Jan Bowman

Jan Bowman

Citizen journalist at No Fibs
Jan lives in the Brisbane suburb of West End. She covered the Griffith electorate for No Fibs as a new citizen journalist during the September 2013 federal election and reprised that role for the 2014 Griffith by-election. Jan provides occasional updates on Griffith and stories on Brisbane and West End that capture her interest. Her stories also occasionally appear in The Westender. From 2014 to 2016, in part thanks to the opportunities provided by No Fibs, she took taken up a role as Community Correspondent for the West End with ABC Radio 612 in Brisbane.
Jan Bowman
- 10 hours ago
Jan Bowman

In a sense, the ABC Community Correspondent experience started for me as a result of the No Fibs election project in 2013.2014-05-01 08.40.01

Over the course of the Griffith by-election campaign in early 2014, I became a shameless self-promoter, and when attending launches and other campaign events I would send out live tweets.

After participating in, and live tweeting, a large-scale virtual town hall hook-up with the Liberal National Party Candidate, ABC Radio 612 organised to interview me the following day. I repeated the experience a few days later, this time after a similar Labor Party event, and loved it. Breakfast presenter Spencer Howson tweeted with his usual generosity, “You’re outstanding radio talent, Jan! Thank you”.

I was flattered and when in April 2014 Geoff Ebbs emailed me a link to ABC 612’s invitation for people to audition as Community Correspondents (CC) I thought I could give it a go. I sent in an audition file and was delighted to have been one of the initial 36 participants.

Radio became my focus in the following months and it was through this experience that I really started to find my voice, literally as well as figuratively.

I am a slow writer and I find the immediacy of radio much more to my liking. While I struggle with word limits when writing, the skill of editing a 30-minute interview into a pithy four-minute segment intrigues me. And oddly enough I feel less self-conscious on radio.

The Community Correspondent Project
The CC concept Spencer Howson told me is not entirely new to the ABC. It was trialed on a smaller scale several years ago where a team of people would phone in reports from their local suburbs.

Technological developments, in this case the smartphone, is one of the reasons for the program’s revival. People now have a camera and a recorder in their pockets, and the quality of the audio is good enough for radio.

The BBC has a similar program, but this Brisbane project is the first by the ABC.

The key reason though, for this new project, Spencer said, is so the ABC could expand its listenership and reach. He said the ABC is very conscious that is looks and sounds “very white”.

Each CC represents a geographic region or a social or cultural group. For example, there are CCs who cover the gay and lesbian communities, local sports, the African, Indian, Jewish, and Pacific Islander communities, as well as those of us who cover our local suburbs.

I cover the West End, and there are obvious links between what I do for The Westender and No Fibs.

It is often argued that multimedia is the future for the survival of media outlets and I had hoped that I may have been able to exploit this overlap more effectively, by, for example, linking written pieces with radio stories. I have from time-to-time attempted to do this, but neither No Fibs nor The Westender has encouraged or promoted this approach.

The need for editorial attention
Curiously, the ABC’s CC program was initially run by its marketing department. New recruits were called together for a training day that involved some fairly rudimentary teaching in ABC ethics, interviewing, editing and social media. We each recorded promos, and we were then sent forth to complete our first assignments: a community profile and some local vox pops.

The ABC’s idea was that we would then start finding and filing stories that producers would select if they fitted with their program’s profile.

But within two weeks of the program kicking off, the ABC realised that the content being provided by CCs needed “more editorial attention,” as Bernadette Young put it to me. As an experienced producer, Ms Young’s hours were extended so that she could take on the program’s support, guidance, and editorial advice role.

The ABC has a lot at stake in taking on this program. As a public broadcaster, it has strict editorial policies. So the CCs have been provided with a range of training programs over the course of 2014, from microphone and interviewing techniques, writing for radio, pitching stories, editing and, of course, on ABC standards and ethics.

Most of us have now gone from submitting pretty raw audio, to being able to pitch a story, and if picked up, to submit a complete package in the form of the presenter’s script and a fully edited audio segment. We also usually take photographs and submit them with the package.

Like No Fibs and The Westender, the ABC leaves the decision about story topics and the frequency of submissions to the individual CCs. I have probably done an average of one or two stories a month; others have done less, some many more.

On a couple of occasions, a story idea has been suggested to me by a producer, but the ideas are usually driven by the CCs ourselves.

Unlike my No Fibs experience, I am less likely to do stories with politicians as subjects, primarily because this is bread and butter reporting for the ABC and the job of its paid staff. Also, it can be risky. We are often reminded that impartiality is essential for the ABC and its CCs.

Use your own voice
Nevertheless, there are a number of similarities between the ABC and the No Fibs projects. The focus is on the local, on reporting from within your community. Also like No Fibs, the ABC uses Twitter to promote and distribute stories (linked to our Twitter handles).

And in a similar vein to Margo Kingston’s appeal to write in the first person, the ABC has also asked its CCs to “be yourselves” rather than adopting a polished ABC style or tone.

Bringing alternative voices to a mainstream ABC audience
The great success of the program has been I think for those CCs who represent a cultural group.

The ABC has broadcast CC’s stories on the gay pride ball, Indian women in the Queensland Police Service, African foster families, gay foster families, disabilities, the local impacts of the Ebola crisis, and the effects of funding cuts on local services: all told from the local or insider’s perspective.

Of the African community, CC Akua Afriyie (@afriyie) told me, “there are many great stories in the community that do not get told in the media and this is a great way to begin to tell them,” adding, ”The best feedback I get is that they value most hearing an African voice on mainstream radio. It means a lot to people, and it has been a great motivation for me in taking on the CC role.”

My stories have been  a mix of serious and light. I have covered stories on bicycle safety following the death of a local cyclist, on the impact of the G20 on the homeless, and on a local family of magpies with a penchant for Vietnamese food. Local feedback has been positive, and locals will often alert me to story ideas.

A strong point of the CC program according to Bernadette Young is that “you [CCs] can do things that we can’t. .. you have the knowledge, location, and the time,” she said, adding that while community radio caters to alternative audiences:

“this project brings alternative voices to a mainstream ABC audience”.

It’s about collaboration
Both Spencer Howson and Bernadette Young see the CC program as more collaborative than some other citizen journalism projects.

“We work with you … we are bringing you into the organisation,” Spencer told me.

After starting out with 36 of us, some seven months later 33 were still actively involved with the program. As volunteer programs go, I’d venture that this retention rate is something of a record.

I think most of us would say that we have stayed with it largely due to the considerable support provided by Bernadette, Spencer, and the other producers and presenters. And it has been an enriching experience.

Threatening jobs or the path to survival?
A number of CCs came to the project as trained journalists, and some have seen the CC program as an opportunity to get a foot in the door of radio journalism: indeed one of our number is now a paid field reporter with ABC 612.

Many, like me, came to the project with no professional training or experience, and with no ambition other than giving voice to our communities (and of course for the experience itself).

However, one of the issues people often have with Citizen Journalism and programs such as this one, is the possibility that by writing or working for no pay, we are taking the job of someone who might otherwise be paid.

In the case of No Fibs and The Westender, these concerns are less likely. No -one gets paid in either of those organisations, and they each offer the reader a unique experience. Neither is competing with other sites or publications that do pay their writers.

But the ABC is different. It does employ journalists, and it does compete directly with other media providers. And so there is likely to be some tension between the perceptions of paid staff and volunteers, especially in the current funding environment for the ABC.

Both Spencer and Bernadette say that there was no internal resistance to the CC concept when it was initially proposed, though they admit that some within the organisation might see the program as a threat to jobs.

“It has kind of fundamentally changed our jobs and programs. Because instead of us going out and finding that local, diverse content, we get that mostly from the CCs now. So it has changed what we do.” Bernadette said.

But rather than dispensing with paid resources, Spencer added, the production staff are now spending more time with CCs, helping them to edit and finesse their audio packages. And with Bernadette’s additional role the reality is that there has been a net increase in resources he said.

The CC program is continuing in 2015 and calls have recently gone out for people to audition for the new places. Many of the 2014 recruits are continuing with the program and some will act as mentors for the new comers. But, with growing concerns about recently announced cuts and projected staff losses at the ABC, a few from the 2014 intake have decided not to continue. For them, it is an ethical decision.

One of those who is not continuing gave me permission to cite his Facebook post where he wrote, “I don’t think that the ‘look’ of providing free service to the ABC and so in some small way masking the impact of budget cuts is justified by my love for the work or my enjoyment of the role”.

These comments ignited a lively Facebook conversation. Some CC’s agreed with the sentiments and have also decided to leave the program. Others justify their role as giving a voice to their communities in a way that mainstream media wouldn’t usually touch.

As one CCs said:

“I don’t believe the CC program undermines or replaces the work of ABC journalists. We cover the stories that they wouldn’t generally cover …”

Another added, “I hope we are unearthing the stories that otherwise don’t get told, and we tell them in a raw and natural way.”

The ABC has been respectful to those who have elected to leave while reassuring those who will stay that there have been no job losses at 612 as a result of the CC program.

After some reflection, I decided to continue in 2015.

The nature of media and reporting is changing rapidly – who knows where this will lead?

Through the CC program, ABC 612 is expanding and diversifying its content and its audience. More clarity may be needed about job roles and boundaries for the CC program if paid staff and volunteers are going to continue to support it. This will be part of the challenge for the ABC in 2015.

It seems that journalism or reporting is now a more collaborative process between citizens and the different forms of professional or paid media. The distinctions between professional, paid and citizen journalists are becoming blurred, and there is no going back.

Whether it’s through Twitter, blog sites or community newspapers and radio, we are all engaged in telling the stories of our communities. As a more traditional media organisation, the ABC has tapped into this available local resource. Maybe other traditional media needs to find a way to do this more effectively too, rather than chafing against it: it just may be the path to survival.

As Margo Kingston told me, with particular reference to Twitter,

“The new way of looking at media … is this ecosystem where it’s a genuine collaboration… everyone is giving and receiving. The mainstream media still hasn’t picked this up in many ways”.

Thanks to Mike Burge for his always helpful advice and encouragement and to Margo, Kerrod, Geoff, Spencer, Bernadette, Akua and others for taking the time to talk to me.

Margo Kingston developed her ideas about Citizen Journalism in a series of articles published in No Fibs. The first two were titled “@NoFibs new directions, by Margo Kingston” and “Immersion journalism for democracy”.

Mike Burge has written a number of pieces on the CJ experience. His latest is, “Stand up, citizen journalists“.

Part 1 of this story can be found here