October 1, 2007

Participatory journalism, meet the reluctant newsroom

Lately I am more an more convinced that in the phenomenon of participatory journalism in mainstream news sites we tend to take the exception for the rule. Burma's coverage by the BBC, the Minnesota bridge collapse i-Reports at CNN and beyond... They are singular cases where citizen journalism adds a lot as journalists are not there to report themselves.

In mid-September I attended in a superb conference in the Cardiff School of Journalism (in the photo) on the "Future of Newspapers". The rise of tabloids and free newspapers was one of the big topics. The other one was audience participation (the "Tampere group" presented our first set of empirical data). Listening to research results and comments from British online journalism professionals reassured me in my skeptical perspective on how this trend is developing. The summary:

  • Online news sites offer participatory features "because everybody else is doing it" and because the business side of the company feels it may be a way to build/keep an audience. There are not many public journalism rationales behind what is being developed. Why?
  • Online journalists do not trust their audiences. They fear that the quality of what they will send in will be dubious and a burden to the daily routines of the reporters.
  • That's why more and more online media are dealing with audience content management (including comments) by having a specific person in the newsroom devoted to that (so that it does not interfere with the work of the rest of the journalists) or even outsource it to non-journalistic "web 2.0" companies.
  • Our own results on the participatory features on 16 European and US online newspapers show that most of them restrict the users to the role of audience reacting to professionally produced news and offer more participation opportunities in the soft news sections than on the hard news.
How can anybody expect citizen journalism arise from this context? What is the point of having audience participation if it does not "affect" the work of the journalists? My feeling is that we should drop the concept of participatory journalism when we refer to mainstream online media and talk more about collaborative journalism. That is where there can be some actual changes happening, when journalists and citizens engage in a common news project. The concept of crowdsourcing connects with this, but the experience of Assignment Zero shows that there is a lot to refine in terms of how to make such collaboration work smoothly.

Obviously, active citizens are finding other venues to publish their reporting. There is a lot of research to be done within and beyond mainstream online media in order to assess if all this participation can, at some point, redefine journalism and the public sphere:
  • Theorising the potentials of online tools and new working routines, such as wikis (as did the brilliant presentation by Paul Bradshaw in Cardiff).
  • Assessing the quality (in comparison to professional news) of what is being submitted and published;
  • Understanding the motivations of those who participate and of those who manage the process inside and outside professional media;
  • Exploring professionals' attitudes both at the editorial and the business sides of the companies;
  • Including a political economy perspective to assess the role of business decisions in the development of participatory features;
  • Developing experiments with media companies, such as CoCoMedia, the Flemish case presented in Cardiff (PPT about the project), involving the development of software for the journalists to better integrate citizen-generated content into their workflow, but also training to change the professional reluctancy to collaborate with their audiences.