Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Myths of citizen journalism

Is the concept of citizen journalism fatally flawed? That is the question in a recent posting on a World Association of Newspapers blog.

“The fad journalism model is being brought down by poorly written and poorly presented content that is greatly inferior to content produced by experts,” it explains. “To put it bluntly, if you need information on a subject, would you rather rely on the edited and proofread opinion of an expert, or the misspelled musings from some guy sitting in his basement?”

Okay, that is a pretty easy question to answer, but I don’t think it really is that simple. Citizens have much to contribute, though it probably is not in taking our jobs as professional journalists.

I recently read of the accomplishments of a newspaper in Poland, the Gazeta Wyborcza. In 1996 in producing a guide to maternity wards in its community, the newspaper asked its readers for their experiences. It received 2,000 letters.

In 2006, the newspaper did the same survey online and received 40,000 responses! Needless to say, the survey was a huge success.

The Gazeta Wyborcza’s special projects editor, Grzegorz Piechota, has what I think is an intelligent view on the phenomenon of citizen journalism and how it relates to traditional news organizations.

“Readers are not journalists,” Piechota explained to the Ifra magazine newspaper techniques. “But readers are experts in real-life issues that we, the editors, often miss. We would be stupid not to ask them for help.”

Journalists have a tendency to dismiss citizen contributions and to put them in a separate area of their websites. They seem to be saying, you can post the pictures of your pets and children here, but we will keep the real journalism to ourselves.

There is much wisdom in this insight from Lawrence Picard at Harvard University: "News organizations that align themselves closely with their audience...and that allow their audiences to participate… will be able to create the value needed to sustain themselves and financially benefit..."

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Megan Meier Case

The Internet is abuzz with debate over the death of 13-year-old Megan Meier. She committed suicide after being jilted by a boy named Josh who had shown interest in her in the virtual world of MySpace. As it turns out, there was no Josh. He was a cruel hoax, the work of a neighbor whose daughter had had a falling out with Megan.

Authorities say no law was broken, so no charges can be filed. Many in the online forums are unconvinced and outraged. This post from "Cindy" is typical: "She is the DEVIL, evil beyond words and if she does not pay for this crime, she will when she burns in the hottest of hells when her soul goes to hell. Hell is not even hot enough for this lowest form of scum on the earth." (Read more>)

In reviewing coverage of the case, both online and in traditional media, the web has more passion and more information. Online posts have identified the woman, her husband, his employer, their business and its customers (complete with addresses and phone numbers). Meanwhile, traditional news organizations so far have withheld the name of the neighbor.

In one posting, someone who identified himself as a newspaper journalist wrote: "Every day newspaper journalism as we know it gets one step closer to death, as readers turn to blogs and TV and other media for information. This wimp of an editor, who doesn't have the guts to name the wrongdoers involved, has just hastened our eventual demise by at least another week or two."

There is a common assumption that traditional journalists do the reporting and the blogosphere sits back and provides commentary. In this case, as in so many, most of the reporting is being done online by private citizens. But the lingering question remains, are they journalists, vigilantes or both?

It is obvious from my review how much private citizens can contribute to a story. However, one is reminded of the importance of journalistic ethics and an understanding that in the U.S., we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The increasing importance of multimedia content

A common theme in the online world is the growing importance of multimedia content. Just about every newspaper with whom we work now offers video in some fashion and just about all of them are reporting significant increases in traffic for it.

So I am rarely surprised when I talk to a newspaper and they tell me about the explosive growth of multimedia usage on their sites. However, I learned something last week at The New York Times that took even me by surprise.

During the recent California wildfires, 10 percent of all site traffic was for multi media content, according to Fiona Spruill, editor of The Times' web newsroom. This percentage represents a staggering number. NYTimes.com is a hugely successful website that counts its page views in the billions. That's with a "B."

The Times' success with multimedia underscores the importance of a video/multimedia strategy for almost any news website as well as to companies and other strategic communicators. The simple truth is if you don't offer multimedia content, your visitors are going to be drawn to other websites that do.

Video usage has transcended the young who led the charge to YouTube. Now thanks to increasingly pervasive broadband connections, we all are watching stories that include pictures and sounds. We do indeed live in a multimedia world.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

N.C. newspaper gets it--and gets it fast!

When folks in Shelby, N.C., wanted to see election results this week, they had a trusted source, the Web site of The Shelby Star. However what they saw on that site was rather unusual, certainly for a newspaper.

The Star had taken its Star Car live unit to a fire station where results traditionally are displayed. Web visitors could see live, streaming video of the results as well as the crowd who had gathered to see them. In its first official week of operation, the Star Car is making its presence known in Shelby.

The Star Car is a news vehicle that is designed to facilitate getting information and multi media content quickly back to the newspaper and its Web site. It is not a TV live truck, but it does many of the same things. In the words of Star Publisher Skip Foster, "It is good enough." (Read more>)

The Star, which is owned by Freedom Communications, is one of the most innovative newspapers in the United States. It has engaged its community with relevant, multi media content. Its series on an unsolved murder is journalism at its finest--and an example of why convergent journalism is more powerful. (Read more>) The series has led to an arrest in the 40-year-old case and is the subject of a documentary on the Oxygen cable network.

When big newspapers tell me they don't have the resources to implement a convergence strategy, I smile and point to Shelby, which has fewer than 20 journalists in its newsroom.

In the months ahead, I predict you are going to be hearing a lot more about the Shelby Star and its Star Car.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Korean perspective

One of the bonuses of working in a facility with an international client base is the opportunity to interact with journalists from all over the world. This week, we are working with--and learning from--a group of media executives from South Korea.

The Korean journalists are here as part of a Newsplex executive study tour. They are members of a leadership class at the Korea Press Foundation, which includes newspaper, television and online journalists.

In many ways, the news media in Korea are among the most progressive in the world. Mobile technologies are quite advanced and there is almost universal Internet access. The online community is robust and thriving. OhmyNews in Seoul, with 50,0000 citizen reporters, is the gold standard of citizen journalism.

Yet, the structure of Korean news organizations typically is quite traditional According to the group, many Korean journalists fear change, this in a country that prides itself on innovation.

We did a conference call with an editor at London's Daily Telegraph, where last year's reorganization and move into a new newsroom rejuvenated this venerable daily. The Koreans were fascinated by the lessons of the DT.

It really doesn't matter where you are or what language is being spoken, the issues are universal. Journalists demand change from those they cover, be they politicians, coaches or business leaders. But when it comes to their own newsrooms, that's different story, even in Korea.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Tragedy and New Media

Tragedy has struck here at the University of South Carolina and it is interesting to see how both old and new media are contributing to coverage of the story.

Seven college students died Sunday morning in a ferocious fire at a North Carolina beach house. Six of them attended USC.

Authorities did not release the identities of the victims for more than 48 hours. Yet thanks to the social networking sites, especially Facebook, we not only got to know their names, but we also got to know them as people.

Traditional media organizations withheld the names Sunday, even though they were available online. But by Monday, as grief stricken friends were creating message boards online and relatives were stepping forward to give interviews, news organizations posted the names on their websites.

To date, the professional coverage has been thorough, but restrained, respectful of the lives that were lost. As I have monitored that coverage, talked to students and compared this story to others like it, here and elsewhere, I think a few conclusions are fairly obvious:

The best pictures, once again, came from an amateur, a neighbor with a video camera. As the BBC pointed out after the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, they could not aspire to be every place in the world where news happens. But real people with video cameras and camera phones are everywhere and are capturing truly newsworthy images.

The social networking sites like Faceback are playing an increasingly important role. One newly-created Facebook group, RIP Students Who Perished On Oct. 28 2007, already has more than 11,000 members. The online community has provided students a way to share their grief. It also has provided reporters a rich source of information to bring texture and depth to their stories.

The role of traditional media is just as important as ever. The best coverage of the fire has come from professional journalists, not amateurs. Plus in the always on, always connected world, we need editors more than ever. Some message boards inaccurately identified some as victims who are still alive. Fortunately, I am not aware of any of these mistakes being published.

I think this story reflects something we will see far more of in the future, with citizen journalists playing an increasingly important, but still supplementary role to professional coverage. We both have jobs to do and both are important.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't forget ethics

One of the benefits of academia is being able to teach and interact with bright students. While Newsplex is a professional training facility, located in a different building from the USC School of Journalism, each semester I typically teach one undergraduate course, Freedom, Responsibility and Ethics.

At this point in the semester, my students are trying to understand the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It all makes sense in theory, a website that simply posts user comments is a conduit, similar to the phone company, and not liable for those postings.

However in practice, as news organizations encourage reader comments, such unedited postings can take on an ugly, unprofessional tone. Things we would never allow in print routinely can be found on the websites of reputable news organizations. By surrendering our journalistic standards to the dark side of the web, aren't we inviting laws and regulations that will erode our journalistic freedoms?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lessons of Tampa

Gil Thelen now heads the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. However as executive editor and subsequently publisher of The Tampa Tribune, he has been on the frontlines of the convergence battle.

Thelen spoke Friday (19 October) in Newsplex to a seminar on change management. He outlined 12 steps that are necessary for a successful convergence strategy. They include:

1. Put together a team that buys into both the problem and the solution.
2. Implement your strategy relentlessly.
3. Work from data and an outside perspective.
4. Change the conversation in the newsroom, starting with editors and managers.
5. Tell the staff to get on the bus or get off. The challenges facing newspapers today are too crucial to delay or wait.
6. Change the culture. Attack with facts and big ideas.
7. Demand involvement.
8. Geography is destiny. The architecture of a newsroom will help or hinder what you are trying to accomplish.
9. Bet the farm. Don't be afraid to jump into the deep end of the pool.
10. Help the business and editorial sides of the organization understand each other. Their traditional isolation is not helping today.
11. Look each day for levers or points of leverage for change.
12. Demonstrate hope. As Thelen describes it, the optimist is the new maverick.

This is quite a list and it puts the arguments we hear so often into a broader framework. If you are willing to embrace the things Thelen describes, then this is quite an exciting time to be working in journalism.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why change?

There are lots of reasons for news organizations to change and some of the best ones can be heard this week in Newsplex. Fourteen journalists from across North and South America have gathered for a two-day seminar on change management. Dietmar Schantin, director of Ifra's Newsplex initiative, presented an insider's look at the change process at London's Daily Telegraph.

The Telegraph, a big newspaper with 460 journalists and 900,000 daily circulation, made significant changes in its newsroom organization and workflows when it moved into a striking new newsroom in October, 2006. The DT reorganization is viewed as the convergence story of the year worldwide. Dr. Schantin explained how the changes were implemented with strong leadership from the top of the organization.

The story stands in stark contrast to so many newspapers, where change is approached timidly and in small, incremental steps. This lesson of Newsplex is that change takes a lot of commitment from the top.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Death of journalism as we know it?

Janet Kolodzy says it's about time, suggesting that we listen to our audience and stop trying to do journalism the way we always have done it.

Kolodzy heads the journalism program at Emerson College and is the author of Convergence Journalism, an excellent textbook on writing and reporting across media. Hers was one of many provocative insights to emerge here at the University of South Carolina from the just concluded conference on Convergence and Society.

Speaking of convergence, Kolodzy suggests that:

Those who have never tried it are the biggest detractors.
What works for one organization may or not work for another.
There is no right way to do it.
The fundamentals of journalism do not change.

Anything you would add to the list?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is this marriage going to work?

By now you probably have heard. MSNBC purchased Newsvine, one of the better citizen journalism sites in the U.S.

It wasn’t that long ago when citizen journalism and user generated content were all the rage. After all, OhmyNews in Seoul helped elect the country’s president and had more than 40,000 citizen reporters.

But now, we hear that OhmyNews traffic is down. Here in the U.S., the Backfence citizen sites have stopped operating and many media organizations are learning that citizen generated pictures of babies and pets really don’t draw that big a crowd.

Which brings us back to Newsvine. The site seems to do a nice job aggregating stories from many sources. Taking a page from Digg, the stories are then ranked by site users, who can comment or even write their own columns. To date, the results have been promising with a reported 1.2 million unique users per month.

So far so good. But will the marriage to MSNBC work? Will MSNBC learn and benefit from its new acquisition or will they screw it up? What do you think?