January 25, 2006

Citizen Journalism: Making New Mistakes

The above headline comes from Dan Gillmor's explicative eulogy to his citizen journalism venture, Bayosphere. Dan credits them to technologist and web pioneer Esther Dyson - "Always make new mistakes" - and uses them to introduce the lessons he learned from Bayosphere about technology, transparency and collaboration, a schooling he will no doubt use to shape his next project, the Center for Citizen Media at UC-Berkeley. (UPDATE: The center is affiliated with Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society as well as Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.)

I don't think it's wise to draw any deep conclusions about the future of citizen journalism or grassroots media - and there is a difference -- from Bayosphere's short-lived existence. We are very early into the we-media cycle. The technology is still developing, the user curve is still rising and there hasn't yet emerged a large-scale viable business model based on media creation (vs. selling the tools).

That said, I see three principles from the Bayosphere experience that are key for newspapers and other entities that hope to use citizen journalism as part or all of their business:

 Community can't be forced.
 Focus is foremost.
 Personality is a plus.

Community can't be forced. Dan alluded to this when he said, "Tools matter, but they're no substitute for community building." I would amend this to say, "Tools matter because they allow people to build communities." One reason newspapers are suffering is the erosion of the importance of geographic communities in favor of virtual communities - soccer parents, Unix users, media critics. Newspapers, with their fixed size, expensive printing plants and gasoline-powered, doorstep delivery can't scale to meet the needs of virtual communities, which rise and fall according to interest and may have no geographic component. [Read: Local News: Who is Going to Write for Citizen Me?] Newspapers specialize in covering location, which in the world of virtual real estate hardly matters.

There are many others who have thought more deeply than I about virtual communities (start with Howard Rheingold), but I think it's fair to say (and please correct me if I'm off base) that most successful online communities thrive because their users feed, nuture and police them, not because they were built by an entrepreneur or incumbent media company.

I have been using Flickr as a recent example. The site now contains more than 70 million photos uploaded by users, who sort the images by tags, rate them as favorites, and share them with friends and family. Within this vast digital warehouse, hundreds and hundreds of communities have formed, groups devoted to locations (California), pets (cats) or objects (doors). Flickr provided the tools, invited members of the digital camera revolution and got out of the way.

Can the Flickr experience translate to citizen journalism ventures like Your Hub or Backfence? I'm not so sure. Certainly, in these nascent stages of those sites, fewer people seem interested in the goings-on in Boulder or Bethesda than in posting photos of their vacations in Cancun. Some of that discrepancy arises from the relative ease of uploading a photo compared to writing a report on the local sewer board. (See Tom Grubisich's well-debated content critique of these sites.) One of the differences between "forced community" sites like Your Hub and Flickr is well articulated by Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, in a comment on Grubisich's piece:

"With online journalism, the less you structure your grassroots initiative like a workplace newsroom, and the more you structure it like a social community, the more successful your initiative will be."

These geo-centric ventures, which are attempting to replace or supplement newspapers as the providers of local news and information, do fulfill the second prime principle of community journalism: Focus.

Focus is foremost. Bayosphere lacked focus, the same ailment eating away at newspapers. The thin-slicing of media into smaller and smaller segments that technology-enabled individuals can now readily reassemble into me-media forms is killing all forms of mass media. Journalism is general - for all newspapers that are not the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or USA Today - must become more focused, more topical and more local. Citizen journalism provides newspapers and other organizations with an opportunity to do that, either by topic (sports, tech) or geography (hyperlocal). But, because media has become personal, both traditional and new forms of journalism are going to need more personality in order to compete for the attention of public already over-stimulated by all forms of digital information and punditry.

Personality is a plus. Compare the bland, templated, almost scrapbook quality of a Your Hub site to the idiosyncratic nature of hyper-local sites like Barista.net or Fresno Famous or H2otown that reflect the personality of the people behind them. They have voice and emotion and quirkiness, human qualities that appeal to people and bring the news down to a small-town level (even if Montclair, N.J., or Fresno, Calif., aren't very small-town at all.)

A reporter from the Wall Street Journal called yesterday to talk about Bayosphere and citizen journalism in general. What is it, he asked, how would you define it? I didn't have a concise answer because I think it's still evolving, so I told him what I believe: That the power to publish is now universal and that fact will forever alter our perception of media - and of journalism. With the barrier to entry gone, the separation of "professional" and "citizen" journalist is no longer dependent on access to systems of creation and distribution. The dividing line now consists of communication skills, topical expertise, creativity and innovation - and it will be the public, not the profession, who decides which journalists deserve their attention.

In his post, Dan Gillmor said that "citizen journalism is, in a significant way, about owning your own words." True. It is also about communities telling their own stories. Newspapers must now decide if they want to be a part of those communities.

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Posted by Tim Porter at January 25, 2006 10:03 AM

Now that I'm advising an actual newspaper on these topics, one of the most important things I tell people is that they simply cannot look at these new forms as traditional business ventures to be planned, staffed, marketed and "launched." You cannot "launch" a community. You can serve one, tend one, nurture one, grow it, but you cannot launch one.

Nor can you control one. A community you control is a plantation. God knows we have enough of those.

Posted by: dan conover on January 26, 2006 07:05 AM

This is a good analysis of the problems with Bayosphere. The biggest flaw was definitely the lack of focus, which virtually assured there'd never be any community and made it really difficult to put a personality on the site.

I think it is possible to create a community site for the Bay Area as a region. And it's something the Web could do better than any other medium. But it would mean focusing on genuinely regional issues, such as transportation, environment, and recreation. The idea would be to keep the "depth of field" narrow and not focus on local issues (e.g. the future of the Mercury News) or on issues that are bigger than regional (e.g. Google). Bayosphere was/is literally all over the map.

You're right that Bayosphere's challenge of focus is the challenge that faces all the press. It's a lot more fun to write about the politics of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo cozying up to Beijing than about the politics of BART.

Posted by: Barry Parr on January 26, 2006 10:31 AM

Great piece, Tim.

You wrote, "Can the Flickr experience translate to citizen journalism ventures like Your Hub or Backfence? I'm not so sure. Certainly, in these nascent stages of those sites, fewer people seem interested in the goings-on in Boulder or Bethesda than in posting photos of their vacations in Cancun. Some of that discrepancy arises from the relative ease of uploading a photo compared to writing a report on the local sewer board."

I think in your last sentence you hit on the core issue plaguing citizen journalism: Even though reporting isn't exactly rocket science, it does take skill -- for spotting a good story, for reporting it well, and writing/editing ability.

This is why I think we'll see more participation and quality in citizen journalism (especially that focused on geographic communities) when professional journalists start getting more involved with guiding, mentoring, and collaborating with citizen journalists.

Also, this isn't a numbers game. You don't necessarily need lots of people contributing to get a lively and useful citizen journalism venue. Personally, I think it makes more sense to focus on cultivating close relationships with a core group of regular contributors, and growing outward from there.

I wrote about that recently in I, Reporter: "CitJ: Is It Better to Start Small?"
- http://snipurl.com/lywy

Again, thanks for writing such a thought-provoking piece.

- Amy Gahran

Posted by: Amy Gahran on January 26, 2006 02:22 PM

Amy's right. A small number of dedicated volunteers will always trump a mass of less-engaged citizen. They're easier to organize and motivate as well.

I'm getting most of my contributions from a limited pool of users. Even then, it's hard work getting good contributions from the public.

I'm also learning how few people, even among those who can write engaging emails, are able to write stories. Smart people, confronted with a formal writing assignment, lock up. It's a lot like the problem people have with public speaking, but a lot less well-known or understood. It's easy for those of us who are used to writing for publication to miss how difficult it is for other citizens.

Posted by: Barry Parr on January 27, 2006 10:56 AM

Great article and particularly interesting to me. I previously worked on the "Bluffton experiment" (Blufftontoday.com) and can relate to much of what's been outlined here.
I think a big misconception in many of these discussions is that citizen journalism is viewed as a means to an end for newspapers. Many citizens will not, and do not want to become journalists and do not aspire to become such through blogging/online publishing. What they do want is a safe place to talk and build community.
The technology plays a part, and the participation plays a part, but what do we (the media, no pun intended) do once we have both in place...
In my experience, the journalists who get paid to write stories need to learn how to communicate with these online communities (hopefully through web sites hosted/promoted/facilitated by the paper itself) and then craft stories based on these conversations.
If you're going to start a "content farm" as one of our bloggers pegged BT, then you better give them something in return for talking with you.

Posted by: Ryan Miano on February 6, 2006 02:35 PM
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