April 26, 2007

A skeptical perspective on participatory journalism

Two weeks ago, in the blooming spring of Tampere, in Finland, I participated in an International Seminar entitled "Towards Participatory Journalism". The line-up was very exciting, and hopefully a starting point for joint research projects: Jane Singer, currently at U Lancashire, Thorsten Quandt, Ludwig-Maximiliaans U in Munich, Steve Paulussen, U Ghent [the three of them in the picture, discussing in the woods of Pyyniki], Mark Deuze, on a videoconference from U Indiana, and Esa Sirkkunen and Ari Heinonen from U Tampere. You may want to browse the presentations yourself, but let me summarize the rather skeptical perspective that the different presenters shared in very complementary contributions.

Participatory journalism seems theoretically very attractive as a way to improve journalism public service role (or to get back to it, it could be argued), but in practice participatory projects are not easy to develop nor are they guaranteed per se to improve quality of journalism and democracy.

Participatory journalism requires changes in journalists’ attitudes and newsrooms internal organization to be effective, which Steve Paulussen demonstrated to be very challenging; at the same time, it may not foster the participation of the voiceless, it might be restricted to local and worthless stories (at least in terms of democratic collective interest relevance) and media companies may just use it to cut jobs. Real risks that the ideal has when put into practice.

Empirical and anecdotal data suggest that journalists resist to embrace participatory journalism or, at least, to let it change their professional principles. Therefore, participatory projects being developed nowadays may not be effective in achieving the benefits that theoretical approaches to participatory journalism suggest (more responsive and responsible journalists, more civic engagement of citizens, more transparency of the news production process, more power of citizens in defining the news agenda…).

In online journalism, immediacy is the priority and journalists seem have a diminished responsibility on their work (few bylines, mostly editing wires), as Thorsten Quandt pointed out. In citizen media cases, Mark Deuze highlighted that the profile of users is often the wealthy families rooted in their communities, those who are already well served by professional media. Both ends don’t seem to meet in what would be the idealistic intentions of participatory journalism proponents.

Jane Singer defended that journalists need to redefine the grounding for their ethical standards, and I proposed they should have new responsibilities in the new participatory context. They will still be needed, in order to encourage and enhance active audience contributions and reach out for what the audience does not cover, which can actually be the most crucial stories for social debates.

The challenge is detecting what are the factors and strategies that may foster participation that contributes to improve journalism and the overall democratic debate.

April 3, 2007

Convergence and participation revisited (and redefined) in Austin

Professionals and researchers met again last weekend at the 8th International Symposium on Online Journalism at the joyfully restless and welcomingly warm Austin, Texas. This was my first time participating in the successful yearly event organized by Rosental Calmon Alves, and I can say it was an awesome experience, in and outside the auditorium!

Convergence, multimedia storytelling and citizen journalism were obviously the hot topics of the conference. After letting the ideas settle down in my mind, the best-practices cases explained by US national and local news sites as well as European and Latin American online media, and the less-than-optimist studies of some scholars may seem contradictory. Well, I think they are not.

While the US bigger national newspapers presented their efforts in converging online and offline newsrooms and the benefits of this strategy, top European dailies (El País and Le Monde) expressed an overt refusal of convergence. “It is too early to close the web laboratory”, stated Jean-François Fogel. He argued that online journalism is still finding its own model and should not be the victim of the crisis of newspapers. 75% of LeMonde.fr users never read the newspaper and have a younger profile. While the newspaper circulation and advertising has been declining since 2002, the web is growing steadily “because we have been more innovative than the competitors”. LeMonde.fr expects to consolidate this online leadership creating its own self-competitor, a different news website that will be launched this summer.

Ismael Nafría agreed that paper and web should have separate teams. “Internet is a different medium, with its own rules, language, users, pace…”. He defended the idea of coordination of newsrooms rather than integration. At Prisa, the media group that owns El País, they have an online company (Prisacom) that staffs 200 (and growing fast) in charge of all the webs of the group. Each website has its specific team and there is a central online newsroom that manages participation, multimedia and innovation projects. They started to be profitable in 2006 with 30M-euro revenue.

The research I presented at Austin, a preliminary study on convergence trends in Spain (PDF) by a team of 25 researchers led by Ramón Salaverría, tries to understand the phenomenon as a multidimensional and open process. In fact, our survey of 58 media companies suggests that smaller local and regional media are more eager to explore newsroom collaboration and professional multiskilling than bigger media. Even in the very same media groups, national media tend to keep independent newsrooms when they foster collaboration in their regional outlets. Overall, convergence development in Spain is very moderate and does not challenge existing routines and values. Fully-fledged convergence has been idealized as the place where every media should be heading, but the fact is that it may not necessarily have positive outcomes to the quality of news.

Forget citizen journalism

At least that is the suggestion of Jan Schaffer, who is leading the analysis of participatory media trends in the US at KCNN.org. She presented a thorough study of the features, strategies and values of sites that foster active audience involvement. “I would rather use citizen media rather than citizen journalism to refer to them”, she said, arguing that many of the initiatives don’t try to compete with news media, but to be a bridge between citizens and the media. Their objectives are mainly creating community debate and helping to cover those hyperlocal issues that mass media usually neglects. Therefore, they measure success by the quality of participation rather than by revenue. The cases from Fort Myers, Florida (more here), and Bluffton, South Carolina, showed that if journalists care about citizen participation, put the means to gather ideas and use them when reporting, there can be very successful experiences starting from mass media.

As Lisa Stone, of the women blog sindication community BlogHer, put it: “Ask, don’t tell”. That’s the starting point to better serve your community. So, we can forget about citizen journalism, but it seems to me that active audience involvement is something that can add value to online journalism… if only you really believe in it. Alfred Hermida (he also comments on the Symposium at his blog Reportr.net), from the University of British Columbia (Canada), presented a study (PDF) on UK online media strategies on citizen participation, and the main conclusion was that they were developing lots of services but at the same time thinking that they were not a worthy contribution to their products. They were basically following a trend (blogs were the most developed form of participation) to be able to say they were innovative, but their professional culture made them see user-generated content as a gatekeeping problem, rather than as an investment. Ismael Nafría explained that at Prisacom they have already hired 6 people to manage citizen participation besides 6 freelances. He calculates that 10% of their audience is an active contributor to the different options they offer.

Multimedia skills for journalists?

BlogHer is an example of how you can do successful business if you find the adequate niche. A similar example is MediaStorm: they have specialized in compelling multimedia storytelling, where video, audio, text and pictures are combined to explain heart-moving journalistic stories. They make auctions to sell some of the stories to big media, and promoting their work on iTunes, Flickr and MySpace. In a lively round table moderated by Nora Paul (University of Minnesota), Brian Storm defended that what media need now is good journalism and critical thinking, and multimedia tools are just ways to explore new forms of storytelling. He defended that the best way to produce multimedia stories is in teams with people with outstanding skills in each of the elements of the story. He was very radical in saying that journalism schools just need to teach the j-basics, good repoting.

But when NYTimes.com speaker, Andrew DeVigal, said that their better hires lattely have been two Flash developers with no journalistic experience, I somehow prefer to think that the more the students can get at the university, the better. The key: teaching them to learn to learn new tools and skills. The videos linked at the first paragraph of this post are by Lindsay Meeks, a creative local multimedia journalist I met at the conference... She will graduate at UT this summer, and she has a bright future ahead. Lindsay conducts on her own video interviews with two cameras (one on a tripod) and creates Flash containers. A brave online journalist you would like to have in your multimedia storytelling team!