Citizen journalism to shake up SA?

After landing a job as the Citizen Journalism Trainer at Grocott’s Mail, I sat down to do some research on the subject. So I Googled “citizen journalism” and “citizen journalism training”, and eventually “citizen journalism south africa” – the fifth entry looked interesting: “Will citizen journalism shake up SA media?”, an article from the Mail & Guardian. Click. Scroll.

WHAT?! Under the headline it reads: “ELVIRA VAN NOORT | JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Jan 06 2006 17:25”… Whoa! I forgot I wrote that!

The article is about, a citizen journalism initiative from Johnnic. Back in 2006 their idea was mind-blowing. Vincent Maher described it as “the most progressive move by a South African media company in the past two years” and Matthew Buckland as a “brave, exciting initiative”. The website had 800 subscribers and a 20-strong newsroom staff working on the site part-time. died a quiet death months later. This citizen journalism project did not shake up SA media, but I can assure you that the Knight Foundation funded- Grocott’s Mail CJ project “Iindaba Ziyafika – The news is coming” has potential. Potential to shake up all African media.

So flash forward four years and I am training citizen journalists at the first-ever citizen journalist newsroom in Africa with a, soon-to-be appointed, citizen journalism editor at the top. The first CJ courses were handled by others in 2009 but my first course finished in April this year and 21 CJs (what a cute acronym) graduated. They should all have acquired the necessary skills and knowledge in 6 weeks of training: from understanding news and newsworthiness to interviewing and taking better photos with your cellphone. Emphasis, however, is on assisting the community to become better informed citizens and for citizens to become part of the news.

Grahamstown and Grocott’s Mail are ideal for this CJ project. A small town and a small-town newspaper embroiled in a tight-knit community that exists of students, townspeople and townshipspeople. The small-town newspaper is owned by Rhodes University and is a playground for Rhodes Journalism students who live in town. What about the voices of the townshipspeople and the voices of non-student townspeople? That’s where the CJ course comes in – CJs give a voice to the voiceless.

Dutch New Media lecturer Peter Verweij, also my unofficial mentor in this field, said the same in 2006: “[citizen journalism] could give a voice to numerous people living in townships and make their news part of the public debate too”. So far, on the Grocott’s Mail website, CJs have reported on squatter camps, soup kitchens, township crimes, local craft projects and many other topics scarcely touched on by the printed paper; and all that from a refreshing perspective as well.

Of course the quality of the articles is debatable so all articles are moderated before publishing – we will make sure the facts are correct so Grocott’s can keep on being the trustworthy title it has always been.
Together with the CJ editor there are a number of exciting projects to make sure the graduated CJs keep on writing. We will send story ideas via SMS, ask them to report on an event in their ward (the whole hyperlocality paradigm) and produce stories for campaigns about education, crime, employment etc. The top CJs of the course are allowed to sit-in during diary meetings and everyone receives a honorarium after publishing two decent articles.

Yes, Grocott’s has chosen a different path and has opened up its newsroom for CJs and a CJ editor – giving citizens a direct line to the decision makers and enabling them to “democratise both news production and news dissemination”, says Rhodes University’s Harry Dugmore.

The second course starts 19 April, citizens can sign up now. I’ll report back on the CJ course in a couple of weeks/months or years to see if we are indeed shaking up African media.



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