Why is Community Media Important – A Quick Outline

I’ve been asked to provide a policy outline as to why I believe community media is important. The challenge was to write this at short-notice and submit it at the last minute, so these are thoughts and statements that I’ve whizzed-out from the top of my head.

Being well-connected means being informed and empowered with an active voice, with which we can discuss and debate socially relevant information, share our experience of what it means to belong, and facilitate change and the development of shared resources by playing an active role in the decision-making process. When we think about community connectedness, however, the forms of social infrastructure that are included in the thinking about resource provision, are often limited to transport and IT services. There is seldom any discussion of the role of media. In the UK there are over two hundred and eighty active community radio stations. They are run on a not-for-profit basis and seek to address issues of social concern.

There is little recognition, however, for this work that is undertaken in the community media sector. This means that the transformative work of people supporting community radio, local reporting and local video projects, is missed from debates like this. Radio, for example, has a significant role to play in fostering local information, companionship, a sense of identity. The problem in the UK is this is not viewed as attractive in policy terms, and it does not have the cachet of digital media. The economic policies of the government are focussed on the marketisation of our media, which is leading to increased consolidation in media ownership, and a hollowing of skills and local engagement. The co-operatisation of our local media, as an alternative to the fixed mindset of communications infrastructure, would benefit media plurality, diversity, access and local accountability.

The policy as it stands at present doesn’t have a role for locally produced, independent, not-for-private-profit media, that is accountable to local communities, which is accessible to people in those communities, and which is independently financed and managed in a way that provides social benefits to those communities. It would be encouraging to see discussions and deliberations that recognised the community media ethos as a valuable tool for social deliberation, social cohesion, and the shifting of responsibility and accountability for news and information away from top-down and centrally managed organisations, who often have no concern for life in our neighbourhoods.

There is discussion and funding being made available via Nesta and other organisations to test new business models for hyper-local journalism, but little provision is given to training and skills development for independent editorial production and engagement. The co-operative model, however, could champion a different model of media reform that is based on a decentralised approach to socially focussed participative media, which is accessible to ordinary people in their local towns and neighbourhoods, and not reliant on professionalised and mass-marketed forms of international entertainment.

Our local media sector is in serious decline, though there is no lack of interest in local news and stories. People want reliable and trustworthy information that our local news organisations are no longer able to provide because of the competition they have faced from international data corporations. A simple model for changing this decline in local media is to adopt the view that if we want better media, then we have to be able to come together to make it ourselves. If we leave local media decision-making to the tech companies and social media conglomerates, then we will destroy the sense of accountability that holds local communities together.

No one from Google, Twitter or Facebook is concerned about the impact of fake or negative stories on the people who live in my neighbourhood, and yet they have disproportionate power over these matters, that can’t be influenced, and can’t be affected. We need to champion and provide resources for citizens who are locally-empowered to make their own media, and to engage with their communities through traditional forms of media, and to be able to experiment and contribute to the development of new and emerging forms of media.

We need to give financial support and development resources to local community groups to establish and create their own models and practices of media engagement. These need to be on a not-for-private-profit basis, with a strong focus on the social economy and the role of communications as a contributor to social well-being and social value. This is both a participative approach and an audience-based approach. People need to be able to travel to their local community media group or radio station and take part in the programme-making, the conversations and discussion that take place on-air, and the decision-making and governance processes that ensure that these models of media participation are locally accountable, locally engaged and locally relevant.

One of the best ways to bring about social change is if the people who are affected by change are able to identify with and learn from the experiences of people like themselves. This means increasing the diversity of people who have access to our media, who are trained and capable of making are media, and who have the resources to sustain their contributions in a meaningful as well as a financial way. The lack of social diversity in our media organisations should be a cause of major concern.

This means, however, challenging the dominant mass-media model, which was fixed in the Twentieth century with the rise of mass newspapers, radio, television and cinema, and replaced with a model that is community focussed, and which takes advantage of the changes in technology that make decentralisation of our media systems possible, and the interconnections of separately operating networks of producers, practitioners, and champions of voice diversity to be recognised for the contribution that they make to a new category of communications, focussed on social value. Social value communications are tied with the SROI and social investment models, and support civic engagement, deliberation and self-representation.

By developing the model of social value communications, there is an opportunity to redefine the thinking and policy approaches to media and communications, and to embed local community media projects within the social economy, so that they can draw on different approaches to business development, independence, training, facilitation and content creation. With the rise of blockchain technologies, our media environment is going to change considerably. We are going to see many of the traditional media organisations swept-away by the shift to a decentralised form of value creation, in which individual producers, not the gatekeepers and warehouses of financial value, will acquire increased prominence.

We need to explore and develop a financial and economic model that recognises these shifts and changes in the economy, that empower people to contribute to them, and which bases them on strong social values, such as those represented by the co-operative movement and the mutual societies. We need to start thinking and planning for what these models would be like, and how they can implement a contributory approach that recognises the positive value that is created by all participants acting at all levels to create meaningful and accountable social media content.

We need a commitment to widespread and engaged life-long learning, so that people have access to the creative media resources training that will enable them to produce content and experience what it means to share and discuss that content with their friends and family, within their networks and across their communities. We need to recognise the active role that community media plays in building trust and meaningful experiences, and which allow people to take control of the stories that they tell about themselves.

The infrastructure for this is increasingly cost-effective, as people acquire smart-phones, smart-speakers, and other personal media devices, and as the broadband capacity that we are seeing being rolled out has a meaningful alternative experience for people. Just putting transport links or broadband connections in place, while commendable, is not enough. There has to be a reason for using them. People have to have a meaningful experience that is defined locally to them, and not in a distant office in California. The knock-on effect is greater civic engagement, greater social cohesion and more opportunities for continuous learning and social development.

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