The Contributoria Tapes: Tell your own story

This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.

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My third pass through the Contributoria process was during the July pitch / August writing window, where the theme was “Independence”. Independent and alternative media has been one of my personal interests since my undergraduate days, and a lot of the work that I did back then informed the eventual direction of my PhD project on hyperlocal media, so I jumped at the chance to pitch something that went in this direction.

The premise of the pitch was that I’d try to find someone and help them to make something, the final angle of the piece was that you can’t just go out into the world with a bag of good intentions. I got an editorial rebuke for not finding someone to make media with (it’s in the now deleted draft comments), but I think the angle that I have here is much more important than yet another puff piece that celebrates what “citizens” can do with the phone in their pocket. Crucially for me I achieved something that I set out to do which is to take the things we teach and think about in the university and package them as a piece of journalism. This isn’t research but it is an academically led piece of non-academic writing — and it’s something I can use with my students as background reading when we talk about media independence and technology.

A final side note, I copied the text back from the Contributoria page as my personal copy was missing a conclusion (I remember filing this right up to the deadline) and I spotted a glaring typo in the last par. There are probably more typos in there. Articles did get edited and subbed but often typos were missed. It was probably a weakness in the month by month process that the Contributoria  staff only ever had a few days to get everything polished — usually the copy deadline was 3-4 days before the launch day on the 1st of the following month. Another problem with this process comes when we think about the much vaunted “openness” of Contributoria as a collaborative process. As much as members could view writers’ drafts and leave comments whenever a writer pushed them to the review stage, the sub-editing process was rather clandestine, and there was no chance to review or discuss any changes that were being made.

Tell your own story: an adventure in media independence

What we mean by media independence is always hard to define and something that can be argued. In its purest sense, independent media would be a story told by its own actors, in their own words, on their own terms, for their own ends. Responding to this month’s Contributoria call around independence I decided to give my words to someone else.

The pitch was simple: instead of finding something out and telling you the story as framed by my experiences and prejudices, I’d find someone and give them this page to tell their own story. I’d give them my platform and also my experience; I’d help them to craft a story.

What is independent journalism?

There are many ways to commit an act of independent journalism, and every act will have its independence called into question because journalism is inevitably a process of compromises: the deadline, the column space or format, the money – these are just three factors external to a story that drive it and give it shape.

Our commercial media – the TV, radio, newspapers and their associated online platforms – are the most tightly regulated and managed forms of storytelling in our day-to-day lives but there have always existed alternative media, where producers work with fewer restrictions, with greater independence.

Media researchers have been interested for some time in these alternative media practices, charting them back to the radical press (which, as media scholars like Susan Forde argue, predate what we now think of mainstream journalism) and through a series of movements and moments throughout the 20th century to the present day.

Alternative and independent media take many forms, both in terms of the thing created (films, newspapers, photographs) and the manner of the practice itself. When teaching about this I explain to students that independent media workers operate in three main modes: auteurship, enablement and collaboration. Auteurs find a story to tell. Enablers find a story that needs to be told and empower those affected to tell it. Collaborators combine authorship and their production craft with a level of enablement for the actors in the story.

To share your skills and knowledge with others is a wonderful thing and to do it with tools of communication is an act in the redistribution of power. To go beyond that and to give up control of your platform is an even more potent political act. That’s why so few people do it, that’s why I needed to do it.

What’s the story?

As soon as I was backed the first and most obvious thing I needed to think about was: where do I find a story? Or rather, where do I find someone with a story to tell?

If we look at the history of something like community video in the 1970s and 1980s for an answer we see one immediate difficulty. In his 1980 book Street Video, Graham Wade describes a series of video workshops. The workshops had a presence; they had some space and facilities. Although they did have to actively go out and engage with people, people could also come to them; there was something there for help with telling stories (and those stories were told through video). Wade co-wrote another book, Community Media, with Heinz Nigg, which looked a little broader than just video but again told a similar story; community and participatory media in the 70s and 80s revolved around collectives that existed to facilitate storytelling for those who needed it and that existed as beacons to which people with stories to tell might come.

I didn’t have a place where people could find me and I didn’t have funding (except for the promise of a cheque from Contributoria at some point in September). I didn’t even have a specific technology through which I was framing my work. I’d need to go out and find somebody who had these things, to try to work with them.

Get yourself a stall

I thought some more about the idea of a signposted place, the place you can come to and someone will be there to help you make something. There’s something I’ve volunteered at before called the Birmingham Social Media Surgery. The surgery has a time and a place and operates on a drop-in basis. The idea is for those who can do interesting things with the internet to help other people to do them too. It seemed to be just the sort of thing that would get me out among people who could use my help. There was just one problem; the surgery runs on an ad hoc basis, and there was nothing happening during the month I had to write this piece. Is that problematic, in the big picture? That help is there but only occasionally? I think it may well be.

So what other spaces are there that I could work with?

I struggled to think of anything local to me where I could just sit and stuff would happen. There used to be a place in Tamworth that I worked at called the Palace Media Centre but that’s gone (the website for the live music venue that took on the building seems to be down too). We used to offer support on a number of things there, including offering formal training courses in media production to people from the community. It was council-run and it closed long before the current run of austerity cuts.

Pete Ashton used to do something interesting where he’d sit in a café and you could just come and talk to him. It’s an interesting model. Pete would make his availability known via Twitter and people would pop down to pick his brains. I thought about doing this, about advertising an open surgery that was just me, ready and willing to help you tell a story. How would I advertise such a thing? To advertise online would skew the audience towards internet people, which meant, I figured, I’d get a lot of people who just want “help with the internet”. That’s certainly what Pete’s intervention was about. That’s not quite what I wanted to do. I wanted to help people to tell a story. I gave some serious thought to putting a sign in the newsagent’s window to see if anyone would want any help. I figured that taking the offer offline might put the focus on the story.

I did it, just to see what would happen.

Get yourself a technology

I was shying away from making this a project about the web. That was, perhaps a mistake. It’s almost inevitable that in contemporary media practice “the internet” will become a part of an intervention – the affordances of web-based tools (cheap to produce on, with potential to scale distribution at near enough zero cost) make them an obvious choice. There was a chance to set up shop and say “here I am, I have the internet”.

For the video workshops the medium, video itself, was an important part of their work – as important perhaps as the stories told with it. New forms of media (and yes, kids, video used to be new) are often invested with utopian potential (to tell more things better, to be democratising). So the pitch for the video workshops was “here we are, we have video”. Successive periods of alternative and independent media can be marked out by technologies that allowed for reductions in the cost of production and distribution of messages; so lithography produces a wave of work, as does the photocopier, the rise of video and of course the rise of the web. I didn’t have that: a technological novelty to sell, perhaps that’s I needed? Perhaps I needed to lead with the internet?

What is the web’s equivalent of a video workshop? A collective of people who try to help people use the internet for communication? Those social media surgeries I mentioned offered something quite close. Social Media Surgery+ is a network of events loosely organised on similar lines to one another, to which people might come to learn. I’ve been to social media surgeries before and the sort of assistance given varies and is needs-driven; I’ve helped someone register accounts on Twitter or set up a WordPress site, and I’ve even helped people to design a collaborative back-office for their group using Google Drive and Dropbox. This does have that community media workshop vibe, but the models aren’t exactly the same. A video workshop was a constituted group in a known place whereas social media surgeries are more ad hoc both in the times and places where they run and in their formal constitution. The overarching organisation is linked to a company and has been given recognition for its work but at the local level the delivery of activities is not guaranteed and is temporary.

Get yourself a cause

While workshops and groups were constituted media first, the other place where alternative media comes from is from social movements or as a responses to social problems. Again, historically, alternative and community media are full of examples of projects emerging as a direct response to a problem. Often hyperlocal websites are constituted in this way, with the classic origin story being “the local media just wasn’t speaking about this community so we set up our own alternative“.

I’d had no replies to my advert. I needed to find a cause.

I rescued the local paper, the freesheet, from the recycling. What are the issues of the day, the pressures in my community? Adverts for houses and secondhand cars, press releases about charity events. I’d drawn a blank again. Where are the stories? Where are the problems? Who is telling them and how?

Where did all the independent media go?

I tracked down Heinz Nigg, one of the writers of the book Community Media. In it, Heinz and co-author Graham Wade describe the workings of community media groups back in the 1970s and into the 1980s. Now based in Zurich where he continues to have an interest in studying this field, Heinz and I sat down for a long chat via Skype about his work and about community media.

Had I got it right, the way I’d characterised those workshops as beacons where stories could be told? “Yes, your perception of that community and radical media landscape of the 70s and 80s is correct”, Heinz told me. So what exists now that fills that sort of space? We talked about the Community Media Association, which is a membership body that speaks on behalf of community media organisations to government about policy. While the CMA charter has a requirement for members to be engaged in training, I pointed out to Heinz that within 25 miles of where I live in north Birmingham the members of the CMA were exclusively community radio stations with particular remits; training within these organisations would be quite instrumental towards maintaining outputs, to filling dead air.

I mentioned the notion that social media surgeries might be the heir apparent to community media workshops. Heinz raised some important questions: “What is the ideological and political context of these surgeries? Who should be profiting from it and for what aims? Is it a Tory approach of self-help or a more radical approach of counter-information? I think it is important to reflect this societal context of different do-it-yourself media approaches. Otherwise it becomes very vague and a bit nebulous.”

We applied this as a thought experiment, not just to social media surgeries but other contemporary alternative media. So social media surgeries allow people to learn more things, but are apolitical in a way that community media workshops perhaps were not. Similarly the incorporation of a hyperlocal media project is a political act but sustained hyperlocal production tends simply to ape the texts that would have been produced by a commercial media operator. There are radical moments that activate individuals and enable them as producers but there is not necessarily a sustained political action through the work itself.

There are people now having access to all kinds of equipment but do they make use of it?

Heinz told me about some of the social movements he’d worked with around Europe and how they are documented through a combination of banal personal media production and professional documentary making. The former is cheap and plentiful, but only tells a story through fragments, the latter is expensive but is crafted.

“I was in Brussels this June for a big demonstration of illegal immigrants. There everybody was having their iPhones up and filming and documenting. But is it coherent? Is there a concept involved in it? Or is it a one off activity? Are those films being edited? Is there a story being told? Are they being shown again live? Or is it just made?” Heinz said.

All media are shaped by their determinants, the limitations and structures placed upon them. I only have a month from commissioning to delivery to turn around a Contributoria article, a newspaper writer only has so many columns to tell you a full story and we can all only produce within the limitations of our knowledge and our tools.

It is easy to capture moments, but harder to tell a story. Yet, I think, we’re increasingly telling ourselves that we are all storytellers. There’s a danger here that we hide behind our tools and forget to tell stories. There’s a danger that we are so enamoured by the potential of our personal media devices that we don’t ask for help. We don’t expect there to be places where we can go for help. We just upload, and we hope.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: