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Cuts to local newsrooms leave gaps that are now increasingly filled, in the UK and Europe at least, by journalists and citizens interested in starting up community sites.

Professor Richard Sambrook, director of Cardiff University's Centre for Journalism, leads a massive open online course (MOOC) in community journalism, which got 10,000 sign-ups from all around the world – up from 8,000 the first time it ran.

"The opportunity is there and in this democratised age of media and information people are able to do it for themselves," he said.

"These may never grow to rival commercial and corporate media, that's not what they're about."

"There's quite a lot of discussion of 'it's just a fad' – I don't believe so at all."

It's not really about revenue. It's about offering a service to the community.Richard Sambrook, Cardiff University's Centre for Journalism
Sixty per cent of those who signed up to the course, which is hosted by FutureLearn and started on Monday, are not from the UK. The course has its roots in research undertaken by Cardiff University's Centre for Community Journalism.

Sambrook said the access to digital technology and particularly free tools creates common ground between community journalists in Afghanistan or Namibia, for example.

"In Africa in some ways they've leapfrogged some technology," he said, "and have access to the ability to work digitally just as you can in Europe and North America."

"In some parts of Asia and Africa actually offering a kind of audio or radio service to mobiles or to the web is a very effective way of reaching people as well," he said.

So if you want to start a community site, what do you need to know to give yourself the best chance at success?

Know your audience

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the first steps is to research "the character of the community you are trying to serve".

One of the new modules in the MOOC looks at "ethnic" media, and Sambrook said community journalism doesn't have to be about geography, but about anything that "binds a community or group of people together".

While usually the common factor tends to be geography, he said the success of sites serving a diaspora, for example, suggests there is room to go beyond that.

"The tools are there, you can start something pretty much for free but you need to think about who it is you want to reach and how to reach them."

Know the basics

Just because you might start running a small community site at first doesn't mean there are no rules, and Sambrook emphasised the importance of the basics of journalism such as a good knowledge of media law.

"You are publishing into the public sphere," he said, "so you have to understand a little bit about libel and media law and make sure you don't trip over any of those issues."

Contempt of court is also something community journalists should be looking into before heading over to the Magistrates court to cover proceedings.

What constitutes success?

Figuring out how to make your site sustainable in the long term is one of the key considerations when starting up a site.

"If it's successful it will become more and more demanding," said Sambrook, and the need for additional writers or funds should come up "in order for it to last rather than collapse in six months because it has become too much work".

"Some people will try to turn it into a commercial site, so they'll be looking at different funding models and maybe crowdfunding to get it going," he said.

London's Brixton Blog and A Little Bit of Stone in Staffordshire are both successufl examples of crowdfunding for local media in the UK.

"It might be advertising or sponsorship in the long run but for many, perhaps even most sites, it's not really about revenue. It's about offering a service to the community."

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