Wednesday, 17 November 2010

At the hub of Leeds community

The Leeds Community News Hub held its first forum at Trinity and All Saints University College in an event bringing together journalists, bloggers, community groups, charities and those interested in their locality.

The presentation by Meg Pickard of the Guardian might have been on the changing nature of media and the need to engage with the wider community, but the overall theme was very much about connecting; connecting not only people, but technology, data and content.

A joint venture between the college (or is it a university) and the Guardian, the hub throws the doors open to the school of journalism. The media courses ground students in community engagement, but the hub switches this around offering community based projects the ability to gain expert knowledge from the hub (not just from Trinity). For example, a community project might work with journalism students to help work on a news story relevant for a small locality but not gaining the attentions of the wider regional press.

Sarah Hartley, who is in charge of the guardian local projects in Leeds, Edinburgh and Cardiff, discussed the need to be more collaborative and bring together multiple points of view and contribution to a story – much in the way that wikis work – to bring a greater insight to a news story. She also discussed the use of space. So far the Guardian local project has been focused on virtual space and the Guardian Leeds blog. The new forum events bring the event into the real world and help those who might not actually blog or tweet.

I’ve seen Meg Pickard speak before. She is an engaging speaker with a passion for her subject. Not a journalist but a social anthropologist by trade; I wanted to see what had changed since I last spoke to her.

It started much in the same way her last talk did – the discussion around a picture of a bus stop. Are these people in a queue for the bus a community? The answer is potentially – there share many things in common but equally they are all different as well. If they begin to chat about the weather, the lateness of the bus or something quite random they start to engage in a community which will grow if they visit the site on a regular basis. Their journey does not affect who they are and their passions, but they might find other like minded person on their bus route. Or not.

She used Jake McKee’s definition of community:

A group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around contexts which are of interest to all of them for various individual reasons.

However, Meg added this definition was loose as what constitutes time, relationships, what a group is or what is of interest. In the words of Mark Zuckenberg: “Communities already exist”. |what this means is it is a lost cause to ‘create’ a community. Echoing words I’d heard last week at TEDxLeeds, community projects often ignore the infrastructure and the people already there and are intent to overlay a new template to create a new community – often in failure. People are passionate about things for a reason and that’s what binds them. You can’t make some interested.

It is easy to “create content” and to consume it, but if something is driven by a passion, you want to do more with that information. You can react to, curate and create new content but not everyone will have the passion to do all. While some will read an article and move on, others will vote on a discussion, fewer will added the link to their twitter site and fewer people will be moved enough to blog about it.

But why do people do any of these things? There has to be a reward for it; a greater sense of being a member, an ego massage for someone wanting to be influential, a channel for venting your spleen or just an interest being sated by reading an article and doing no more.

The mechanics of a story also have to be in place. This is not just words. Increasingly it is pictures, video, sound and data flows. It is also a community voice.

Meg then discussed how crowdsourcing can play a valuable part in modern journalism. She gave the example of how the Guardian opened up the expenses documents for MP and got people to engage with them. It meant 27,000 people helped identify the stories within the expenses scandal through varying layers of engagement. Some clicked on poll buttons which basically said nothing of interest to interesting information.

This created a filter for the journalists to investigate further. Others wrote notes on what they believed they had uncovered.

One student challenged Meg on the exploitation of the public, but the response is that journalistic rigour has to be behind the opening up of the story. The motivation of the individuals was to gain the information and feel a buzz from uncovering a scoop. (I remember doing this and finding not a dicky bird on my local MP). It would be possible to exploit people, but it would be short-lived as people would not help again.

The contribution moved to mutualisation and citizen journalism. By this Meg meant the involvement of multiple groups in creating news. Rather than an editor commissioning a story, researching it and publishing it, a more organic model sees opportunities to engage, contribute and react to news, creating additional news angles that could not be opened up in other ways. But the editor needs to remain to determine fact from fabrication and to ensure the information is the right side of the law.

A case study of @abc_investigates on twitter demonstrated that community needs a context. The Australian TV channel offered the opportunity to have people’s questions answered. They meant investigative journalism questions. The public sent questions about odd socks. Only by further engagement did the account work by demonstrating it meant it would investigate trading standards and council abuses.

But the point of community is that what is relevant to me isn’t relevant to many. I’ve often pondered the failure of Social media is that it pigeon holes you into twitter lists, Facebook friend connections and LinkedIn colleagues even though you may have multiple ‘lives’. Am I the communications manager, the father, husband, football fan, rower, media law geek or ... I could go on but I hope you get the point.

The Danger is that we pigeon-hole audiences and communities and, worse, mix up the difference between opinion and fact.

What will community groups gain from this forum? I think it’s an understanding of where they fit into the story and encouragement that their voice can be heard. If the hub is to work, they will need much more support. In my mind the community groupings need to be identified and a way of bringing them together needs to happen. This includes new media, the forum and other events.

The problem is these groups are not obvious and it will take time for people to get involved. Equally there is an issue of creating an infrastructure to enable people to talk without imposing one that disrupt the existing infrastructure. Equally, it will need to be easy to involve as many people as possible.

The advantage is that an art exhibition in Beeston might be able to link to the Leeds art community, to the locals in the area, to people interested in the subject matter rather than art – and Leeds can benefit from people coming together to talk. Isn’t that what community really means?

(Picture courtesy of


  1. Great write up!

    Leeds is full of communities. Many of them are closed, or semi closed. They fail to connect effectively to pursue what they share in common.

    My hope is that the community news hub may start to build links between existing communities to form larger and more powerful coalitions.

  2. Thanks for the comment Mike.

    I've been made aware of several community projects recently - and wished I'd known about them before.

    Lets hope the hub helps.