When Eric Pickles told local authorities that they should let ‘citizen journalists’ video council meetings, I imagine, for some reason, that there was a collective shudder from many in local government (if you want to know what Public-i thinks about the announcement read here).
After all, as a former non-citizen journalist*, I know that my kind have not always been held in the highest esteem by councillors and council officers. So what do we know about this new breed of amateur hack invoked by the Communities Secretary?
Firstly, the concept of the ‘citizen journalist’ is a misleading one. Most of these people no more wish to be associated to journalists than journalists wish to be associated to them. Really they’re just people who are taking advantage of the web to organise, communicate and share information, which when you think about it means we’re not talking about a group, but lots of different groups. I think they might include:-
1). The neighourhood blogger
Sometimes called ‘hyperlocal’ blogs, in the last few years more and more people have started to write about their area online – such as the Bournville Village blog that covers the suburb of Birmingham. There is also an increasing number of Facebook pages dedicated to areas, which are giving birth to a new sort of local coverage driven by discussions rather than reportage.
2). The campaigner
What happened when West Oxfordshire District Council decided to scrap discretionary rate relief for the charity that runs Chipping Norton’s lido? One of its trustees created this video and it didn’t take long for the story to end up on the national news. It’s just one example of how local organisations are increasingly capable of using the web to exert influence on authorities. This is a kind of ‘citizen journalism’ that can really have an impact.
3). The expert
A lot of people are using blogging as a professional tool, partly to advertise what they do, but often simply to share and enrich their knowledge. Perhaps not surprisingly, when a blogger is an actual expert they’re able to attract big – and powerful – followings. While expert bloggers might not come into contact with local authorities that often, it’s crucial that councils know about their existence. Sometimes they might be helpful and useful contacts. On other occasions, it’ll be good to know where they stand on an issue.
4). New resident associations
When I was a local reporter for the Ham&High, the Highgate Society was the source for many of my best stories – providing not just the lead, but a good chunk of the research I needed to build up my report. In the future, I think, resident associations will routinely cut out the middle men – and deliver news that’s important to them. The Highgate Society came together over the proposed widening of the A1 that threatened homes in the village. I imagine that similarly contentious issues will see residents using social reporting skills – blogging, video interviews and social networking – to influence policy.
5). The lone blogger
When Chris Taggart took a video camera into the chamber at Windsor and Maidenhead council it was an experiment. But what happens when your neighbour decides to build a monstrous extension to their house and block out your nice view? In the past you wrote a letter – now you might be more inclined to arrive at the development control meeting brandishing a Flip or a microphone and make sure the councillors who make the decision dedicate reasonable time and thought to the issue.
These are probably some, but not all of the groups who’ll be looking to indulge in ‘citizen journalism’. The point is, of course, that these skills are easy to pick up and will soon be commonplace. Perhaps that’s a little frightening, but it’s also an opportunity. If councils look to help these people – by working with them and supporting them – it might help to have a positive impact on how people can engage with democracy.
*I think that in negative you can see just how ridiculous the concept of a ‘citizen journalist’ is!