On Thursday I'm giving a brief talk to the Ted Scripps Fellows at the University of Colorado's Center for Environmental Journalism. My topic may sound counterintuitive to many in the news business, but I think these bright folks will hear me out.
I think citizen and community journalism (projects which involve people from outside the news business in the journalistic process) are crucial to the the long-term viability of news professionals and organizations.
Bottom Line: If you want to keep your journalism career or news organization alive in coming years, it's time to start learning the ropes of a more open approach to news.
Here's what I mean...
It used to be that when I spoke with journalists and other media professionals, I routinely encountered considerable suspicion of, and disdain for, citizen journalism and grassroots media. My news colleagues often considered citJ efforts to be worthless, misleading, and even dangerous -- even if they'd never actually seen much (or any) citJ. They feared that an influx of unpaid amateurs would depress their wages and cost newsroom jobs. And they figured citJ could only yield poor-quality content -- who'd want to waste time reading such dreck?
Lately, I'm pleased that this reflexive, defensive, adversarial posture seems to be declining.
In the last few months when I've discussed citJ and grassroots media with my journalism colleagues, I've started hearing more curiosity and less dismissiveness and fear. This is based on my own purely anecdotal encounters and observations, of course -- but I think news pros are starting to be a bit more open-minded on this matter.
Having an open mind and a sense of curiosity is crucial to the basic practice of journalism. After all, journalists are paid to be curious and as unbiased as possible. Furthermore, open-mindedness and curiosity are what enable news organizations to explore useful new directions and connections.
While the core goals of the news business (gathering and disseminating the most important news in the fairest way possible, and making a profit or at least staying solvent in the process) remain unchanged, it seems that continuing to meet those goals will mean revisiting what is news and who gets to "do news."
With that in mind, here are the points I'll offer to the Ted Scripps Fellows:
The traditional news business is faltering as a business -- declining audiences, reduced audience loyalty, undercut classified ad market, etc.
BUT: People still need -- and want -- relevant, timely, and reliable news.
Changing audience expectations: Hang out with more teens. They are more interested in conversation than lectures. More interested in mobile and online news than print or broadcast. They expect direct interaction as a basic aspect of their media experience. They expect their perspective to matter. And they won't magically start buying papers when they turn 20. News organizations have to follow their markets.
Loyalty is based on a sense of mutual relationship and benefit.
- No one likes to be pigeonholed as a set of eyeballs sold to advertisers.
Opportunity: There's a growing need/demand for greater audience participation and a remaining need for quality news content.
Solution: Leverage participatory/grassroots media and citJ, blend it with traditional (professional) journalistic/editorial oversight to ensure quality.
- Meet audience needs and desires.
- Enhance audience loyalty.
- Open new markets.
I've always thought everyone could benefit from journalism training and experience. Now, as I see citJ emerge, I really understand why. As media fragments, media literacy becomes even more crucial: Being the media is the best way to learn to safely interpret the media.
CitJ skills and experience will improve journalists' job prospects as news organizations and other employers/funding sources explore citJ opportunities and ventures.
- Get that experience NOW!
- Who to hire: A great journalist, or a pretty good journalist with lots of experience fostering excellent citJ? More versatile skill set wins jobs.
- Even more important for specialty beats like the environment.
USEFUL SKILLS TO GET
Just a partial list (choose whatever you like, the more the better):
- Online community/forum management and moderation
- Editing or collaborating with citizen journalists or other nonprofessional content creators
- Multimedia (gathering, assembling, editing, and delivering content)
- Podcasting (audio & video)
- Feeds (RSS): As info source, publishing medium, and connection tool
- Site analytics
- Content management systems
- Google Maps API
- E-mail publishing
- Polls and surveys
- Data visualization
- Mobile content formatting and delivery
- Online advertising (one-offs and networks)
EXAMPLE CITJ VENUES
- New Voices, a J-Lab grant funding project. See 2006 grant winners, including Great Lakes Wiki (environmental project).
- New West (online magazine for Rocky Mtn. region), Unfiltered section.
- iBrattleboro, a VT-based independent citJ effort.
- NewsVine, good example of citizen "editing"
- OhMyNews, famous and influential S. Korean citJ venue. Professional editing, writers compensated.
- Backfence, starting sites in several major cities. Recently bought Bayosphere.
- Westport Now, started by former CBS exec.
- Scoopt, citJ photo agency.
- YourHub, started at the Rocky Mtn. News, now spread to other states. "Ambassadors" (staff) recruit and assist contributors in each community ("hub"). Print and online.
- Coastsider, independent local news venue by Jupiter analyst.
- Voice of San Diego, award-winning nonprofit collaborative (pro/citJ) venture.
- Enthusiast Group, sports-focused family of sites by Steve Outing. First site up: Your MTB (mountain biking)
- The Business of Supporting Citizen Journalism, Poynter Online package, Apr. 6, 2006
- Getting Over the "Walled Garden" Approach to News Web Sites, Editor & Publisher, March 20, 2006
- The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism, Poynter Online, June 15, 2005 (see also this followup)
Citizen Media: Has it reached a tipping point? A Nieman report by J-Lab director Jan Schaffer
Madison Commons: Citizen reporting toolkit
- Could Citizen Journalists Have Saved These Lives? Adam Glenn, Jan. 26, 2006
- Open CitJ Sites: Why not require transparency? Amy Gahran, Nov. 4, 2005
- Objectivity, Independence, and Transparency: Three-legged stool? Amy Gahran, June 27, 2005