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Out of crisis comes an opportunity to create new ways to get communities involved in our reporting.

A reporter’s contact book may be their most closely guarded possession, and rightly so. It is hard-earned intellectual property – a product of nurturing sources and chasing stories. But what if newsrooms had a rich and open network of contacts for all their reporters, enhancing journalism across the board?

The Cable has a small team of 10 staff running on a slim budget, but we do have a community of 2,100 members who can give our reporting an edge. 

Increasingly we are turning to our members as a rich resource of knowledge and lived experience. Our reporters have worked closely (albeit virtually) with readers to source tip-offs, fact-check and get vital stories out there. They have connected with teachers, young unemployed people, migrant care workers, to name a few.

We often survey members to give us a steer on what issues they want covered to help shape our news agenda. We also get them involved in our reporting too. For example, Cable members were vital in investigations into the use of isolation in schools and stress driving people out of education. Teachers, parents and other people working in the sector responded to our call-outs and gave the stories depth and human voices.

An image from the prototype database. Note: placeholder text, images and names

This call-out was effective, but it was a low tech and non-systematic way of working. And, it highlighted a question: how could we learn who was who among our membership to improve our journalism and better serve community needs?  

To solve that question, we are embarking on a pilot project. Before the pandemic, the Cable won grant funding from the Nesta Future News Pilot Fund to collaborate with communities in reporting. The grant funding is part of a £2m project by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to support innovation in a media sector facing a deep crisis. We are using that money to test a new concept which we’re calling Cable Links in the local journalism arena.

A member tagging system is being built, whereby members can log their profession, expertise, lived experiences, interests, and where they live. All of this will be stored on our community relationship manager. As such, we hope to swiftly identify and interview relevant members to assist in fact-checking, providing tip-offs and quotes. And better still, have members share valuable information without waiting to be approached.  

An example of a member profile from the prototype database. Note: placeholder text, images and names

The next time we cover youth crime, our team will be able to swiftly contact the youth workers, activists, policy wonks, young people and lawyers among our members and invite them to join a closed circle to flesh out a story together. A Cable reporter will then be tasked with curating the conversation, funneling ideas and feedback into published work.  

Anyone who has been to our community events and member forums, all now on pause during the pandemic, will know that this isn’t our first foray into community engagement. But this is a complex endeavour, which may or may not pay off, with many issues to navigate. From ensuring people engage with the project, to protecting personal data and safeguarding sensitive sources to ensure trust and confidence. 

To help us along the way, digital agency and worker-owned cooperative, Outlandish, are assisting with product design, prototyping and testing. 

Our priority is to serve community needs, and not add to the technology graveyard of well-intentioned open source engagement projects, which aren’t fit for purpose. We are turning to other trailblazers in the arena of stakeholder-driven media and citizen engagement for guidance, including The Correspondent, MySociety and the Texas Tribune.  

One thing is certain. This cannot be a one way street where the journalist simply ploughs members for information. In doing this deal, journalists will grow their contacts from dozens to hundreds, perhaps thousands. And readers turn from passive consumers of media to active users with a real stake in journalism to aid better reporting.

Get in touch with Cable Membership Coordinator Lucas Batt if you want to find out more, collaborate or simply share your thoughts: lucas@thebristolcable.org

Are you a Cable member with experience of mental health services? Help inform our reporting on mental health services for an upcoming series.

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