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Using the power of “citizen journalism”

The day after the first anniversary of the London transport bombings Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited, says the media have yet to harness the power of citizen journalism. She writes about a “newsroom nirvana” being sought in which a network of contributors springs up which could “very easily form the backbone of daily coverage where there are not enough reporting resources”.

As an example of the growth of reader contributions she writes that 10,000 people have contributed to the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog since it was started in March. And she deals with the way the BBC handled email queues to distribute material to the most appropriate outlets.

While 7/7 marked a major change in newsroom attitudes to “citizen journalism” through the availability of camera phone pictures there is still long way to go. Pictures are relatively easy because a good image is clearly and quickly identifiable and there has hardly been time for manipulation in the heat of a breaking story. Words are more difficult and likely to be contradictory.

On that morning a year ago there was another problem as mobile phone networks went down in the confusion. I arrived in central London on just about the last public transport into the disaster zone. I soon found myself at police road blocks where reporters and cameramen (lenses focused on distant fire engines) stood bemused. Without mobile phones they could not even reach their offices to find out what was the story they were covering.

That was not the case this week when the Valencia tube disaster happened. Juan Varela, in his Periodistas 21 blog (in Spanish), points to the problems of contradictory information and an over-abundance of testimony creating counter-productive noise.

It has always been difficult for journalists in the office pulling-together a story from often contradictory agency and staff reports and reader phone calls, to judge what should be printed or broadcast. The greatly increased levels of direct reader, via text messages and emails, input makes those hurried judgements more difficult.

PS I am hesitant about using the term “citizen journalism” in this context as we are really talking about a huge increase in the traditional reader tip-offs and submitted pictures. That is why it is in quotes in the headline.

Bloggers are breaking down Westminster’s code of omerta

Political bloggers are becoming more significant in the United Kingdom, breaking the code of silence that surrounds the Westminster village. This week John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, rounded on those who had posted items about two affairs in addition to the dalliance with his diary secretary which ended with him losing his department.

Yesterday, on Radio 4’s Today programme he he huffed and puffed and dissembled as he failed eight time to answer direct questions about whether he had other affairs. We took that as a “Yes”. Yet what the bloggers are saying is nothing that has not been common gossip around the Palace of Westminster and the dinner tables of Notting Hill and Islington for several months.

There has long been a attitude of omerta among politicians, journalists and functionaries in the know. Some things, it says, are better kept from the people. It happens in every country. For journalists it is an age-old question: “When does something of interest to the public becomes a matter in the public interest?”

Are the sexual proclivities of our leaders of any significance when considering how well they do the job they were elected to do? Almost certainly not. History reveals that some of our most revered leaders had habits which were then hidden behind the hedge of silence. Today they would be hounded from office by the popular press.

Gossip used to move very slowly out from the centre and no lady would tell her maid what she had heard. The mainstream press maintained silence. The world wide web has changed all that. Gossip now spreads around the world in nanoseconds. Or does it. I suspect that if I walked out onto my village green in Suffolk and offered £50 to the first person to name Prescott’s mistresses, I would come home in a hour with the money in my pocket.

Yet clearly the political establishment is rattled by bloggers, even if the news has not been carried as widely as they suspect. They fear the unknown reaches of cyberspace.

If Prescott had simply said in that radio interview, “Mind your own business. I am not going to answer that question,” he might have been surprised by a reasonably sympathetic response. As it is, he looked shifty and that is not good for a politician.

The question of whether the Government, desperate to find someone to take on the white elephant of the Millennium Dome, has been giving favourable treatment to Philip Anschutz’s super-casino bid is “in the public interest”. But whether Prescott had two more affairs than have already been admitted is only interesting to the public.

At the same time it the environment is which journalists and politicians co-exist is being changed by blogging and that is making decisions on what should or should not be published harder.

I’m sticking with ‘citizen journalism’

Jeff Jarvis, the “bloggers’ blogger” as Roy Greenslade calls him in at Guardian Unlimited, is recanting his use of the term “citizen journalism”.

“I think,” Jarvis writes, “a better term for what I’ve been calling “citizen journalism” might be “networked journalism.” He goes on to explain:

“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product.

I carry some of the blame for pushing “citizens’ media” and “citizen journalism” as terms to describe the phenomenon we are witnessing in this new era of news.

He says he was never satisfied with the term.

There is good reason to be dissatisfied. When you put two words which are difficult, if not impossible, to define you end up with something even more imprecise. I have never been able to arrive at a better definition of journalism than, “you know it when you see it”. Citizen is nearly as difficult and on any definition excludes millions of displaced people and economic migrants around the world.

The problem is trying to describe something which ranges from bar stool rants to considered, even academic, discussion of deep issues. In between we have rumour, conspiracy theories and downright lies.

I have long considered that mediation, the process of group decision-making and editing, is a crucial element of journalism as we have come to know it. That is largely missing from what we have been calling “citizen journalism”. It promotes the rumour exchanged in the supermarket queue to journalism.

So my argument is more with the use of the term “journalism” than with “citizen” although both have their problems.

Jarvis’s alternative, “networked journalism” is even worse. Journalism has always depended on networks, networks of sources and people prepared to publish. Journalism cannot exist without networks whether they be in cyberspace or the physical world. To appropriate the word in this way is entirely wrong.

In a rather vague way we have come to know what is meant by “citizen journalism”. There is no good reason to abandon it, certainly not for something far worse.

FoI ruling on Blair’s coyness about meetings with Murdoch

While the numbers of stories about deputy prime minister John Prescott’s meetings with billionaire Philip Anschutz, who has taken the Dome off the British Governments hands, has escalated over the past 24 hours, there are glimmers of a more significant story about Government contact with American billionaires.

The information commissioner has ordered the Cabinet Office to reveal the dates of meetings between Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch or explain its failure to do so, according the the Guardian.

The Cabinet office has argued that disclosure, demanded under the Freedom of Information Act, would “undermine the prime minister’s ability to hold free and frank discussions in the future”.

But the information commissioner is having none of that. He says there is a stronger public interest in understanding more about the workings of government.

We do know that Mr Blair is to talk at a conference of Murdoch’s executives in California later this month. The frequency of contact between the man who controls Sky, the Sun and the Times and the one who runs the country is something we would all like to know.

Independent questions BBC’s coverage of Prescott tale

The Independent’s diary, Pandora, has a little go at the BBC today for not giving enough air-time to a story about John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, staying with Philip Anschutz, the American bilionaire. He is the man who agreed to take the ill-fated Millennium Dome off the Government’s hands and now want to include a casino in his plans for an entertainment centre.

Prescott, who has now been stripped of most of his powers, says it was just there for rest and recreation and did not talk business.

Pandora harks back to claims that the BBC underplayed the earlier story about Prescott’s fling with his diary secretary, sex in the office and all than. And it goes on to question the sparse mention by the BBC of the latest event.

The answer could be “news value” now that Prescott has lost his ministerial powers. But who is behind this latest pop at the BBC as Charter renewal is discussed. The clue in the Independent piece is a reference to the “annoyance of Tories”.

The Conservatives are worried that while discussions about the future of the BBC take place it will be too kind to Labour which holds power over its future.

Big media companies also like to have a go at the BBC as they try to curb an organisation which they see as too powerful, with its TV licence funding. It is ironic that large media businesses, including the likes of News Corp, should feel threatened. But they do as they watch News 24 match Sky News, the growth of the Beeb’s web site and its successful magazine business.

On the whole the BBC, faced with all these influences, manages to keep its news output remarkable balanced even if it is a little more timid post-Hutton.

Montgomery’s Mecom wins Orkla

Confirmation that the Norwegian media group Orkla is to have David Montgomery’s Mecom as its new owner was not received with joy by journalists in Oslo today. Mecom which is set on becoming a significant player in European media will move its operational headquarters to Oslo, according to Nettavisen. The response of Norwegian journalists is far from muted according to Kristine Lowe.

Guardian announces “free” downloadable printed edition

Another internet initiative has been announced by the Guardian. From later this summer an eight to 12 page A4 printable edition, updated every 15 minutes will be available from the Guardian Unlimited site.

G24 is being sponsored by BT, the telecoms business, and will be aimed at commuters. The “free service” is not quite so free as Metro when the transferred cost of printing is taken into account but it will be more up-to-date.

Comments by editor Alan Rusbridger seem to link it to the recent “web first” policy when he says: “Increasingly, readers are demanding editorial content tailored to the time and place of their choosing, rather than to artificial deadlines dictated by old print production schedules.”

Accodting to chief executive Carolyn McCall, quoted by UK Press Gazette, it will meet the “changing needs of our online users and readers”.

There is an example front page available on the page making the announcement. But it contradicts the copy by clearly not being A4 in size, wasting trees with huge top and bottom margins when printed. Looks rather like an announcement that has been rushed.

Guardian has ‘crossed a line’

After four days of the Guardian’s “web first” policy Harriet Sherwood, the foreign editor, today (Saturday) writes about the “modest start” they have made. In the Editor’s week slot she says the significance should not be underestimated. “We have crossed a line — and two things are inescapable: other newspapers will follow, and there is no going back,” she says.

There have been some problems with processes set up in advance not quite fitting reality and practical issues which had not been anticipated. But that was to be expected. The new “web first” policy only affects foreign and City desks at present and some commentators such as Steffen Fjaervik in his rather doubting post at the Poynter Institute have ignored the implications of this.

Foreign and financial news often cannot be used in a London-based paper until long after the event. Sherwood points out that on Wednesday they were able to post on Guardian Unlimited their story on the release of Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir from an Indonesian jail at 11.15am. The copy would have been old by the time it could appear in the following day’s printed edition.

Stories from Asia, Africa and the Middle East are most likely to be published earliest in the UK day. Sherwood says reporters in those areas are getting used to a different pattern of working. And she is adamant that quality will not be sacrificed for speed.

I expect there will be a lot more organisational, quality and commercial issues to be faced in the coming weeks and, inevitably, turf skirmishes if not wars.

Can “big media” meet the web challenge?

Neither of Britain’s two most successful web sites is a conventional market economy business forced to watch daily shareprices. The BBC, funded by a compulsory licence fee, and the Guardian, owned by the Scott Trust whose purpose is the maintained the daily, do not have the financial markets on their backs.

This raises the question of whether the big commercial broadcasting and print organisations around the world are capable of taking the longer view which the transformation of media demands.

Two examples do not prove a case. Yet the evidence is mounting that early investment and belief in the web is paying off for both. There are other factors, of course: liberal America looking abroad for news, the Guardian’s more compact size and the BBC’s success with Freeview digital TV on its home ground among them.

Amid the gloom about shrinking print circulations, the latest year-on-year figures show the Guardian edging up. There are many ways of presenting these numbers but with a few exceptions they show newspaper circulations declining. The Guardian’s regional Manchester Evening News is among them and is to make part of its distribution free. (Papers handed out for free are the current newspaper success story. Two in London and recently in Spain I was handed four on one street corner.)

But to say the web comes first is a big step for anyone with ink under their fingernails. That is what The Guardian is doing with the foreign and city departments introducing a “web first” policy. It means they will put up print staff stories on the web site as they are filed — no more waiting until the print edition is out.

Ian Mayes, the paper’s readers’ editor today, quotes the editor as saying: We have to look at the way in which people are choosing to read the Guardian — younger people are not reading the printed paper — and we have to respond quickly to further changes in digital technology. To put it another way, I’m committing the Guardian to being where the audience, the readership, is.” Read Ian on the converging paths of printed paper and web.

This does not mean print is dead and in another move the paper is to start printing in five US cities, although they do not appear to be thinking of circulations which will worry the American dailies. It seems to be more a matter of building on the brand image their web presence has created on the other side of the Atlantic. The Times (of London) has already begun printing in New York.

And the BBC is launching its advertising-supported BBC World TV service on cable in the US going head to head with CNN and Fox. They have had a limited presence for some time but are building on their audiences in some 200 countries and territories.

At home, the domestic digital service News 24, has marginally overtaken Murdoch’s Sky News, partly because of the the success of Freeview. Another factor has been Sky’s disastrous relaunch which is now being rolled back.

We seem to be seeing a confidence in both the BBC and the Guardian born of their success on the web both at home and abroad. The brands are becoming better known and they are building on that.

The other question is whether they would have had that confidence if they had shareholders breathing down their necks demanding “dividends now!” I suspect the answer is a clear “no”.

Expect the bleatings of “unfair competition” about the BBC to increase in volume.

Post script (Tuesday): Interesting thoughts on the cultural change in the newsroom of the Guardian on Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog