Tag Archives: Citizen media

Citizen Journalists vs Journalists

Citizen journalists are usually passionate about what they cover. That’s the problem. As a journalist you can’t be passionate about it because 

  • you are supposed to be impartial (this doesn’t mean you don’t care; it means you listen with a detached but compassionate ear). And I reject arguments that this is not possible. Of course it’s not always possible, but it’s an aspiration. That’s the key difference 
  • you may have to cover something you don’t care about. A professional journalist would cover a topic whether they cared about it or not; that’s what a professional does. 

I’m not rejecting citizen journalism. I’m arguing that citizen journalism is a deeply flawed model if it’s supposed to supplant traditional journalism, because it’s rooted in a misunderstanding of what the profession actually does. 

Strangled by the Grassroots

 Steve Outing writes a bittersweet eulogy to his failed startup, the Enthusiast Group, which tried to build a business around grassroots media. His conclusion: with the exception of one or two sites that make it big (YouTube, Flickr) user generated content is not strong enough to stand on its own.

In my view — and based in part on my experience with the Enthusiast Group project — user content when it stands on its own is weak. But it’s powerful when appropriately combined with professional content, and properly targeted.

It’s an important lesson to learn. Steve found that while quite a bit of content came in, it was of such varied quality that it just didn’t hold users’ attention. YouTube and Flickr made it big, and so while there’s tons of rubbish on both, there’s still enough to engage and entertain users. The fact that both make it easy to find the best stuff (usually because it’s the stuff a lot of people are looking at) helps.

What Steve found is that on smaller sites, however good your good stuff is, if you’ve got bad or mediocre stuff for most of your content, you’ve got a mediocre publication. Unless it’s highly targeted, hyperlocal content it just won’t hold the reader’s/viewer’s interest.

Of course, the bigger lesson here is that quality matters. Which means good writing/photography/video/reporting/editing still matters. Which means that despite all our fears, journalists still matter. What we’ve yet to do is find out how best to merge citizen journalism with professional journalism. Or, as Steve concludes:

I depart my latest venture nevertheless convinced that grassroots or user content is immensely powerful. We just have to figure out how best to leverage it.

An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media

Enthusiast Group enters deadpool reflectively

When Old Media Buys a Community

MSNBC, owned by MSN and NBC, has bought Newsvine, a sort of citizen journalism, blogging and news-sharing site. But who stands to lose from the deal, and what does it tell us about the equity of Web 2.0?

One commenter on the page that announces the news hits the nail firmly on the head:

In the end I feel dejected, sad and I guess just a little like we should have seen this one coming. What, pray tell is going to happen to OUR huge sums of ad revenue? I mean you guys are making mad loot out of this deal, what about our money?

The deal was cash, but terms were not disclosed.

It’s one of the unresolved paradoxes of Web 2.0 (and citizen journalism): How do you reward those who make a website like Newsvine what it is? Or at least, how do you avoid making them feel hopelessly exploited?

This from Calvin Tang, a co-founder of Newsvine:

I personally would like to thank all Newsvine users who have helped make Newsvine what it is – the most vibrant and active community of users on the digital news media landscape. In addition to being one of the most powerful and unique publishing platforms on the web – the open dialogues, the free and creative expression of ideas and the genuine manner in which all of you participate on the site are some of the foremost reasons that msnbc.com found Newsvine to be an attractive company to partner with.

To be fair, Tang does point to the possibility of “an adjustment to the way contributors are compensated based on suggestions from users.” It’s not clear what this is: At the moment anyone with their own “column” on Newsvine gets 90% of ad revenue derived from visitors to that page. And all content is owned by the person who creates it.

Newsvine is actually hugely popular among those who use it: about 1.2 million unique visitors per month, according to Read/Write Web, and growing at an average rate of 46% per quarter. The site, R/WW says, gets about 80,000 comments and 250,000 votes a month. That’s pretty good traffic in a couple of years.

But still there’s the nagging feeling that money is being made on the backs of others. If all those producing the work were interested only in wider exposure, then the MSNBC deal is good — lots of opportunities for their writings to be read by a wider audience.

From the comments a lot of Newsvine users feel a sense of loyalty and protectiveness towards the site and its founders. And although it’s obvious that the best exit strategy for a site like this is to be bought out by a bigger player, probably one in old media, the illusion that something like Newsvine is an antidote to old media is an important one to maintain; how many, otherwise, would expend effort and time contributing for free if they felt the primary goal of the site was to get bought out?

Money is probably of little consequence to most of those using Newsvine. They’re more interested in the satisfaction that comes from “owning” a community. But inevitably money changes the equation: it is that very community, not the site per se, that has attracted MSNBC’s dollars. Should not the community, therefore, be entitled to some of that money?

Of course, the community itself, by not being party to the discussions with MSNBC nor beholden to the deal, can just up sticks and leave if it doesn’t like the outcome. And that’s where the other illusion kicks in: MSNBC can’t buy the community, although it may feel it has. It can buy the site where that community has built its camp. Make the wrong moves, not make enough moves, or fail to spread the wealth, and it may wake up one morning to find the camp has faded away in the night.

Newsvine – Msnbc.com Acquires Newsvine

News: Demise by Increment?

Is the problem with journalism that it always focuses on the increment?

Was reading Jeff Jarvis’ piece on the revolutionary impact of the iPhone — not, I hasten to add, about the iPhone as an item (the fetishism surrounding it may mark a lowpoint in our materialistic age) but about the citizen journalism coverage of the absurd lines forming outside shops by those eager to be an early buyer (yes, this, too, may mark a low-point in our cravenly submissive consumer culture, but let’s not go there. At least for now.)

No, Jarvis was more interested in this real-time coverage and what it represents. He rightly suggests this is real-time coverage on a par with the Virginia shootings — something that Duncan Riley, who writes good stuff at the usually puffy or snarky TechCrunch, has already called eventstreaming.

Jarvis is right: the subject matter aside (Virginia Tech shootings vs absurd consumer lines outside stores that don’t sell out) this is a good dry run for something more serious. But it’s Jarvis’ other point (if you’ve read this far, sorry for the wiggly lines getting here) that caught my attention: the tendency of media to pick holes in the potential of this:

Problems? Of course, there are. I never sit in a meeting with journalists without hearing them obsess about all the things that could go wrong; that is, sadly and inevitably, their starting point in any discussion about new opportunities. I blew my gasket Friday when I sat with a bunch of TV people doing just that.

Very true. Journalists do this all the time. That’s because we’re trained to. Not a bad thing, actually, being able to spot problems. But it has a downside. And quite a big one. It’s this:

Journalists are taught to identify “news”. In some situations, it’s obvious: A bomb goes off in Baghdad; two guys drive a flaming SUV into Glasgow Airport; Apple launches a cute phone. All news, and no one would disagree.

But it’s the rest of the stuff that gets problematic. Most journalists don’t have these kinds of stories to work with so they’re forced to look for them, and that mostly involves prying apart things, people, organizations, situations, points of view and seeing some incremental change or difference that merits a news story, such as U.S. family terrorized by possible phone hoax (Cellphones Terror Weapon Horror!)

So Wikipedia, for example, gets coverage not for the millions of great articles in there and the millions of people who go to it first for information, but the few articles that are wrong, badly written, libelous, mischievous or biased. That, for a journalist, is the news story. (Wikipedia Unreliable Shock!)

Some companies and PR folk know this tendency and exploit it: Several security companies base their business model on the idea that there are enough journalists out there to write scare stories about mobile phone viruses for an industry to emerge (I wrote what I thought was a piece somewhat mocking this scaremongery only to get another company in the same business email me thanking me for my article and suggesting that I write about their product, which rests on all the same scaremongery that I was trying to pooh-pooh.)

I am not saying journalists only write negative stories and not positive ones. I’m saying that we journalists tend to focus on kinks in the same picture, magnify them and then call it news. This is nothing new, but we should be smart enough to realize that if it’s not just us journalists making the news anymore, we have to be ready to accept the notion of “news” is changing.

Just as we can see lots of things going wrong with citizen journalism, and fixate on those to the exclusion of the bigger picture, we may well be missing the bigger picture that technology is giving us.

The World Cup Changes

Maybe it’s cos I don’t follow other sports as slowly, but this World Cup is beginning to feel like a media watershed in several different — and surprising — ways.

  • First off, the supply of World Cup footage to YouTube, and “live” commentary by cellphone from those in the stadium to those outside threatens to overturn the tight FIFA controls on coverage and sponsorship. FIFA stewards can stop people wearing clothing or carrying banners that don’t support the official sponsors, but they can’t keep people’s cellphones out of the stadium. Can they?
  • Secondly the best writing has come from blogs, not from the traditional sports pages of newspapers. But these aren’t pure bloggers, they’re journalists blogging for their newspapers’ or TV stations’ websites. The Guardian, for example, has a stable of writers who have been pushing out excellent blogs. My favorite BBC blogger on the World Cup is Paul Mason, who is actually a business correspondent for the Beeb’s flagship program Newsnight. Of course there are other soccer blogs, but these bloggers not only write well, they write regularly and attract interesting comments.
  • It’s not just about the rise of the bottom up. Some lucky cable subscribers are getting very cool new services, such as commentary in different languages to three or four different viewing perspectives. Sadly where I live we don’t get any of these, but I’ve heard they rock. These are good services to provide and it’s great to see some imaginative providers offering them. Soccer coverage has usually been woeful: Not enough long view of the pitch, so the viewer has no real sense of who is where on the pitch, while commentators offer very little extra value. Time to change.
  • Some widgets have made following the World Cup action easier, although they are still somewhat primitive.

I’m sure there are lots of non media bloggers out there, but the mainstream media seems to be finally getting it, and the World Cup is a perfect place and topic to do it. Everyone’s an expert in soccer, and no one is shy about offering an opinion. In some ways it’s a great leveler and a great showcase for participatory journalism.

An Agency for the Citizen Reporter

My friend Saigon-based Graham Holliday has helped launch a words version of Scoopt, the world’s first commercial citizen journalism photography agency. With Scoopt Words :

[w]e believe that your blog writing can be every bit as valuable as professional journalism. It’s the same idea that lies behind Scoopt the picture agency: in the right circumstances, amateur photography is just as valuable as professional photography… as we have proven again and again.

So if your content is valuable, why shouldn’t you be paid for it? Why is it OK for a newspaper to lift your words or publish your writing for free just because you’re an ‘amateur’? If it’s good enough to print, it’s good enough to pay for.

Great idea, a bit like BlogBurst, I guess, a syndication service that places your blog content on top-tier online destinations, though BlogBurst doesn’t pay you, so perhaps closer in spirit to OhmyNews, which ScooptWords quotes approvingly. Rightly so; OhmyNews helped to overturn South Korean media and throw a few people out of office. (OhmyNews has recently teamed up with the International Herald Tribune to swap headline links on each others’ websites.)

I like the ScooptWords idea, but I have my reservations. ScooptWords’ FAQ quotes an essay by Betty Medsger, former Washington Post reporter and Professor of Journalism, “about the knowledge and experience of many professional journalists”, suggesting that one shouldn’t feel intimidated by the power of the traditional press. But Medsger’s message wasn’t quite that. She did point out that most journalists who have won awards and fellowships never studied journalism, but her conclusion was not that experience wasn’t necessary, in fact, it may be, she says, quite the opposite:

Journalists put information and ideas from other disciplines into public vessels of various kinds — breaking news stories, investigative pieces, analytical work, cultural criticism. These non-journalism graduates clearly know how to think journalistically, and they are adept at filling various vessels with quality work. But their thinking and learning did not originate in journalism education programs. Mentors in newsrooms apparently have been their teachers. Or perhaps it was experience itself, which again is not surprising.

I never studied journalism either, and I don’t know many folk outside the U.S. (and a couple in Australia) who did. But the newsroom experience sure has helped. Those mentors are pretty useful people, even if they drive you nuts eventually.

I’m not opposed to citizen journalism, or bloggers selling their work to traditional media outlets. I think it’s an important step to dismantle some of the walls around the ivory tower that is many journalists’ citadel. Many have important things to say, and an eyewitness report of a significant event is always going to be the best journalism anybody will ever write or read. But what I think will happen, should happen, is that this new influx should help improve and better define journalism, to refine the standards journalists allegedly abide by, rather than ignore or belittle those standards. Journalists should understand bloggers. But bloggers and citizen reporters also need to understand journalists.

Hopefully Scoopt Words will help do just that. More strength to you, Graham.

Any Place For The Wise, Wizened Hack In The Brave New Citizen Journalist World?

I was chatting with a journalist friend last night, real old-school wire service guy. We were talking about about blogging, about the decline of journalistic standards, and I was trying to make the point about the continuing misperception that bloggers are inherently unreliable and the traditional media aren’t. Nothing new there, but he told me a story about the BBC World TV channel falling for the Union Carbide/Bhopal story last December.

But it wasn’t just the BBC. Other news agencies picked up the story. But not all of them. My friend, who works for a prominent news service, says he was on duty that day and smelt something fishy. (He’s a modest guy so credited his boss with the decision. But I know how hard it must have been.) His agency didn’t run the story, and soon the retractions and backpedalling began.

Now it’s easy to be smart about these things. I’ve worked for a wire service, and I know the tremendous pressure there is to run with something if your rivals are. You’ve got to have a cool head, and most importantly, a good news sense, to hold off as the clock ticks down. My friend knew that there had been hoaxes before (this is not exceptional knowledge, as others have pointed out; these hoaxes tend to come around every Bhopal anniversary). But he also sensed the spokesman’s name was weird, and there was just something not right about it.

To me this is a skill that translates well to blogging, but needs to be carefully thought through. Bloggers tend to know their stuff; that’s why we read them. They are, or can be, a repository of wisdom about a subject, and know when something’s not right. Indeed, they not only report, but analyze, all on the fly. But we should also acknowledge that they are specialists, and their area of expertise may be quite narrow. My friend, meanwhile, is a generalist, knowing a little about a lot, enough to be able to make a call based pretty much on a gut feeling born of 30–odd years in the business. Where does this kind of experience fit into the new media world of citizen journalism?

When I visited OhmyNews, there was one guy with this level of experience, handling dozens of enthusiastic, but not professionally trained, reporters and editors. Chief editor Jeong Wooh Hyeon is a nice guy, committed, enthusiastic, and carrying the weight of that role that my friend plays in his newsroom. I like the way that OhmyNews has acknowledged the need for that kind of role, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether one was enough. It’s such an important part to play: the skeptic, the experienced eye, the balance, the nose for bias, a planted story, a hoax. But where do they fit, exactly, in the new media world?