Project proposal, June 2012

Simon Pipe
MA Online Journalism project proposal

Introduction

St Helena Online (www.stehelenaonline.org) began as a simple experiment in blogging but has developed into an online news service. It has found a place in the life of the St Helenian community on the island and overseas, partly through its partnership with an island newspaper, the St Helena Independent, and its sister radio station, Saint FM.

It covers the British overseas territory of St Helena, which includes the South Atlantic islands of Tristan da Cunha (the world’s most remote inhabited island) and Ascension. Occasional stories are carried about the sister territories of the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands.

St Helena is a mountainous island of 47 square miles to the west of Africa, with no other land within a thousand miles save even-smaller Ascension, 700 miles to the north. It has no airport, but one is due to open in 2015 – with the hope that tourists arriving by air will give the island a meaningful economy for the first time in decades (Pipe, 2012). The alternative is that its shrinking population, currently around 4,000 people, continues to receive UK aid in excess of £20million a year, which includes the cost of running its supply ship, the RMS St Helena.

I first went to St Helena for five months in 1996 when my wife was employed there as a locum doctor. Although the partners of expatriate workers were not allowed to take paid jobs, I worked as a volunteer presenter at Radio St Helena. I returned to the island with my family for a month’s visit in 2009, re-establishing strong contacts on the island. I have maintained an interest in island affairs since our first visit.

  • brief summary of the proposed project (medium involved; aims; number of elements);

St Helena Online is an internet news service. The site itself is simple: broadly speaking, a catalogue of conventional news stories, with pictures where available. Comments are published where submitted, but with limited take-up. Content closely matches the style of online news material produced by BBC News online journalists in the English regions, which tends not to make much use of multi-media content (personal experience).

Essentially, the site is a local news service, operated remotely at a distance of 5,000 miles away, with obstacles such as very high cost of phone calls (approximately £1.50 per minute), which rule out conventional means of working.

There is innovation in the way news is gathered and in partnership working, which I deal with later.

Key aims are:

  1. to find a way to make the site sustainable beyond the end of the MA project period;
  2. to explore the potential of the site to provide material that can be re-worked for freelance submission for other media, and to contribute to my own career in other ways;
  3. to identify the most appropriate role for the site, given finite resources (especially time);
  4. to explore further the potential of partnership working with non-professionals;
  5. to support independent media on St Helena;
  6. to help press for more open government on St Helena;
  7. to foster understanding of issues affecting the island, such as the causes of extremely high prevalence of diabetes, and the establishment of an enterprise culture on St Helena;
  8. to establish me as a media expert on St Helena and British Overseas Territories, and develop a personal brand.

 

1 Sustainability: I do not believe the site has significant commercial potential, partly because of the small pool of people interested and the small number businesses interested in reaching that cash-poor audience. I also feel it would be inappropriate to compete for income with media operations on the island, which struggle to survive financially (one is wholly funded by government).

In my case, sustainability means the ability to manage the workload, and refine the product to minimize that burden – and the impact on family life. I might decide to operate the site only on key days of the week (I have fewer hits on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays), or try to set specific times for working on it. My last role at the BBC involved working from home and balancing work and family life was a challenge taken seriously by me and by my managers.

2: The island has some curiosity value for the mainstream news media – I have placed one story with The Independent – but many happenings in St Helena would be of interest to specialist media. For instance, an “eco” golf course is to be created, providing habitat for the island’s unique and critically-endangered wirebird: of interest, potentially, to publications dealing with golf, birds, environment and tourism. However, I have limited experience of pursuing freelance work of this kind, and thus far, have spent so much time writing the website that I have had little time to seek paid work exploiting the material generated. Resolving this is a key aim. I also wish to explore the extent to which running the site gives me contacts and access to stories that I would not otherwise have: what added value would I get from the site, as a freelance?

A potential model is http://nhsmanagers.net/, a site for NHS managers that is run by a journalist. It makes little money, but costs little money; however, its founder has built a career as a conference speaker that may not have developed without the site.

3: What is the most appropriate role for the site? The island has two newspapers and two radio stations, but no trained journalists. I am not physically well placed to write about what happens on the island, because I am not there; on the other hand, my journalism is better and I am confident it contributes to the quality of information that reaches the public. Should I, though, concentrate on island-related stories in the UK and in other countries? My major stories thus far have been an interview with the Secretary of State for International Development in Swindon, UK, (Mitchell, 2012) and a cricket tournament in South Africa (Pipe, 2012).

4: I rely heavily on relationships with non-journalists: information on Tristan da Cunha comes from an island-watcher in the Caribbean and the island’s UK representative in Birmingham; on St Helena’s internet from an expert in Germany; photographs from the island and from past island visitors in the UK and California; and so on. I have a close working partnership with the St Helena Independent newspaper, which makes heavy use of my material but gives me access to photographs of island events, and factual help. There is scope for research in this area, and comparison with similar operations among diaspora and exiled communities.

In June 2012 I met Jonathan Clingham, a St Helenian living in Chippenham, UK who runs an online “portal” for the St Helenian diaspora (http://www.clickonsthelenaisland.com/welcome/?page_id=193). We have discussed ways we can support each other – he carries a feed of my stories. I have suggested that he should take on the work that is beyond the scope of St Helena Online: for instance, running websites for island and diaspora groups that do not have them, and providing a comprehensive hub for all island-related sites (something that would not be achievable in most areas of UK life, but which is very possible in a constrained and small community with defined social boundaries)

5: In March 2012, a new media organization was launched on St Helena with 100% government funding, but unlike its predecessor, allowed to compete with the St Helena Independent for advertising. As a result, the Independent folded but was relaunched within a month, through the efforts of businesses and wellwishers. St Helena Online was part of the rescue package, through its agreement to provide copy. In fact, the partnership brings benefits but also burdens – especially in meeting deadlines and managing expectations. I am not convinced the newspaper will survive without my support, which may well end in September.

6: My interview with the International Development Secretary included a question about transparency; it sparked the launch of a Facebook campaign on the island for open government (http://www.facebook.com/TransparencySaintHelena). At present, for instance, council agendas and reports are not published (and the meetings are not attended by the island media). Reporting of meetings is done by the governor, who is a Foreign Office official – an extraordinary situation. By repeatedly asking to see such documents, I hope I can help to break down the culture of secrecy on the island, where censorship of government-owned media is a recent memory – I experienced it in 1996. I have received some documents, and not others, and have had varying success securing statements from St Helena Government. Interestingly, this happens under a British administration.

St Helena Online is intended to be largely impartial (St Helena Independent, 2012), but on this issue I may be willing to campaign.

7: A motive for publishing St Helena Online is to improve access to information. This speaks for itself.

8: I anticipate having a portfolio career, after many years working full-time at the BBC. My hope is that writing and broadcasting on St Helena and British Overseas Territories affairs will provide a component of that career. The site supports that aspiration. Over the next three months I will seek to observe the extent to which it gives me credibility as a media expert, or indeed, helps media outlets to find me. In May 2012 I received an unsolicited call from the BBC’s Panorama programme, from a producer investing the activities of Lord Ashcroft, who is suspected to have a hidden financial interest in St Helena.

This month the UK Government is expected to publish a White Paper on its relationship with the British Overseas Territories (FCO, 2011). As part of that, it conducted a public consultation; one of the questions sought ideas for increasing public awareness of the territories. I responded, suggesting that this could be fostered through support for media services in the territories, and this was referred to in an independent report on the consultation responses.

  • evaluation of your role (your ability to carry out project tasks and responsibilities);

I am a trained journalist of 32 years’ standing. I have worked in newspapers as a reporter, feature writer and sub-editor, and spent a year at BBC News Online as a web producer. I have some other internet experience – including, this week, launching a village website at www.ettington.org. My journalism is strong; even so, I have found myself having to adopt new ways of working, especially in sourcing and verifying stories.

I do have significant technical shortcomings, but I have some support available to me. I am learning the technical side of web production slowly.

  • evaluation of the professional context (audiences & markets, competing productions or services, and the rationale for your project);

Rationale: My motivation for starting St Helena Online was partly to establish myself as a media expert on the South Atlantic territories (I also produced the BBC World Service programme, Calling the Falklands, in 1999/2000), and partly to develop my own online skills through a niche product.

However, I felt some frustration – and guilt – at my inability to write stories to raise awareness about the islanders’ difficulties during my years working full-time for the BBC, though I did produce a small amount of material.

Audiences:

My readers can be broken down into four groups:

St Helenians on St Helena (approx. 4,000)
St Helenians overseas, especially in the UK (8,000-10,000 estimate)
Expatriates in St Helena, mostly British (perhaps 100)
Non-Saints who take an interest in island affairs, mostly UK (no figures)

The site is not aimed at Falkland Islanders or Tristanians: stories about their islands are included for the interest of St Helenian readers.

Although I do have St Helenian readers on the island, an issue is that most do not have good access to the internet. Even the few people on the island who can afford “gold” internet access (Cable & Wireless, 2012) find download speeds extremely slow. For this reason, there is minimal use of multi-media material.

Markets: The site itself is non-commercial and has no market, as such. The markets for freelance spin-off work are likely to be in the following fields:

Shipping (I have had a piece accepted by Sea Breezes magazine)
Aviation (the island’s first airport is being built)
Travel and tourism
Environmental affairs (the island has many endemic species of plants, invertebrates and marine life, as well as “the world’s rarest tree”)
Golf
Archaeology, including marine archaeology (the island has significant Colonial history, and the excavation of the graves of 300 liberated slaves on the island attracted worldwide attention)
Animals (a giant tortoise on the island is claimed to be the world’s oldest known living creature – I have an untold story about its sex life)
Politics (the campaign for open government)
and Sailing

Professional context: Few other journalists have experience of St Helena, and none have my depth of experience or contacts. Even so, there are some staff writers on national newspapers who take an interest in the island, and they could be regarded as competition. For this reason, I have chosen not to promote some of my stories through Twitter (which appears not to be well used by St Helenians).

Competition: The newly-formed, government-funded St Helena Broadcasting Corporation, launched on 29 March 2012 (www.shbc.sh) does have online news, but it is not maintained daily and it has no professional journalists. The SHBC’s newspaper, The Sentinel, is available online for free but concentrates on feature material, and the intention is to put it behind a paywall at some stage in the future (Pipe, 2012). Although The Sentinel is nominally a competitor for the St Helenian audience, I do not regard this as a significant challenge; on the other  hand, I am clear that it is not the place of St Helena Online to undermine the SHBC. My concern is that I may be doing so.

People on St Helena have begun writing blogs (Richards, 2012, and Turner, 2012), and although they clearly constitute competition, I have sought to have a co-operative relationship with the bloggers involved; I will link to their posts, and one of them, John Turner, is a valued source of information and advice. We have never met.

There is no other competition, in that the only other only media outlet, the St Helena Independent – which is published weekly as a .pdf document (http://www.saint.fm/Independent/index.htm) – is now in partnership with St Helena Online. However, it seems likely that my own hit rate has been dented because some readers choose to read my stories in the newspaper rather than by visiting the website. This is something I shall monitor, but I do not have a stable, established pattern of views on which to base any assessment.

  • project approach and management (focus and style of project and the control and management of the project as it progresses)

St Helena Online has grown organically – it began as a blog with the title, The Island That Was Eaten By Goats (Pipe, 2012) – and “management”, up to now, has largely been a matter of responding to opportunities, ideas and challenges as they have arisen.

Developing and maintaining a strong network of contacts has been a key objective, and this continues. To this end, I have joined the Friends of St Helena (overcoming a personal reluctance to do so).

As my engagement with the island has increased, so I have had to rely less on stories found via Google alerts from St Helena’s sister islands, and especially the Falkland Islands. However, St Helenians make up a third of the population of the Falkland Islands, and so there is likely to be an interest. I intend to experiment with covering the sister islands – and possibly other territories – by running stories of only one or two sentences that link to other media.

Control of the project thus far has been entirely my own. The advantage of this is that I can impose my own journalistic and ethical standards. The disadvantage is that it is not sustainable in the long term. I have attempted to encourage other people to write for the site: difficulties of distance, isolation and lack of experience among St Helenians have contributed to my failure thus far. My preferred approach is to give people a free hand in writing, and run their material under a covering “standfirst” paragraph. I have used this in two cases where I have asked permission to re-use material that has appeared elsewhere.

I have adopted a policy of crediting St Helena Government if I use material from the press office largely unchanged, or acknowledging it as a source if the story does not make it clear where the information has come from. I use external and internal links extensively for this reason.

The style of the project is derived from my experience of working at BBC News Online in the early days of its English Regions section: essentially, a list of stories in descending order. The writing style derived from the same source, but without the rule of having the essential facts of the story contained within the first four paragraphs, because I believe I am not constrained by the need for my stories to be easily readable on hand-held devices (there is no mobile phone network on St Helena).

  • timetable (including work already completed, stages of the work; deadlines);

November 2011: initial work on site structure

20 January 2012: launch of The Island That Was Eaten By Goats

March 2012: relaunch of the site as St Helena Online, with subsequent change to the URL.

March 2012: first use of an audio slideshow (hosted on YouTube)

27 March 2012: new partnership with the revived St Helena Independent

June 2012: transfer from Coventry University to Birmingham City University in order to continue running the site

8 June 2012: first use of forward-scheduled publishing

11 June 2012: draw up a list of potential freelance material from stories already researched, and potential outlets. Begin to seek commissions. Discuss with BCU.

late June 2012: adopt a more appropriate layout for the site, using a premium WordPress theme.

July 2012: publish a podcast about the slave graves on St Helena (already recorded)

20 July 2012: six month anniversary of the launch of the site. Seek potential funding for the site to continue in some form.

Early August 2012: I need to have a strategy in place for maintaining a modest flow of material when I take time off for a family holiday.

1 September 2012: Publish my 400th story (250 already published). Target number of views: 40,000.

  • form of final submission (items to be handed in).

Aside from the site itself, I intend to submit individual pieces of content, including a podcast about the slave grave excavations on St Helena.

I will also submit:

an excel file of St Helena contacts
a print-out of the site statistics
access to the site dashboard
any published freelance work
copies of promotional pieces (for example, in The St Helena Connection magazine)
a sample copy of the St Helena Independent containing stories from St Helena Online

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