Creating Technology for Social Change

Improving the Visibility of Citizen Journalism in Cambridge

This is a post by Karina, Victor, and MC about our experiences in the Civic Media Codesign class. You can find a timeline showing what we did in the class here.

Our group worked with Cambridge Community Television (CCTV) in the Spring 2013 Civic Media Codesign Studio. CCTV is a community media non-profit in Cambridge with a web-based citizen journalism program called NeighborMedia.


The codesign process was incredibly iterative, and went through five stages.

In the first stage, we explored examples of successful codesign – on a broad level, and specifically in relation to issues similar to CCTV and Design Studio for Social Intervention (the other organization the codesign class worked with). We used these examples to define codesign and understand what makes a codesigned project succeed. We found that some of the best codesign projects not only included stakeholders throughout the whole process, but sparked discussions between stakeholders who may not otherwise meet. An element of playfulness and a clear path to involvement were other key characteristics. In this stage, we also engaged in citizen journalism by reporting our own stories using Locast and a participatory planning exercise to experience first-hand the process of CCTV’s NeighborMedia journalists and the Design Studio for Social Intervention.

In the second stage, we split up into two groups and started working with CCTV. We started by talking with Clodagh Drummey (Associate Director of Programs and Development at CCTV) and Susan Fleischman (Executive Director of CCTV) about the problems they wanted us to address. We came up with the rough problem statement that CCTV’s NeighborMedia program lacks visibility even though it is one of the few local news sources in Cambridge. We also met with one of the NeighborMedia reporters, Saul Tannenbaum, to better understand the program.

After establishing the problem, we started to brainstorm project ideas. While we had Susan and Clodagh in each of our classes, most of our brainstorming was done in separate meetings and calls where they were not present. This later lead to a huge disconnect between our group and CCTV. We were brainstorming mostly high-tech projects that involved things like guerrilla projection and drones/copters. We did not discuss these ideas in detail with CCTV let alone work with them to come up with the ideas in the first place.

In the third stage, we settled on our initial idea of a mini news helicopter/citizen journalist team for the midterm presentation. We hoped a citizen journalist could use a copter to record and project interviews with people on the street. We researched how to make this work technically, came up with a plan for building it, and made a draft video to show how the idea would work. This idea was not well received. It was alienating for the CCTV staff because they had not been involved in the development of the idea and it was more of an interesting technical project than something that addressed their needs. The news helicopter was also not a good fit for the organization’s culture and may have sent the wrong message to people interested in citizen journalism (after all, you do not need expensive and high tech tools like copters to be a citizen journalist). Additionally, CCTV did not have the technical capacity to use a copter in the future.

In the fourth stage, we worked with CCTV and NeighborMedia journalists to completely change our idea. We met right after the midterm review to discuss working on a collection of several lower-tech visibility projects like making coasters, stickers, and fliers. We also realized there was an important group of stakeholders we were including even less than the CCTV staff- the NeighborMedia journalists. We met with one of the NeighborMedia journalists, Saul Tannenbaum, during spring break and finally understood that the NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff represented different constituencies. We also realized the importance of greater collaboration. Up until that point, we had been talking to the CCTV staff about ideas, but it was presentation – not discussion or collaboration.

We set up a meeting after break with several NeighborMedia journalists, CCTV staff, and our team to discuss the problem and brainstorm ideas for our new project. The problem statement (that CCTV’s NeighborMedia program lacks visibility even though it is one of the few local news sources in the news desert of Cambridge) was fairly similar to our original problem statement, but the ideas were completely different. We continued to consider branding for greater visibility of NeighborMedia on stickers, but also included new ideas. These new ideas were things like campaigns around topics of public interest in Cambridge (like budgets, preservation of a mural, and homelessness) and low-tech ways to engage people in public spaces (like asking what people like most about living in Cambridge and allowing them to record their responses on a poster in a T station).

In the fifth stage, we tweaked our project yet again and finished working on it. After the Boston Marathon bombing, we realized that any public issue campaign would go ignored. In a discussion with the NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff, we suggested the Cambridge Responds campaign. Cambridge Responds is a series of articles by NeighborMedia journalists examining Cambridge’s perspective and role in the events around the Boston bombing.

Aside from Cambridge Responds, we made a few other things. We worked with NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff to create a NeighborMedia logo/branding. We turned this into a sticker. Additionally, we developed and discussed a list of suggestions for the NeighborMedia website with the CCTV staff and NeighborMedia journalists. We also compiled a list of tools for storytelling in citizen journalism. We passed this list of storytelling tools and the NeighborMedia stickers out at CCTV’s 25th anniversary event. Finally, we made a detailed guide on how to post NeighborMedia articles and use some of these tools.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes the process is more important than the product. Even though our final products were ultimately not as cool or high-tech as our original idea, they ended up being more useful and sustainable for CCTV. And even though we spent most of our time this semester in meetings – at first, internally, and then increasingly with stakeholders from CCTV and NeighborMedia journalists – rather than actually creating products, the process was in the end beneficial to us as students interested in collaborative design. It was also constructive for the CCTV stakeholders and NM reporters, who said that they could not have organized the #CambridgeResponds campaign otherwise and also would not know how to use these new technologies.

In codesign, ideally there should be no distinction between the stakeholders and the team working on the project. We are all one team, not distinct groups working together. Functioning as one team keeps everyone on the same page when it comes to the problem, development of ideas, and the best solution. Once we started working as more of a team with the NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff, the process was much smoother and more productive for everyone involved.

And it is a really good that we discarded the drone idea. Otherwise we would be trying to fly drones over Cambridge after the bombing.