Messing about with mobile

Playing with the potential for cellphones to become devices for interactive journalism: that’s the gist of an experiment being lined up at Rhodes University’s journalism school where I teach.

The four-year project is thanks to MTN underwriting a Chair of Media and Mobile Communications worth R4-million, and a grant of the same size from the United States-based Knight Foundation.

The whole initiative will enable young people in Grahamstown to have fun messing around with cellphones in search of formulae to turn the gadgets into a serious platform for journalism.

The idea is to intervene in a context where most cellphone use is still for interpersonal business, rather than participation in mass communication.

Some South Africans use SMSs to vote for celebs or to contribute comments to tickers on television, but using cellphones to send and receive journalistic content regularly is far from mainstream.

As cellphones become more powerful and their screens get bigger, and as the mass media take on board the value of citizen journalism, so the South African public information circuit can extend across the digital divide.

Part of the Rhodes project is using cellphone power to cultivate citizen journalists among local high-school learners. This is a constituency too often bypassed by mainstream news.

An example emerged at recent Rhodes workshops with Grahamstown learners, dealing with the skills to write letters to newspaper editors about the government’s proposed school pledge. A topical subject, one may think—but none of the young people in the sessions had even heard about the controversial proposal.

Over the next year, the cellphone journalism project will offer 80 senior scholars a chance to be part of the information loop by getting targeted news feeds on their cellphones. The content will be about local politics, school news, sports and entertainment, and emanate in part from the Grocott’s Mail newspaper and Rhodes journalism students.

Perhaps more significantly, the other side of the coin is enabling the learners to use phones to contribute reportage to the same cellphone news service, and to have that content appear on the Grocott’s pages and website. For instance, at school assembly they could poll their peers on the pledge issue, and SMS in a report of the vote.

The envisaged two-way traffic will initially be SMS-based. This poses interesting challenges due to the short format required, but in time, the project will develop open-source software to allow for longer messages and direct peer-to-peer publishing by cellphone.

Come 2009, there will be experiments with audio and video content, designed to yield insight into optimum genres for news consumption on cellphones.

Next year will also entail work on a business model to sustain the costs of this new platform for journalism. A year later, there will be master’s-level research findings into the civic significance of bringing young people into a local news sphere.

What will complement the project is the national introduction of digital broadcasting to cellphones over the next few years—a development that will encourage widespread use of the devices for media consumption. For its part, Rhodes will concentrate on the interactive side, aiming for greater production of mobile media content by citizens—not just greater consumption.

The entire experiment will be valuable for a mass-media industry that is wrestling with increasing competition from new online players supplying information and/or attracting advertising.

Because no one quite knows the shape, source or sustainability of tomorrow’s journalism, this particular project is a prime opportunity to unleash young people’s trial-and-error creativity towards creating the future.

As the results emerge, they will be communicated via blogging, publications and demonstrations at conferences.

It is South African government policy in general that universities are supposed to generate graduates fit for purpose—meaning in the case of journalism schools, students qualified to work in the media.

Overshadowed by such a vocational focus, however, is the role of universities as hotbeds of research and innovation—with a community service benefit. This mix is exactly what Rhodes is hoping to achieve with this project.

That’s manifest in the title of the scheme: “Iindaba Ziyafika”—meaning “the news is coming”. Let it come.

Guy Berger is current coordinator of the project. He was video-interviewed on it while in Canada recently, and the Nokia N95 cellphone clip was instantly uploaded to the web. While most South Africans can’t do that kind of journalism now, that mass capacity is not too far off

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