Participatory Journalism … what’s it all about?


Photo courtesy SXC.

Four links, three new, one “classic,” related to civic or participatory journalism caught my eye this week. For the uninitiated, participatory journalism refers to the emerging trend of non-professionals taking to the Internet and creating blogs, podcasts, YouTube or Vimeo videos, websites, Twitter feeds, etc., that cover stories that used to be understood as strictly the province of traditional media, such as television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines.

These aren’t intended as a comprehensive introduction to this phenomenon, but rather relevant, and timely (or timeless, in one case) snapshots of where it’s headed.

The People Formerly Known as the Audience

This first post should be required reading for all writers and editors struggling to understand the shifts in the media landscape over the past 10 years. NYU’s Jay Rosen wrote this post in 2006 for his PressThink blog, but he could have written it yesterday. It’s all still so, so true.

He notes that the media platform shifts taking place have many journalists questioning their sanity, but that their former audience members are basically telling them to get over themselves:

“Many media people want to cry out in the name of reason herself: ‘If all would speak, who shall be left to listen? Can you at least tell us that?’

“The people formerly known as the audience do not believe this problem—too many speakers! — is (their) problem.

“Now for anyone in your circle still wondering who (they) are, a formal definition might go like this:

“The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.”

Rosen, speaking for most of the post in the voice of the newly empowered audience, tells professional content creators not to worry or complain, but rather, stay relevant and appreciate how content consumers have evolved into content prosumers (produers + consumers).

He writes,

“Look, media people. We are still perfectly content to listen to our radios while driving … Should we attend the theatre, we are unlikely to storm the stage for purposes of putting on our own production. We feel there is nothing wrong with old style, one-way, top-down media consumption…

“But we’re not on your clock any more. Tom Curley, CEO of the Associated Press, has explained this to his people. ‘The users are deciding what the point of their engagement will be — what application, what device, what time, what place.’

“We graduate from wanting media when we want it, to wanting it without the filler, to wanting media to be way better than it is, to publishing and broadcasting ourselves when it meets a need or sounds like fun.”

Still writing in the guise of the audience, he ends the main part of the post (there is a terrific “after matter section” and loads of comments, too) with a gentle ultimatum to his fellow professional journalists:

“There’s a new balance of power between you and us.

“The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable. You should welcome that, media people. But whether you do or not, we want you to know we’re here.”

If you’re wondering what value there is in user-generated content, or if you’re clinging to the illusion that all these audience members are going to return to their seats and quit making their own media products, you need to read this post.

Mainstream Media Miss the Point of Participatory Journalism

Another group of journalists who might benefit from re-reading Rosen’s post would be the presenters at the Future of Journalism conference, an event held at the University of Cardiff in Wales earlier this month. Alfred Hermida, writing for PBS’s MediaShift blog, feels as if the titles of keynotes and workshops indicate even organizations considered leaders in utilizing user-generated content are still coming at it from the perspective of being the appointed “gate-keepers.”

Hermida writes,

“The advent of participatory journalism, or user-generated content (UGC), has done little to change the way the media works … The research paints a global picture of how journalists are seeking to maintain their position of authority and power, rather than create a more open, transparent and accountable journalistic process that seeks to work with readers …”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, a major player at the conference, illustrated the point being made very well.

“UGC has become institutionalized at the BBC as a form of newsgathering, consolidating the existing relationship between journalists and the audience … This institutional approach towards UGC was reflected in the BBC course on the topic, entitled ‘Have They Got News for Us.’ This session at the conference focused on how to scour comments, pictures and video from the public in order to separate the wheat from the chaff, rather than on how to collaborate with the audience on stories.”

It’s true that crowdsourcing one’s stories is a new skill set, one that many of us haven’t mastered as writers or editors, and that journalism is a long way from empowering citizen journalists to make significant discoveries the way citizen scientists can.

But I agree with the unspoken subtext of this post, which is that a serious, peer-to-peer (or public-to-pro) discussion of the public’s role in shaping, collaborating and even to some degree co-creating the future of journalism has to begin, and soon. Rosen’s essay of 2006 (see above) presages it. And it’s clear that many people are finding value in user-generated content, however much we journalists may disparage its shortcomings.

Nerds, News and Neat Stuff

One way in which journalists are responding to the participatory media landscape is by creating new tools to empower readers to participate intelligently, a niche that fits very nicely with traditional media roles of diving beneath the surface of complex issues and providing context to help others understand an issue’s impact.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, recently posted some comments about the winners of this year’s Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism. Her piece takes a whirlwind tour through some of the more interesting innovations that are being cooked up inside and outside newsrooms, but the quote that stood out for me the most came from Ellen Miller, whose Sunlight Foundation is making data openly available on a huge array of things, from government contracts and grants, to lobbyists, to congressional bills, and even to the words used most frequently in the Congressional Record.

“Technology is not a slice of the pie of what we do, it’s the pan,” she said.

I think Miller “gets” this change to a participatory media environment and how journalists can enrich the conversation. The participatory nature of Web 2.0 apps and the tools that journalism’s new creative technologists develop aren’t just decorations to be sprinkled on top of the already pre-mixed media pie; they change how the pie is baked. And eaten!

Schaffer’s post is a nice sampler of developments from the outposts of journalistic practice. The focus on innovation is refreshing—while not all of the award winners are equally cutting-edge, these contestants are taking a look at their environment and filling unmet needs, instead of grumbling about how their audience (or former audience!) no longer looks to them for the same things it used to.

Bonus Link!

Civic News Networks: Collaboration v. Competition

Caveat emptor! I haven’t had a chance to watch this 45-minute video, a recording of a panel discussion at the August 2009 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. But it is moderated by Jan Schaffer of J-Lab (a center of American University’s School of Communication) and with a title like this, you can bet I want to hear what the panelists have to say!

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