Commentary: Mobile Journalism: A Model for the Future

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by Allissa Richardson

We used to tell ourselves stories in order to live, according to famed author Joan Didion, who offers us this classic line in her seminal book of essays, The White Album. But in the digital age, with the help of mobile devices, we tell our stories in order to rebel — and the cellular chant is rising. This is what I tell my journalism students around the world when they ask me what our industry’s future holds.

For the last two years, I have launched and led an international journalism experiment that criss-crosses nearly a dozen cities in South Africa, Morocco and the United States. It is called the MOJO Lab. I train youth to become mobile journalists (MOJOs) who use devices like iPods and tablets to report news.

I came to believe in mobile journalism at the height of the Arab Spring. As nations across the Middle East and North Africa erupted into a series of citizen-led protests in late 2010, I watched ordinary citizens depose leaders like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

When international journalists were banned from reporting in Iran during its controversial elections, citizen journalists kept their camera phones, and the revolutions, rolling. In fact, the only footage we have of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi ’s capture from a drain hole came from a MOJO using a camera phone. My MOJO Lab was born from this spirit of democratized, instantaneous, visceral storytelling.

In July 2011, I took the MOJO Lab to Johannesburg, South Africa, and put iPods in the hands of 10 HIV-positive girls. The young women ranged in age from 15 to 23, and none of them owned a computer at home. Some of the girls were enrolled in school, and occasionally competed for screen time in overcrowded classrooms with their peers. Others dropped out of school when they realized they were HIV-positive.

Some girls relied on expensive, yet spotty Internet connections from cell phones. Some of these girls were mothers already. Others would never bear children, since they were raped at early ages and suffered shattered wombs. These stories, I learned, did not mirror Joan Didion’s 1979 list of commonly told tales: “The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy; will lead the children into the sea.” In the worlds of the Zulu princesses I taught, many of the girls were trapped instead in cycles of violence, self-doubt and the urge to cry out — even when no one was listening. Then, along came the digital age, and a tiny device gave them a voice.

I had watched the same process of self-actualization emerge in my students at Morgan State University back in Baltimore, Md., where the MOJO Lab began. In 2010, I was awarded a $25,000 grant after winning a national journalism innovation competition called New Voices. The contest gave seed money to community newsrooms that promised to give voice to the disenfranchised. I thought Baltimore could benefit from such a news experiment after its stinging depiction in the HBO drama series, “The Wire.” I watched my students at Morgan State go from fumbling with the tiny, shiny iPod touchscreens, to editing full news packages within one hour. They wrote about budget cuts to Baltimore City public school education, Black theater in the city, and unsung activists who made a difference.

In Johannesburg, the girls’ stories were grittier. They penned poetry about famine. They ran to record live reports about community riots. They grew angry when they visited wealthier townships that had flourished after Apartheid’s end, compared to the unchanged shantytowns where descendants of gold miners lived. They cried. They filmed. They edited. They told their stories in order to rebel.

On the last day of my month-long stay in South Africa, we celebrated the girls’ “graduation” into the field of journalism.

As the girls hugged me goodbye, one young lady told me she loved being a MOJO, and that she planned to become a teacher too. She shared that she had already taught the head librarian how to use the iPod to record and edit. She said she was going to teach her younger sister next. Nearby, the six-year-old fiddled with a camera phone. She took our picture.

I realize I might not see my young MOJO, or her little sister, ever again. If neither of them can get to a computer to drop me an occasional line, I will have to tell myself a story in order to live. I will see the both of them, in my mind’s eye, running through Soweto as grown women. They will be strong. They will have iPods in their purses. They will have microphones in their hands. They will have a story on their lips. And they will smile. They are the future of journalism.

Allissa Richardson is the National Association of Black Journalists’ 2012 Journalism Educator of the Year.

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