November 19, 2007

The Seminar on participatory journalism kicks off

Ari Heinonen (U Tampere) and Thorsten Quandt (Free U Berlin) have started the first session of the International Online Journalism Seminar, in Vilanova i la Geltrú (Catalonia). I will be live blogging during the two days of the event, here and in the official blog of the conference in Catalan.

Ari and Thorsten agree in their diagnosis of the attitudes in Finnish and German professional media: they have embraced participatory journalism after an initial phase of ignorance and reluctance, but they don't have a plan. They somehow feel the urge to be inside the phenomenon of Web 2.0 and citizen journalism, but they don't know what to do with it and they don't want it to change their routines.

Ari argues that blogs are relevant as a symptom that media are not alone anymore as publishers of information. Thorsten is skeptical about this: there are many bloggers, but their readerships are not comparable to professional news websites and they actually tend to comment on news produced by the media rather than contributing original content. Also, journalists are more necessary than ever to filter and select what is relevant and trustworthy in the blogosphere. The agenda setting and long-tail effects (that many small publishers can have as large impact as few bigger ones) of blogs are theories that have not been proven yet.

In the second session, Neil Thurman (City U) and Steve Paulussen (Ghent U) discuss the trends in the UK and Flanders. British online newspapers have developed many participatory journalism initiatives in the last two years. Blogs have exploded: only 3 online newspapers had them in 2005; 18 months later, twelve of fourteen online newspapers had blogs (more than a hundred in total). Most of them had fully moderation of comments, some after exploring more open options. Online editors acknowledge that the reasons for exploring these options are mainly competition (not being left behind of the trends) and the risk of losing their audiences (keeping the newspaper role of the space for public debate).

The practical experience with audience participation in UK online newspapers is bittersweet: Online editors said that there was always people abusing the opportunity of contributing content. Legal concerns (the responsibility of the web publishers when they publish libelous user contributions) were another worry for editors. They were committed to have their audiences read quality content, therefore actively filter and select their users' contributions. Obviously this is very time-consuming for the newsroom, and that is why many online news sites are creating specific teams to manage user-generated content and developing software to manage content. Editors feel that creating an active community will be good on the long term, to have a more loyal audience.

Neil notes that individual journalists' attitudes towards audience participation are very diverse, from fearing it, neglecting it, to engaging in active debates with their readers. No clear pattern yet. Also, he points out that there seems to be a ceiling to active participants in the media: The Guardian, for example, one of the most successful ones in audience participation, has never gone beyond 10,000 active participants even if the traffic of their blogs and message boards keeps growing.

Steve Paulussen is involved in serveral research projects in Flanders that try to bridge the gap between traditional journalism and citizen media, exploring pro-am options (examples: Het Belang Van Limburg, Professional and citizen journalism have very different production processes. Again, Steve argues that the media do not have a clear strategy when they explore participatory journalism, they don't have a clear goal. He adds another factor to the slow development of participatory journalism: organizational constraints. Newsrooms need to adopt new routines, new roles, to integrate pro-am journalism, and they tend to resist change.

Reasons for pro-am collaboration: cutting costs (not desirable, nor efficient), reengaging the community (but you also need to engage the journalists), improve journalism (requires investment, training). In the case of Hasselt Lokaal there was a clear intention (generate community publishing, reconnect with their community), but no clear plan, and therefore the journalists of the company ended up being not involved at all in the project. You need to know why and how you want to develop participatory journalism... But that is just the beginning: you will need to convince the newsroom to embrace the idea, there is always resistance.

In a specific case (CoCoMedia project at Concentra), the organizational structure is clearly a factor preventing innovation: online and print journalists do not collaborate even if they are in the same newsroom; the IT department develops new tools without taking care about the needs of journalists, training is scarce; there is conflict among the different departments; journalists are too busy to handle user-generated content, they prefer to rely on the official, traditional sources. Keys to be successful: training, new tools, motivation.