While the Big Issue online journalism and photography course only kicked off last summer it had been a long time coming.
BI founder John Bird had always wanted to help give the homeless and marginalised a voice, not only through the magazine, but also to provide training and a platform for them to express themselves.
After many years his ambition finally materialised when former Big Issue editor and digital projects manager Charles Howgego secured funding from internet company Nominet to run four six-week courses and commissioned ethical media agency and social enterprise Poached Creative to deliver them.
Charles said: “The core idea of getting people from different communities involved in journalism and giving them a voice has always been with the Big issue and John Bird the founder. We’ve done that piecemeal over the years, but to actually set up a training course where people can learn those skills and maybe then go back out into their communities and get stories and deliver them through blogs or even websites, newspapers or magazines; that’s the goal here.”
And that goal has been achieved with many of the trainees growing in confidence and learning new skills they can use to take their passion a step further with a realistic eye on paid work. Since finishing the course former trainees are now studying journalism at college, making a short film for a hip-hop education project, doing media work experience at various social enterprises while one is getting part-time paid work as a journalist at the Big Issue itself and another writing for the Homeless Diamond magazine.
All of the trainees have experienced homelessness for different reasons whether it be family break-up, substance or alcohol abuse, following time in prison or unemployment.
After completing their course some of the them interviewed each other to find out what they thought about and got out of the course. Here’s what they said.
Sam Hooper, who had already been running a political and cultural blog for two years, but wanted to see if he could take his passion for writing a step closer to paid and published journalism, described the course as “fantastic”. He said: “Looking back at the last six-weeks I’ve come a really long way. Learning the nuts and bolts about journalism that I had no idea about was brilliant.”
Sam, who signed up with the National Union of Journalists days after the course ended, said thinking about who your audience is, interviewing skills and photography were all new to him. He said: “From weeks one to six we really have covered a bit of everything. It’s been a really good overview of journalism and the online world.”
However, he said going out into the community and interviewing “passionate” people running “amazing” social enterprises was the highlight of the course and a privilege. He also complemented the inspirational guest speakers who came in and shared how they had started their own media and journalism businesses out of nothing explaining how it can be done and offering their support in the future.
Sam said: “They’ve been really free and generous with their time and given us their contact details, so coming from having no network in the industry to knowing a few people willing to help is a brilliant thing. You can’t put a price on that.”
Building on the momentum Sam attended and live tweeted from a journalism conference at the London School of Economics that one of the tutors had recommended shortly after his course had ended and came out with even more confidence.
He said: “I got the biggest applause of the morning for my question to the panel [which included Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger] and a few people asked for my business card. I got to shake hands with Alan Rusbridger too. It wouldn’t have happened were it not for the course.”
Sam had asked the panel how the British media could be considering itself “thuggish” in light of the Guardian’s reporting on the Edward Snowden and NSA mass surveillance revelations when it was the government who was “bullying” the newspaper and its journalists.
Another trainee Jan, who has done a wealth of courses over the years, praised the project for its hands-on approach.
He said: “It was very good. they managed to pack a lot in to six weeks. It was very concise, very clear, and dealt with a lot of practical issues. The courses I’ve been on [before] have been mostly theoretical. This was far more focused on how to actually do it, actually interviewing real people instead of other students or teachers. The approach is towards getting stuff published in real publications not just papers being marked by teachers.”
Jan described the course material as well chosen and well worked out. He said: “The course helps you focus on the main issues, specifically how to write an article, which parts to focus on [and] it helps with networking and with ideas on how to move on with your career.”
Chris Evans, who is now making a short film for a hip-hop education project seeking to set up a free school, said more than the practical skills he learnt it was the idea of building himself up as a brand and service provider that has given him focus and a new found energy.
He said: “[The course] was really good. I was surprised. I learnt a lot and got to meet new people. I learnt a lot about photography, but it was this idea of getting out there and doing stuff. This positive element of just going out there and doing work even if its volunteering, keep doing it and pushing hard to make it. [The course] is certainly going to help me in future.”
Martin Kitara, who is now studying for his NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists] exams at Lambeth College, said the course had given him discipline: doing things to time and producing results.
He said: “I found it really insightful. I learned a lot about journalism and progressing forward,” but the most important thing he learnt was “how to structure stories”.
Charles, the Big Issue’s digital projects manager, said: “People have got different things out of the course. Some people have transformed from quiet people to much more confident people just through the activity of journalism and news gathering, meeting people and learning about new ideas. Other people are submitting skills that they have already got and creating more of a foundation for their next step in their career, things for their CVs.
“Other people are moving into other areas but with a bit more confidence, having taken a step back from their lives and their problems and looking at the world as a whole, so it’s giving different people different things, but it’s been a really positive from my point of view. I’ve been amazed at the effect it’s had on people.”
Jessica Smith, director at Poached Creative which designed and delivered the course, was enthused how well the courses had gone and how much people had got out of it.
She said: “It’s gone really well. We’ve had articles published in the local paper and Answers from the Big Issue website and there are people still doing stuff with the local paper, the Big Issue, another homeless magazine, some are volunteering with us and others have embarked on projects of their own. So it’s really great to see people take what they’ve learnt and put it into practice. The course really is about helping people to get back on their feet and not just another box-ticking exercise.”