Grocott's Mail: A Local Newspaper Embraces Mobile Phones

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jul 14, 2010

[Updated with images] In Grahamstown, South Africa, getting and sharing news is a mobile experience. Grocott’s Mail, a local paper, incorporates mobile phones into many aspects of its news service – from disseminating headlines via SMS, to encouraging readers to text in their opinions, to a Knight Challenge-winning citizen journalist training program.

The paper, which sells 6,400 copies each week, is a good example of how mobiles can create a richer news experience for both readers and publishers. Harry Dugmore, a professor at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University who runs the Iindaba Ziyafika program with Grocott’s Mail says, “The inspiration for the whole project is trying to democratize news and information and put it into the hands of more people, give people more access to it, and create more participation – not just one-way, top-down communication.”

Creating Reader Engagement

Grocott’s Mail, which published its first print edition in 1870, launched an online version of the paper in 2006. The website, now called Grocott’s Mail Online, uses a customized content management system called Nika (built on Drupal) that allows for a smooth computer-to-mobile transition.

The Nika content management system: 

Grocott's Mail Online has a page for SMS opinions from readers in addition to the normal editorial content; readers can text the paper with their responses to articles, tips for stories, or general information and see those texts translated into non-text speak and put online or in the paper. Nika sorts SMSs and incorporates them directly into the newspaper’s system, automating what had previously been a manual process. The SMS pages lets local citizens share their opinions, and see their words in print. 

An example of an SMS opinion in the paper:

Another way in which local citizens are engaged is through the paper’s citizen journalist training program. However, Dugmore is quick to differentiate the citizen journalists from the general online community saying, “We think journalism and citizen journalism is quite a special thing, and we make quite an effort to distinguish it from user generated content and from community participation.” 

The six-week training program teaches students how to frame a story, how to create a narrative, how to access sources, and how to interview them. So far four of the courses have been taught (it launched in September, 2009), and according to Dugmore, the program has evolved to be an important part of the paper. He says, “We’ve gone from getting two pieces of citizen journalism a month to one for almost every issue.” 

The citizen journalists use mobile phones as a supplementary tool in their work, not as a substitute for old-fashioned journalism techniques. Dugmore explains that although the students use their mobiles for sharing breaking SMS news alerts and taking photographs, they’ve often found it easier to take notes with a paper and pencil and then write out the stories on Grocott’s Mail’s computers. However, he says that they still train the citizen journalists on using the phones as cameras and for audio recording, and that the use of mobile phones is part of the curriculum.

The citizen journalism room at Grocott's Mail: 


Getting The Word Out

For readers who want to stay up to date on the latest headlines, Grocott’s Mail has an SMS headline alert system. The free program, which users text to sign up for, sends out the paper’s top headlines twice a week – the print edition comes out every Tuesday and Friday, as do the SMS headline alerts. The program launched a few months ago, and Dugmore says that there are several hundred subscribers so far. 

In addition to the SMS alerts the paper is also developing another way to reach its readers – using mobile instant messaging to directly send the news to their subscribers. Dugmore explains that this will be a good addition to the current SMS headline system because it will give subscribers a more thorough news experience, while being a cost-effective news dissemination tool for the paper (which covers the cost of the SMSs). He adds, “The other nice thing about IM is that you’re not restricted, like SMS, to just headlines. If you want to, you can send a whole IM or the whole story “

The paper has already developed a GoogleTalk version of the instant messaging system and is currently finalizing a MXit version; they plan to launch the tool by the end of the summer – meaning that users even if they don’t have a high-end phone, can have what Dugmore calls a “smartphone experience.”

Finally, Grahamstown NOW is the paper's mobile web portal, designed so that mobile users can access the paper's website in a readable, sortable manner. 

For papers that want to keep readers engaged, mobiles can be the right tool. It allows for personal interaction between the readers and the paper.  Says Dugmore on why Grocott’s Mail has gone so mobile:

“We were looking for ways to create more spaces where people could get news and information about things that were useful, and [also] looking for ways that possibly people could come together to see if there were common issues or areas where they might be able to make a difference in their own lives.”

Grocott's Mail

Photos by Prabhas Pokharel

Grocott's Mail: A Local Newspaper Embraces Mobile Phones data sheet 4446 Views
Countries: South Africa

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