Citizen journalism: what if no-one comes?

These days it’s no news that old-style newspapers are facing a big challenge from the Internet as people get their news and fun online, produce their own content … and advertisers follow them.
Recently Charlie Beckett was reporting from a major conference on media and social participation, where everyone was getting excited about the potential for old media to join up with what used to be known as readers and audience to develop what Charlie and others are calling networked journalism. The BBC is heading that way.

On the same day Robin Hamman was reporting the end of a pioneering blogging experiment that he and Richard Fair have been running for the BBC in Manchester, to trial just what Charlie and others were conferring about: User Generated Content. Both sound a warning note that any media people who are hoping UGC will solve their problems, should heed.

Charlie confronts it directly in Social media participation: what if no-one comes?, after listening to Richard Sandbrook, Global News Director of the BBC:

The fundamental assumptions of this conference are that new media technology is changing journalism and offers the opportunity for a more participatory and democratic form of news communication. The people gathered are serious and informed realists who are active media producers as well as thinkers. Richard is a good example, look at how the BBC has strived to include more UGC and include the public in the process. We all want this to work. We all want more citizen journalism as part of the news media.

This is partly because we know that change is inevitable. We also hope that networked journalism can save the news media from the economic disaster that it is currently heading towards. But it is also because the folk gathered at USC are generally political liberals who want the public to be more political – we want the people to speak and act through social media. So here’s the elephant:

What if they don’t want to?

The evidence from Richard’s talk and other places is that most participation is done by a small minority and they are often the same people who were active before. So do you go out to stimulate more participation? I suspect not in the old pro-active mode. The internet is all about generative creativity. It is about people creating their own communities rather than having them provided. That is why BBC’s I-Can project failed.

Charlie was referring to the Action Network, originally called I-Can, closing shortly, with an announcement about future plans that, as I indicated above, sounds very like networked journalism.

So what does Robin have to report from the experiment in Manchester? He said it was a rewarding experience becoming part of the local online community, that it took a lot of time, but there were spin-offs:

… when we were able to use the contacts and content we found through the blog on-air that equation immediately changed. That is, in resource terms, the blog was costly as just a blog but much more efficient as a driver of radio content.

However, what jumped out at me was this finding:

People don’t necessarily blog or post content about the topics, stories and events that media organisations might hope they would – and, in our experience anyway, rarely post about news and current affairs.

This suggests that there is a lot of work to be done in working through where the possible agenda of professional and citizen media overlaps, and what this will mean to civic life.


  • cased
    April 15, 2008 - 2:50 pm | Permalink

    “What if no-one comes?” The elephant in the room! The same is true for all efforts to induce greater public participation, unless there is a compelling reason to give up your own time and energy to participate, why on earth would you?

    The legacy of this ‘head in the sand’ attitude being a vast number of under-used online forums set up in a top-down manner. If citizens can’t fully set the agenda then the conversations will be mismatched with their expectations. Those who actaully have the time and energy to engage in the first place will be put off at the first hurdle by logging on to a place which features issues framed in a way that makes them feel irrelevant, or which have a poor user interface. Click on, click off…!

  • socialreporter
    April 15, 2008 - 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Alice – I think there are a lot of lessons offline engagement practitioners could offer to networked journalists and the like. As you suggest the key issues where top-down initiatives are involved, are why bother, and if I do, will anyone listen?
    On the other hand social media does potentially give people a greater opportunity to set their own agendas.
    How about an informal get-together with a few people that might lead to a seminar, unconference, Open Space, Barcamp.

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  • May 29, 2008 - 8:52 am | Permalink

    David, thanks for a very nice summary. I’m going to cite this in a report I’m currently doing on the use of social media in building intercultural dialogue. The relevance being that a) you can build a participative platform and no one might come and b) if they do come, they will almost certainly not discuss the issues you want in the way you want (and the reality might the far uglier).

    Cased- good point about users needing complete freedom to set their own topics. It sounds as if Robin’s experience points in exactly the same direction and our experience with yoosk has also confirmed this.

    Here’s another elephant: blogging is hard, time consuming, often brings no personal reward and in the experience of many turns out to be a futile venture that they give up within a few months. The same applies to writing comments on other people’s blogs or composing articles for submission to citizen journalism platforms.

    As a genre, I suspect it’s likely that blogging will soon be seen as something that is done by people who work in media and on the fringes of media, along with academics, entrepreneurs and others who want to showcase their expertise and intellects.

    And as long as people working in participative media and e-democracy expect high levels of participation from the public that involves blogging or carefully composed ‘posts’, either by text or video, then I think we’ll be disappointed.

    To write this comment, I sat down in front of a word document and spent about half an hour drafting, redrafting and putting the finishing touches to what I hope is a reasonably intelligent contribution that will add something to the debate. I do this because I know I’ll be judged by what I write and I care what people, even strangers, think of me. I assume most people are the same.

    How many people have the time and motivation to do that? I have the time because I am self-employed and I have the motivation because I want to network with a group of people who I think will add value to my intellectual and business life.

    But most people are just too busy with their lives. There is too much opportunity cost in even spending a few hours a week recording their opinions. Participative media doesn’t even make it onto their radar.

    So I am left wondering if a lot of participative media is in fact exclusive rather than inclusive. Elitist rather than democratic? Is it in fact the preserve of the very sections of society that have the most control over the decision making process?

    It matters to me because I have spent the last year developing a participative media tool. I believe in it and want to see it used. But the question is, how to get it into the hands of the busy mum or dad, who although they care about local road safety and want to be part of some form of local action group, barely find time to go to their kids’ football practice?

    The answer, I think, lies in our good old local papers, the ones everyone mocks: providers of participative media and grass roots democratic campaigning platforms for the last few centuries. But here’s the rub: people still read the print versions, but in most cases hardly anyone visits them online.

    And here’s what I suggest needs to be done. The creativity and enthusiasm of people working in participative media and e-democracy: journalists, academics, developers and entrepreneurs, should be coordinated by a central body, and put to work along with the regional news groups, to create a revolution in local online news.

    There are already islands of best practice among newspapers- Teesside, Liverpool and Birmingham. But the vast majority of local news sites are a long way behind. At the same time, highly innovative participative media start-ups are struggling for traffic and investment. I may be wrong, maybe it is a simplistic solution, but it seems to me if we can add these two elements together- the grass roots readership of printed news and the innovative digital news cottage industry, then we might get wider involvement.

    Have I missed something, is there such a body?

  • June 2, 2008 - 10:06 am | Permalink

    This is a highly relevant post, and helped me to think through how I will get people involved in a forum that I intend to build.

    Many thanks

    Chief K.Masimba

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