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Citizen Media: A Progress Report

In my keynote at last month’s OhmyNews International Citizen Reporters’ Forum in Seoul, I was asked to offer a year-on-year progress report on the state of citizen journalism. To sum up:

We’ve come a long way. There’s a growing recognition and appreciation of why citizen journalism matters. Investments, from media organizations and others, are fueling experiments of various kinds. Revenue models are taking early shape. And, most important, there’s a flood of great ideas.

But we have a long, long way to go. We need much more experimentation in journalism and community information projects. The business models are, at best, uncertain — and some notable failures are discouraging. Dealing with the issues of trust, credibility and ethics is essential; as are more tools and training, including a dramatically updated notion of media literacy.

I offered 10 major points in my talk, as follows:

1. Recognition of citizen media.

No one can doubt that we have the attention of just about everyone now. A Google News search on “citizen journalism” turns up more than 700 stories today, albeit that some are repeats and some are from OhmyNews itself.

2Video, in particular, has become an essential element of the citizen-media phenomenon. The famous “Macaca” video from last year’s Virginia senate race helped decide the outcome. And the mobile-phone video from the Virginia Tech slaughter scene reminded us that passers-by with cameras are more likely to capture major public events than professionals, at least in the early minutes.

Major nonprofit organizations stepped up to the scene in a bigger way, too. Topping that list was the Knight Foundation (which has funded one of our projects), with its multi-million-dollar 21st Century News Challenge (several winners of which had ties to this center as well).

2. Traditional Media Get It Now

It’s been heartening to watch traditional media organizations, big and small, truly move into this arena. Oh, the vast majority of newspapers now have staff blogs, which is a good start, but the more forward-looking organizations are inviting their audiences to participate in the actual journalism — and that’s where this gets truly exciting.Lemonde Blogs

So Le Monde offers reader blogs, and turns some new writers into online celebrities. The Ft. Myers (Florida) News-Press asks readers to help investigate city government, and gets superb results. Germany’s Bild newspaper asks readers to become “citizen papparazzi” — a questionable activity, in my view, given the privacy implications, but a move that again heralds the future. Sweden’s Aftonbladet offers a blog portal. Reuters has created a partnership with Global Voices Online to bring African blogging to a wider public.
I’m working formally and informally now with several organizations, on projects that could be wonderful if they succeed but which will certainly help us discover what works and what doesn’t. Experimentation — see below — is rife, in the professional and amateur ranks, and that is a wonderful thing.

3. Backlash

Lemann CritiqueThere’s always a backlash against new things. Sometimes it comes in the form of ill-informed, reactionary fear and loathing. Sometimes it takes the form of serious critiques. But it’s always important to pay attention.

What worries may of the more honest critics? Among other things, the sense that mass amateurization in media lead to a meltdown of quality.

Consider Encyclopedia Britannica. The people there are seeing their core business, if not raison d’etre, come under challenge from the online world, most notably by Wikipedia. Never mind that those projects are extremely different; Britannica has gone on the attack, giving its new blog over to citizen-media critics, some of whom have independently discredited themselves to a large extent, and others whose arguments have been systematically pulled apart. (Michael Gorman’s “Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters” and Clay Shirky’s rebuttal, “Old Revolutions, Good; New Revolutions, Bad” are a prime example of the latter.)

Critics have also legitimately raised ethical concerns. They note that the standards of traditional media — often violated, of course — tend to prevent overt interference with journalism by the subjects of coverage. We’ll come back to that.

4. Tools and Ideas

PlacebloggerThere’s never been such an amazing time to be trying out new things. We’re almost buried in an avalanche of tools and ideas that have enormous potential to make journalism more diverse — and better.

The ideas and tools are everywhere. Consider just a few examples among thousands I could list:

  • Jay Rosen’s, where pro-am journalistic “crowdsourcing” is looking more and more real, and where the potential for improving journalism is breathtaking.
  • Map mashups, such as the powerful Tunisian Prison Map that is shining a light on a repressive regime’s stifling of political dissent.
  • New mobile communication devices such as the Apple iPhone and Nokia’s N95, which are making major evolutionary advances in media production.
  • Placeblogger, where Lisa Williams has been aggregating a new kind of local media and is working on a geo-tagging system that could encourage more relevant local advertising.
  • Pambazuka News, an African podcasting service that calls itself a “weekly forum for social justice in Africa.”

What all these have in common is a sense of exploration. This is something to celebrate.

5. Business Issues

RadioopensourceThe disruption in traditional media economics continues to grow. Layoffs abound at major media companies, and the litany of fear and loathing in the news business is disheartening.

Citizen media efforts are likewise struggling to find business models. The past year has produced some heartening signs, but not so many that we can get even remotely confident –witness the failures of high-profile startups.

Niche and some citizen-media news sites are growing quickly, when the quality is high enough and especially when advertisers see a viable marketplace. When Om Malik secured funding to expand his journalism, for example, people who cared about the emergence of new journalism cheered. In Israel, Scoop, a citizen-journalism site that has used OhmyNews as a model, made a major advertising deal with Orange, a big telecom provider. NowPublic made a deal with the Associated Press in which the news agency is using citizen photos in news reports.

Foundations started paying more serious attention, too. The Knight Foundation’s 21st Century News Challenge pumped some money into the emerging media marketplace, funding a variety of projects that have enormous potential.

For all the advances, we had plenty of failures. The demise of Backfence got lots of attention, but it was hardly the only project to fall by the wayside. Perhaps the most disappointing, from my point of view, was a funding loss at the nonprofit Radio Open Source, a site that was doing some of the most innovative work anywhere.

6. Experimentation is Cheap

The cost of trying new ideas is heading toward zero. That means lots and lots of people will — already are — testing the possibilities of new media.

Clay Shirky has done some acute analysis of this phenomenon. He points to the lesson of SourceForge, the site where open-source software developers post projects for other people to download, analyze and hopefully improve. Clay notes that the overwhelming majority of SourceForge projects are, by any definition, failures. (The image at right shows the cutoff where projects have no downloads at all — about half of all of them.) But those tens of thousands of failures are individually inexpensive, and they set a stage for the few but vitally important successes. What does this imply? He writes:

(T)he low cost of failure means that someone with a new idea doesn’t have to convince anyone else to let them try it — there are few institutional barriers between thought and action.

So the R&D that the news industry should have done years ago is now being done in a highly distributed way. Yes, some is being done by people inside media companies, but most is not — and increasingly it won’t be. It’ll take place in universities, in corporate labs, in garages and at kitchen tables.

In other words, not only don’t you need permission, but you don’t need much money, either. This is one reason I’m so optimistic about the future of media, and of journalism.

7. Some Experiments to Pursue

AngelsmsThe possibilities are endless, but I have a few suggestions for the kinds of inexpensive projects I’d like to see. In several cases I’m actively pursuing them myself.

One is in the exploding arena of mobility. This has several components. We’re taking the Net with us now, no longer tethered to PCs. This isn’t news at all to people in parts of Europe and Asia, but in the U.S., which has been hopelessly behind the curve, it’s a new reality. And as devices (like the Apple and Nokia “phones,” where voice communication is almost the least interesting feature) grow in sophistication and function, we can not only get and interact with information when and where we want, we can also add to collective knowledge (the image at left relates to an SMS experiment I worked on last summer) from wherever we are, in something close to real time.

Another arena to pursue is also largely untapped. I put it in the category of what Microsoft researcher Marc Smith once told me. Paraphrasing, he said that it’s not just every person who can tell a story, but increasingly also — because of bar codes and radio tags — every object. The potential is simply staggering when we think this through.

My philosophy for experimentation:

  • Openness: Use open technologies, and be open with others about what you are doing. Now, a truly spectacular idea may be such a hot business project that one should work in stealth mode, but most ideas will find more traction with the help of others who care about what you’re doing.
  • Use tools that already exist: Reinventing wheels is rarely a productive use of time in the cheap-experiments arena. Chances are that many if not all of the tools you need are already available.
  • Collaboration: Work with anyone and everyone.
  • Take risks: This is by far the most important. Silicon Valley, where I’ve lived for more than a decade, has taught me a crucial truth, that a culture of risk-taking is a precondition for wider success. The low cost of trying, and correspondingly low cost of failure, is removing virtually all reasons for not taking chances.

8. Ethics, Reliability, Civility

BloggercodeThe critics are on perhaps their soundest ground when they raise questions of trust in citizen media. It’s not enough for those of us in the field to point out that the traditional media also have issues in this regard. We have to acknowledge the problems and work on the solutions.

Some recent examples of questionable activity point out the problems. What’s heartening is that they were exposed and denounced, not just by citizen media folks but also, in several cases, by big-media organizations.

For example, the “Wal-Marting Across America” blog, purportedly by two unaffiliated fans of the retailing behemoth, was revealed to be something of a PR stunt. And the odious Pay-Per-Post operation, appropriately termed “stupid and evil” by Jason Calacanis, showed that ethical issues are just as important in the blogosphere as in traditional media.

And in the wake of not-new worries about civility online, some well-meaning folks started a useful discussion of whether bloggers — and by extension, all creators of citizen media — need some kind of code of conduct or tagging system (or both) to guide their activities and explain their approaches to what they do. My observation here is that this is a valuable discussion, but that asking bloggers to adhere to someone else’s code in any remotely formal way is unlikely to get traction, and that’s probably a good thing.

9. Assisting Trust

NewstrustWe have ample opportunity, meanwhile, to find ways to enhance citizen media credibility — and that of all journalists, in whatever format they use — with updated techniques and tools.

NewsTrust is one such project. It uses a combination of notions, including some social networking tools, to “to help people identify quality journalism – or ‘news you can trust.’ The site’s users rate news based on quality, not just popularity.

Which brings up what I consider an absolutely essential goal in this arena: moving from the idea of a Daily Me to a Daily Us. We’re coming closer and closer to the former, with RSS aggregators and other tools that help us pull together news reports from the sources we choose.

More recently, sites such as Digg and NewsVine have added a strong measure of popularity to the mix. They create communities of users who vote stories up and down, and in the process help identify at least some of what’s important, interesting or merely weird in current events and entertainment.

But popularity doesn’t come close to solving the puzzle. We need to add reputation, an easy thing to say but incredibly complicated to do. (I’ll be writing more about this soon.) Suffice it to say that whoever solves this is going to make a bundle; it nears holy-grail territory, in my view, for sorting out the good from the bad, the useful from the trivial, the trustworthy from the phony.

10. Media Literacy

Citmedia PrinciplesWhat becomes increasingly clear is the need to update media literacy for a media-saturated age. When people are creators of media, not just consumers, the task is more complex — but more important than ever.

Think of media literacy in terms of principles, not a bunch of specific must-do kinds of instructions. They differ somewhat depending on the role one is playing in the media ecosystem.

But even those of us who are producers of media are much more often consumers. When we’re in that role, we should consider these principles:

  • Be skeptical. We need to be skeptical of just about all media. This means not taking or granted the trustworthiness of what we read, see or hear from media of all kinds, whether from traditional news organizations, blogs, online videos or you name it.
  • Use an internal “trust meter.” But being skeptical of everything doesn’t mean being equally skeptical of everything. That’s why we need to bring to the modern media the same kinds of parsing we learned in a less complex time when there were only a few primary sources of information. Imagine a credibility scale ranging from plus 10 to minus 10. I give a New York Times or Wall Street Journal article an automatic plus 8 or 9; I don’t assume perfection but I do trust that, in articles by most reporters for those publications, a strong effort went into getting it right. An anonymous comment on a random blog, by contrast, starts at minus 8 or 9; it would have to go a long way to merely have zero credibility.
  • Learn media techniques. Younger people are getting pretty good at this already. What I suspect they — and almost everyone else — lacks in this regard is understanding how communications are designed to persuade, and how we can be manipulated. We need to teach ourselves, and our children, about how media work in ways that go far beyond knowing how to take a snapshot with a mobile phone or posting something in a blog.
  • Keep reporting. No one with any common sense buys a car solely based on a TV commercial. We do some homework. It’s the kind of research and follow-up that journalists do. So let’s call it reporting. We need to recognize the folly of making any major decision about our lives based on something we read, hear or see — and the need to keep reporting, sometimes in major ways, to ensure that we make good choices.

You’ll find every one of those principles in the journalist’s toolkit. But the media creator who wants to tell other people small or large things about the world in any remotely journalistic way, should recognize a few more principles. For journalists, “amateur” or professional, they are:

  • Thoroughness. Reporters try to learn as much as they can about a topic. It’s better to know much more than you publish than to leave big holes in your story. The best reporters always want to make one more call, check with one more source.
  • Accuracy. Accuracy is the starting point for all good journalism. Get your facts right, then check them again. Know where to look to verify claims or to separate fact from fiction.
  • Fairness. Whether you are presenting a balanced story or arguing from a point of view, your readers will feel cheated if you slant the facts or present opposing opinions disingenuously.
  • Independence. Being independent can mean many things, but independence of thought may be most important. Professional journalists can be relatively independent of conflicts of interest, but sometimes they’re so beholden to their sources, and to access to those sources, that they are not independent at all.
  • Transparency. Simply, if you have a horse in the race, say so. Reveal — if relevant to what you’re talking about — your motives, your background, your financial interests.

We fleshed out that latter set of principles for this site and the Knight Citizen News Network earlier this year. We hope you’ll take a look at them.

(Note: The center and/or I have advisory and/or financial relationships to some of the sites and people mentioned in this posting. They include the Knight Foundation, Placeblogger, Knight Foundation, Jay Rosen and, NowPublic and NewsTrust. Please see Supporters and Disclosures.)

53 Comments on “Citizen Media: A Progress Report”

  1. #1 PCs, mobiles and the growth of citizen media « ICT for Peacebuilding (ICT4Peace)
    on Nov 2nd, 2007 at 7:46 am

    […] Gillmor who I met during Strong Angel III in San Diego last year has posted some thoughts on the state of citizen journalism globally. He touches on many interesting aspects of the growth of citizen driven content and importantly, […]

  2. #2 Grenzpfosten : Blogs zwischen freiem Journalismus und Unternehmensinteressen
    on Nov 7th, 2007 at 4:47 am

    […] not just by citizen media folks but also, in several cases, by big-media organizations.” (link) via […]

  3. #3 Josh Parker
    on Sep 19th, 2008 at 6:49 pm

    check out you scoop it…its a new cit journalism site and looks really nice