with no suggestion that there are any hyperlocals in Spanish, minority or immigrant languages. There was a lot of reference to hyperlocal journalism’s proximity, tuned-inness and responsiveness to ‘community’ and ‘communities’.

But communities aren’t homogenous, and though I have no doubt that hyperlocals operate largely in English, if, as was stated, the principles of hyperlocal journalism are identical to traditional journalism – thoroughness, accuracy, fairness and independence – but with added transparency, it is only ‘fair’ and ‘accurate’ that the non-English speaking elements within communities, particularly urban ones (which were overwhelmingly those in attendance and/or profiled), are given room on the hyperlocal platform.

If this linguistic issue was one that occurred to me during the conference, another that I brought with me to the event but which was not explored – and is related to the notion of heterogeneous communities – is the extent to which hyperlocal news replicates ‘traditional’ media in its exploitative and pejorative coverage of disadvantaged communities; and the extent to which hyperlocal news offers such communities the opportunity to reclaim their ‘news agenda’ and express and describe the issues that affect them. I wasn’t alone

The term ‘poverty porn’ has entered popular lexicon to refer to television programmes such as Benefits Street and Britain’s Hardest Grafter (a proposed BBC programme which aims to pit low-paid workers against each other to “show their worth”; answers on a postcard if you can spot the public service aspect here…) which exploit and degrade people living in poverty. The programmes dehumanise poor people and serve their struggles with poverty up for and as entertainment; it is a sad but very real dystopia. In Wales, Sky broadcasted A Town Like Merthyr which portrayed it as a benefit-dependent, work-shy town. It was a further dark day for journalism when headlines such as those below suggested men in Merthyr Tydfil/Merthyr Tudful had a lower life expectancy than Haiti or Iraq:

Capture

Screen grab from Fullfact.org

Health professionals, authors of the report and politicians all rubbished the headlines and pointed out that the media had not only misrepresented the statistics, but had misunderstood them (assuming that they had read them at all).

As the Director of Public Health at the Cwm Taf Health Board told Fullfacts.org:

the figure that has been picked up in the press actually refers to the male healthy life expectancy (i.e. the average period for which a man can expect to retain their good health). This is obviously much lower than the total life expectancy.

(emphasis added)

The full Fullfacts.org exposé is well worth a read. I am sure there would be few, if any, delegates at the community journalism conference who would suggest Sky, the Daily Mail or Mirror are bastions of tasteful and ethical journalism, but I cite these only in order to highlight how disadvantaged communities are often written about but are seldom their own authors.

If hyperlocals replicate ‘mainstream’ media in exploiting and misrepresenting disadvantaged communities and writing pejoratively about them, then the fact they are more local is no justification. Should hyperlocals not consider issues affecting disadvantaged communities such as lower levels of literacy, digital and financial exclusion, and poor broadband or mobile infrastructure they will only serve to further entrench information deficits and further exclude people from civil, democratic and community life. If affluent communities with hyperlocals only read hyperlocal news from affluent communities, it will serve to obscure and conceal poverty in neighbouring communities.

It was clear in the conference how much volunteer energy, effort, passion and expense is expended on people’s hyperlocal enterprises and it is a big ask of volunteers to consider outreach and engagement work in disadvantaged communities and with under-represented groups in order to encourage readership and contributions by them. The community development sector should consider it the prime advocate for, brokers with and facilitators of disadvantaged communities’ involvement with hyperlocals; which in turn will benefit from a greater plurality of news and voices. Communities First should identify local community news outlets and develop relationships and practical arrangements with them. It is not a simple gap to plug should they not exist coterminously or contiguously with Communities First and/or disadvantaged communities; and arguably community development workers should not be setting up hyperlocals for disadvantaged communities. All credit to Cardiff University then for establishing community journalism projects in  and crucially with areas of disadvantage in Wales (such as in Grangetown and north Merthyr).

The Bristol Cable’s investigation on behalf of low-paid catering workers was a terrific example of how under-represented or seldom-heard groups can be given a voice by community journalism. But that the conference failed to address the issue of engagement with and by disadvantaged communities in any greater detail was a slight disappointment for me; but this is not to detract from an excellent event overall.

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Confrontation vs dialogue: consensus in the community

I sit on the committee of a park ‘Friends of’ membership group in my community in Cardiff/Caerdydd. The minutes of the previous meeting (that I could not attend) include the following:

“[our group] will continue to paint over graffiti on the walls of this site [changing rooms] when required to do so and the metal doors will be treated by the council anti -graffiti team directly”

The changing rooms are a rather dreary, unattractive building at the northern end of the park. They partly-conceal, when looking northwards, an attractive, naturally regenerated grass meadow. In keeping with its unspoiled nature there is little lighting at this end of the park; wherein lies the attractiveness of the site to the ‘vandals’.

The removal of graffiti every year, particularly in the summer, is a frequent chore carried out by our group in tandem with the local council. It is a waste of precious volunteer time and energy and diverts resources away from more important matters.

Cue a light bulb moment! I replied in email to the group and membership:

“re graffiti on the changing rooms; might there be scope for a graffiti mural to be permanently designed on the changing rooms, something that involves and engages with young people (assuming they are doing the graffiti)? I recognise that at the end of the park they are located would require something sympathetic  but this is surely not beyond the realms of possibility. I’ve worked with several graffiti artists and youth groups over the years and the fruits of their labour and imagination are very seldom tainted by vandalism; there are sites along the Taff Trail, not far from [the] Park, where this is also the experience. It could be the means for entering into a compact, of sorts, with the perpetrators over graffiti at that end of the park”

I like to think that even in a hurriedly composed email my commitment to community development values and principles shine through! I concede that a graffiti mural is not the most radical idea and has been employed numerous times over but it is, as I can testify in several years community development experience in the south wales valleys, an effective tool for communicating with young people, harnessing and channeling their creativity, pluralising the input to the design of local space and improving environmental quality. It also has a financial return to the public purse with an initial outlay of about £4-5,000 saving two to three times as much in reactive maintenance and cleansing. It propagates civic participation by young people who wish their artistic expression and hard work to remain untarnished and therefore they provide additional natural surveillance and policing for the area. As you can see I am a fan of graffiti murals, but I am not blind to the fact that other people may not concur.

I ought to have reached for my tin hat as I pressed click…

I am afraid that the prospects of letting graffiti be painted on the changing rooms and therefore encouraging this type of anti social behaviour to the area around the north of the park, will be met with strenuous opposition from local residents.

A very small sample poll taken today came out 100% against such a plan, with many people more than willing to form an action committee in order to fight it.

Our own; as well as other, NHWAs [Neighbourhood Watch Associations] are firmly against the plan and will object by all possible means, including petitions, protests made to to Council, Assembly, and Parliamentary Members.

Please keep us abreast of this proposal.

Thank you for help in bringing this to our attention.

Well that told me!

If this is how simple ideas from concerned residents are met by groups then is it any wonder people can be reluctant to dip their toe into community activism and participation? A culture of confrontation rather than dialogue does not bode well, as I counter-responded, in advance of the collaboration that community groups will need to undertake the tasks that statutory services previously undertook for us. For instance, our local council is planning to reduce the number of wildlife specialists working across the city from four to two. For a park, such as ours, with its grassland nature, coppices and riverside location this brings with it huge concern as to what the burden will (not might) be for our group when we have fewer experts to call on and less of their time when we can.

In a subsequent email exchanged between us the gentleman referred to how mild his response was compared with others. He concedes that though we may do so with different perspectives, we both want to  improve our community and tackle its ills. Indeed we do, and people are welcome to their strength of opinion. But it is not enough to aspire for consensus over some far-away or notional vision, if little effort is made to establish it over the means of attaining it. 

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City regions are nothing new…

City regions have dominated regional planning and policy discussion in south Wales recently.

For instance, given Cardiff/Caerdydd‘s lack of available housing land it will be increasingly reliant on being able to rapidly and efficiently transport workers from its hinterland via a light rail system.

The Welsh Government, too, is in on the act. It recently asked a Task and Finish Group on city regions to determine:

“whether a city region approach appeared likely to deliver more jobs and greater prosperity in and for Wales than current approaches to economic development”

It concluded that Cardiff/Caerdydd and Swansea Bay/Bae Abertawe city regions would improve the contribution to the Welsh economy from these cities that presently is inferior to that of other UK cities.

The current Welsh city region zeitgeist has captured the imagination of those in the north as well with a cross-border city region encompassing north east Wales recently being floated.

There is, however, reticence of a city region that ends up being all about the city and less about the region. In respect of the NE Wales idea there are those that see it as culturally regressive, irrespective of the economic benefits, that could result in the ‘Chesterfication’ of NE Wales.

For all its current prominence the concept really is nothing new. Indeed, in Cardiff itself academics like Phillip Cooke and Kevin Morgan have long been advocating city regions. The concept appears to get a new lease of life every ten to twelve years, before slumbering back into quiescence.

But next time you hear about a Cardiff/Caerdydd (or anywhere else in Wales) city region and snake oil sellers advocating it as a 21st Century answer for regional economic tupor consider that the book below was first published in 1947….

image

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Interesting thoughts on constructing ‘Space for Delight’. Space that is free from creativity-stifling bureaucracy; is free from pernicious market forces; that helps mobilise and collectivise, no matter how briefly; and which allows for people to explore and experience new areas.

This article (also via @theRSAorg) on pop up shops in Bedford is along similar lines. Communities are awash with empty and vacant space that can meet the temporary needs of groups (formal and informal). So it is interesting to see the pop-up shop as a prominent and key methodology for engaging with residents in disadvantaged communities in Cardiff/Caerdydd. It is refreshing to see the conscious shift away from committees and similarly formal structures as a means of promoting engagement, participation, consultation, and decision-making. Frankly it sounds more fun as well.  And what’s wrong with that?

Space for Delight

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February 13, 2013 · 12:23 pm

graffdonuts:

Ceres by Walt Jabsco on Flickr.

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January 30, 2013 · 11:45 am

blurthelinebetweenselfandothers:

Cool Spot… Byd o hwyl, oriel heb do, / Man cŵl imi encilio by bara-koukoug on Flickr.

Yn anffodus mae’r wal graffiti Ystym Taf dan fygythiad dwi’n meddwl oherwydd bydd tai newydd ar safle yr hen ffatrioedd. Os yw’r wal o elw i bobl dylai ymdrech i sicrhau ei bod yn dal fel rhan o’r datblygiadau tai.

Diweddariad: Ymddengys y bydd y wal graffiti yn dal. Mae manylion y cais cynllunio yma.

Update: It appears that the graffiti wall will be remaining. Details of the planning application can be found here

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January 30, 2013 · 11:40 am

My response to ‘The future of the High Street: a tale of two record shops’

The excellent Powell Dobson Urbanists (@PDUrbanistsblog recently surmised about the future of the High Street in light of the demise of HMV. 

The blog concluded that:

there is much that can be achieved from small business when they work collectively, collaboratively and imaginatively

It cites independent record shops as an example of the benefits of doing so. I absolutely agree and will in due course publish an interview with a local trader who has tried to do the same, though in a specific locale rather than in a specific trade.

The prospect that independent record shops can now thrive because city and town centres are deprived of the presence of the ‘big boys’ (Virgin, HMV, etc.), however is not guaranteed. My response to the blog is below.

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I certainly agree with your final point about the merits of collectivisation and collaboration for small retailers but the lack of an HMV (and Virgin, Our Price, etc. before it) potentially poses more of a challenge to independent record stores than if it were to have continued trading.

I recall my uncle Nick Todd, former owner of Spillers Records in Cardiff/Caerdydd, welcoming the location of MVC (remember that?!) on The Hayes immediately opposite Spillers (before it moved to the Morgan Arcade) because it brought music-buying customers to the Hayes allowing Spillers to compete with it directly on price and the shopping and browsing experience. Nick felt MVC could not compete and so relished its presence over the road. Certainly Spillers was invariably cheaper and a more enjoyable, unpredictable shopping experience with punters talking about their purchases, gigs they had been to, new bands and the like. In contrast MVC was sterile, bland and didn’t generate interaction between punters. And more expensive.

So to say that “we feared for the survival of independent record shops who were being squeezed out of existence by the corporate behemoths of HMV, Virgin Megastore and Borders” is slightly reductionist. It was never as simple as that (incidentally, Borders, too, has come and gone from The Hayes). The presence of these chains offered a platform for an independent to compete. By there being none left not only removes the competition but also the platform. Graham Jones in his splendid book ‘Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops?’ lays the blame for the demise of independent record stores at poor business planning on the part of some, a race-to-the-floor attitude by distributors, and changes to urban design. Changing shopping patterns and downloading are but two of several factors

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