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Some questions and answers about citizen media

Submitted by yelvington on June 19, 2007 - 11:30am

An editor for Ifra's magazine, Newspaper Techniques, interviewed me via email. Here's my response:

How can newspapers implement community sites?

I think the first step is to recognize the nature of community, and the constructive role played by journalism.

We typically don't do that. We typically think our job begins and ends with "covering the news," and we don't think carefully enough about what effects we have in the community.

Our goal should be helping build a society in which people are not only well informed, but are empowered and motivated to participate actively. Every decision we make, every coverage choice, affects that goal.

The word "community" is a slippery one, and the definition is changing. We used to think of a community as a place. The Internet has created a new definition: communities of interest.

There's a lot we can learn from Internet startups if we just recognize that geographic community is actually a special interest. A smart special-interest community-builder works to heighten participants' sense of identity -- of being part of something special. Traditional, local media can do that, too.

How can a newspaper group start something similar to BlufftonToday.com? What is needed in terms of technology? How can such a 'newsroom' be organised?

The important thing to recognize about Bluffton Today is that it's a multimedia operation that endeavors to exploit the unique strengths of each medium.

The newspaper is free and home-delivered, taking advantage of print's advantages in browsability and discovery.

The website engages people in a conversation through blogs and photo-sharing, taking advantage of the Internet's advantages in human interaction and immediacy.

These two sides come together through a professional news staff that uses the Web as a listening post. We pick up some blogs and photos for the print product, but the real "secret sauce" is that the community conversation helps the professional journalist connect with the real interests and passions of regular people, and not just the agendas of the institutions and newsmakers that pro journalists usually cover.

Our own research shows that the professional news staff of Bluffton Today is closely aligned with members of the community when asked about community issues and problems, while there is a big gap at most other newspapers. We think that tight alignment is one of the big factors contributing to the extraordinary readership success of the newspaper.

To make this work, the news staff has to be broadly engaged with the website and the blogging process. It's more a matter of culture change and mindset than organizational structure, although the wrong structural approach can certainly build barriers and walls between journalists and the Web. We're moving toward very deep integration of the Web into the newsrooms of all of our newspapers.

The technology isn't difficult or expensive, and the open-source software movement is making that more true every day. We wrote our own photo-sharing software to meet our specific needs, but our blogging and social networking tools are built on the free Drupal platform. Since we launched BlufftonToday.com on April 1, 2005, hundreds of newspapers around the world have adopted Drupal as an online community technology.

Open source works best when "many hands make light work." Ken Rickard at Morris DigitalWorks has contributed a very powerful personalization module to Drupal, and I would strongly encourage other newspaper companies to make similar technology contributions. You can learn more at http://groups.drupal.org/newspapers-on-drupal.

What would be the job description for a citizen journalist?

I would rather look for an effective citizen than a "citizen journalist."

We're not looking to have citizens do our jobs for us, although there will often be a big overlap in roles played by an active citizen and a professional journalist.

In general, people are not looking to become amateur news reporters. They're primarily looking to join in Internet conversations that meet a number of very personal needs, and those conversations can touch on topics from the mundane to the profound.

The important thing for us to recognize is that all of those conversations -- including the mundane -- are valuable and help people build the relationships that enable meaningful community interaction to take place. Small talk is important.

This process of building "social capital" lays the foundation for a community, whether it's a community of geography or of interest.

We all tend to cite the example of the 2005 London bombings as an example of how anyone can be a journalist in a crisis.

I think the more interesting thing is how anyone can be an investigator every day.

The Web is enabling activists to organize and self-publish. We're seeing activists take on the role of watchdog, and we're seeing activists digging through public information and looking for patterns, and we're seeing activists reveal truths that others would prefer to keep hidden. We should embrace that change. We should celebrate and call attention to their successes, and we should correct their failures.

What is the best way to manage an on-line newspaper with user generated content?

We need to become convenors, guides, facilitators and participants.

Here are a few skills that deserve special attention:

Community building: We should be picking the brains of sociologists, psychologists and political scientists for everything they can tell us about how we can get people away from their TV sets and into group processes with their neighbors.

Conversational writing and listening: A lot of journalists are dreadfully inept when handed a weblog. A successful blogger knows how to select topics that people care about, how to write informally and conversationally, how to be brief, how to listen to responses, and how to interact.

Presentations and group interaction: We can't be successful conveners of communities if all we do is sit on our backsides and play with computers. We have to get out of the office and in front of individuals and groups, talking and listening and selling the idea of joining in an online process that will make the local community a better place.

Guerrilla marketing and promotion: Journalists like to pretend that some magic fairy will swoop down and take care of marketing and promotion, but it doesn't work that way. Getting people to read and participate is everyone's job. One of our most successful efforts is Spotted, our photo-sharing program, in which we send staffers, interns or volunteers out to shoot hundreds of photos of people who are attending public events (turning the camera around on the audience). Each photo subject gets a "You've Been Spotted" business card with the website's address. It works.

Humility: The managing editor of Bluffton Today spent one afternoon soaked in soapy water, bathing dogs to raise money for the local humane society. We all need to climb down from our self-constructed pedestals and get comfortable with the crowd. Arrogance is the cancer of professional journalism, and we need to stop it.

Comments

Steve, you make a good point about the web enabling anyone to become an activist. We are seeing that happen more and more as top advocacy groups turn to the web to influence and connect with their audiences. Threre's even a new site called Friction.tv that allows people to voice their opinions about serious topics and help educate the masses on important issues. I'm working with them now and they are generating a lot of interest. Check them out at http://www.friction.tv.