The News is Coming: Local News with SMS

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jul 09, 2008

The news is coming. Or at least that's what Guy Berger titled his Knight News Challenge project, which aims to connect diverse populations in Grahamstown, South Africa to news through mobile phone- based citizen journalism and news delivery. Berger, head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University was recently awarded a Knight News Challenge grant, which funds "digital information innovations that transform community life."

Berger talked with MobileActive about the project. "This is hyperlocal," he said. "It is to expand the town square of Grahamstown in terms of information and opinion flows." The "citizen journalists" will be high school students. In August, Berger's group will conduct workshops with 80 students separated into classes of 20. Each class will have two Saturday workshops about what it means to be a citizen journalist. The students will then submit news stories via SMS. "We'll be exposing young people's views to the rest of the community," Berger said. "We'll be crossing generational boundaries as well as racial and language boundaries." A selection of the SMS contributions will be printed in the school-owned community newspaper, Grocott’s Mail, and SMS messages with news will also be sent to community members.

The content will reflect issues of importance to young people, Berger said. He said that possible stories could include reports on teen pregnancies and authorities neglecting school infrastructure and services. "We've had a problem with xenophic violence, and one of the stories that they could do would be to go to a school assembly and take polls on perspectives towards foreigners," Berger said.

Although the cost of the program and SMS messages will be supported by the Knight grant in the coming year, Berger said he hopes to eventually develop a sustainable business model so that the project can continue. Berger's university students will experiment with different business models. He said that they've considered having advertising at the bottom of SMS news messages, although this would take up about 40 characters, allowing even less message space for the news.  Berger says he plans to use an SMS gateway, possibly Kannel, to a Drupal CMS.

In the future, Berger hopes that the program will expand and possibly include other technologies like MMS (multimedia) messages. "We want to interface with the newspaper website, and we're developing open source software to link the two," he said. Berger said that there would also be research into the effectiveness of the project. "Then we're also going to research next year the significance of this whole project," he said. "Is it making a difference? What does it mean for democracy to have a lot of citizen journalism and to have young people contributing to the public opinion?"

However, Berger does anticipate that there will be challenges. He said that writing news in 160 characters is likely to be difficult for many of the students. "It's hard, especially if it's your second language and you're doing it in English," he said. "It's almost like telling a story in a headline or a Haiku." Another challenge, he said, will be getting content that is meaningful to both the teenage journalists and the rest of the population.

Overall, Berger hopes the project will be a test of whether mobile phones can help to bridge the digital divide. "You have really big digital divide in this part of the world, and it will take 10-15 years before people have computers and electricity and Internet," he said. "We have a mainstream media here that is fairly limited in terms of its reach and doesn't allow for interactivity. There is some phone and talk back radio, but it's not quite the same as tapping into user generated content and instant polling. Can you use mobile devices in Africa to subsitute for computers and Internet?" With "The news is coming," Berger hopes that the answer is yes.

Check out this video from to hear Berger talk about the project. The video was shot on a Nokia N95.

Guy Berger

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