Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wilde's Evenings: the rewards of Citizen Journalism

This article was first published in Media Culture Journal Vol 10/11 Issue 6/1 April 2008

According to Oscar Wilde, the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings. Wilde’s aphorism alludes to a major issue that bedevils all attempts to influence the public sphere: the fact that public activities encroach unduly on citizens’ valuable time. In the 21st century, the dilemma of how to deal with “too many evenings” is one that many citizen journalists face as they give their own time to public pursuits. This paper will look at the development of the public citizen and what it means to be a citizen journalist with reference to some of the writer’s own experiences in the field. The paper will conclude with an examination of future possibilities. While large media companies change their change their focus from traditional news values, citizen journalism can play a stronger role in public life as long as it grasps some of the opportunities that are available. There are substantial compensations available to citizen journalists for the problems presented by Wilde’s evenings.

The quote from Wilde is borrowed from Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements, which among other things, is an examination of the disappointments of public action. Hirschman noted how it was a common experience for beginners who engage in public action to find that takes up more time than expected (96). As public activity encroaches not only on time devoted to private consumption but also on to the time devoted to the production of income, it can become a costly pursuit which may cause a sharp reaction against the “practice of citizenship” (Hirschman 97). Yet the more stimuli about politics people receive, the greater the likelihood is they will participate in politics and the greater the depth of their participation (Milbrath & Goel 35). People with a positive attraction to politics are more likely to receive stimuli about politics and participate more (Milbrath & Goel 36). Active citizenship, it seems, has its own feedback loops.

An active citizenry is not a new idea. The concepts of citizen and citizenship emerged from the sophisticated polity established in the Greek city states about 2,500 years ago. The status of a citizen signified that the individual had the right to full membership of, and participation in, an independent political society (Batrouney & Goldlust 24). In later eras that society could be defined as a kingdom, an empire, or a nation state. The conditions for a bourgeois public sphere were created in the 13th century as capitalists in European city states created a traffic in commodities and news (Habermas 15). A true public sphere emerged in the 17th century with the rise of the English coffee houses and French salons where people had the freedom to express opinions regardless of their social status (Habermas 36). In 1848, France held the first election under universal direct suffrage (for males) and the contemporary slogan was that “universal suffrage closes the era of revolutions” (Hirschman 113). Out of this heady optimism, the late 19th century ushered in the era of the “informed citizen” as voting changed from a social and public duty to a private right – a civic obligation enforceable only by private conscience (Schudson). These concepts live on in the modern idea that the model voter is considered to be a citizen vested with the ability to understand the consequences of his or her choice (Menand 1).

The internet is a new knowledge space which offers an alternative reading of the citizen. In Pierre Lévy’s vision of cyberculture, identity is no longer a function of belonging, it is “distributed and nomadic” (Ross & Nightingale 149). The Internet has diffused widely and is increasingly central to everyday life as a place where people go to get information (Dutton 10). Journalism initially prospered on an information scarcity factor however the technology of the Internet has created an information rich society (Tapsall & Varley 18). But research suggests that online discussions do not promote consensus, are short-lived with little impact and end up turning into “dialogues of the deaf” (Nguyen 148). The easy online publishing environment is a fertile ground for rumours, hoaxes and cheating games to circulate which risk turning the public sphere into a chaotic and anarchic space (Nguyen 148). The stereotypical blogger is pejoratively dismissed as “pajama-clad” (Papandrea 516) connoting a sense of disrespect for the proper transmission of ideas. Nevertheless the Internet offers powerful tools for collaboration that is opening up many everyday institutions to greater social accountability (Dutton 3).

Recent research by the 2007 Digital Futures project shows 65 percent of respondents consider the Internet “to be a very important or extremely important source of information” (Cowden 76). By 2006, Roy Morgan was reporting that three million Australians were visiting online news site each month (Cowden.76)., Australia’s first online-only news outlet, has become a significant independent player in the Australia mediascape claiming over 5,000 subscribers by 2005 with three times as many non-paying “squatters” reading its daily email (Devine 50). Online Opinion has a similar number of subscribers and was receiving 750,000 page views a month by 2005 (National Forum).

Both and Online Opinion have made moves towards public journalism in an attempt to provide ordinary people access to the public sphere. As professional journalists lose their connection with the public, bloggers are able to fill the public journalism niche (Simons, Content Makers 208). At their best, blogs can offer a “more broad-based, democratic involvement of citizens in the issues that matter to them” (Bruns 7). The research of University of North Carolina journalism professor Philip Meyer showed that cities and towns with public journalism-oriented newspapers led to a better educated local public (Simons, Content Makers 211). Meyer’s idea of good public journalism has six defining elements: a) the need to define a community’s sense of itself b) devotion of time to issues that demand community attention c) devotion of depth to the issues d) more attention to the middle ground e) a preference for substance over tactics and f) encouraging reciprocal understanding (Meyer 1). The objective of public journalism is to foster a greater sense of connection between the community and the media. It can mean journalists using ordinary people as sources and also ordinary people acting as journalists.

Jay Rosen proposed a new model based on journalism as conversation (Simons, Content Makers 209). He believes the technology has now overtaken the public journalism movement (Simons, Content Makers 213). His own experiments at pro-am Internet open at have had mixed results. His conclusion was that it wasn’t easy for people working voluntarily on the Internet to report on big stories together nor had they “unlocked” the secret of successful pro-am methods (Rosen). Nevertheless, the people formerly known as the audience, as Rosen called them, have seized the agenda. The barriers to entry into journalism have disappeared. Blogging has made Web publishing easy and the social networks are even more user friendly. The problem today is not getting published but finding an audience. And as the audience fragments, the issue will become finding a niche.

One such niche is local political activism. The 2007 Australian federal election saw many online sites actively promoting citizen journalism. Most prominent was Youdecide2007 at Queensland University of Technology, funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in partnership with SBS, Online Opinion and the Brisbane Institute. Site co-editor Graham Young said the site’s aim was to use citizen journalists to report on their own electorates to fill the gap left by fewer journalists on the ground, especially in less populated areas (Young). While the site’s stated aim was to provide a forum for a seat-by-seat coverage and provide “a new perspective on national politics” (Youdecide2007), the end result was significantly skewed by the fact that the professional editorial team was based in Brisbane. Youdecide2007 published 96 articles in its news archive of which 59 could be identified as having a state-based focus. Figure 1 shows 62.7% of these state-based stories were about Queensland.

Figure 1: Youdecide2007 news stories identifiable by state (note: national stories are omitted from this table):

State Total no. of stories %age
Qld 37 62.7
NSW 8 13.6
Vic 6 10.2
WA 3 5.1
Tas 2 3.4
ACT 2 3.4
SA 1 1.6

Modern election campaigns are characterised by a complex and increasingly fragmented news environment and the new media are rapidly adding another layer of complexity to the mix (Norris et al. 11-12). The slick management of national campaigns are is counter-productive to useful citizen journalism. According to Matthew Clayfield from the citizen journalism site, “there are very few open events which ordinary people could cover in a way that could be described as citizen journalism” (qtd. in Hills 2007). Similar to other systems, the Australian campaign communication empowers the political leaders and media owners at the expense of ordinary party members and citizens (Warhurst 135). However the slick modern national “on message” campaign has not totally replaced old-style local activity. Although the national campaign has superimposed upon the local one and displaced it from the focus of attention, local candidates must still communicate their party policies in the electorate (Warhurst 113). Citizen journalists are ideally placed to harness this local communication. A grassroots approach is encapsulated in the words of Dan Gillmor who said “every reporter should realise that, collectively, the readers know more than they do about what they write about” (qtd. in Quinn & Quinn-Allan 66).

With this in mind, I set out my own stall in citizen journalism for the 2007 Australian federal election with two personal goals: to interview all my local federal Lower House candidates and to attend as many public election meetings as possible. As a result, I wrote 19 election articles in the two months prior to the election. This consisted of 9 news items, 6 candidate interviews and 4 reports of public meetings. All the local candidates except one agreed to be interviewed. The local Liberal candidate refused to be interviewed despite repeated requests. There was no reason offered, just a continual ignoring of requests. Liberal candidates were also noticeably absent from most candidate forums I attended. This pattern of non-communicative behaviour was observed elsewhere (Bartlett, Wilson). I tried to turn this to my advantage by turning their refusal to talk into a story itself.

For those that were prepared to talk, I set the expectation that the entire interview would be on the record and would be edited and published on my blog site. As a result, all candidates asked for a list of questions in advance which I supplied. Because politicians devote considerable energy and financial resources to ensure the information they impart to citizens has an appropriate ‘spin’ on it, (Negrine 10) I reserved the right to ask follow-up questions on any of their answers that required clarification. For the interviews themselves, I followed the advice of Spradley’s principle by starting with a conscious attitude of near-total ignorance, not writing the story in advance, and attempting to be descriptive, incisive, investigative and critical (Alia 100). After I posted the results of the interview, I sent a link to each of the respondents offering them a chance to clarify or correct any inaccuracies in the interview statements. Defamation skirts the boundary between free speech and reputation (Pearson 159) and a good working knowledge of the way defamation law affects journalists (citizen or otherwise) is crucial, particularly in dealing with public figures. This was an important consideration for some of the lesser known candidates as Google searches on their names brought my articles up within the top 20 results for each of the Democrat, Green and Liberal Democratic Party candidates I interviewed.

None of the public meetings I attended were covered in the mainstream media. These meetings are the type of news Jan Schaffer of University of Maryland’s J-Lab saw as an ecological niche for citizen journalists to “create opportunities for citizens to get informed and inform others about micro-news that falls under the radar of news organisations who don’t have the resources” (Schaffer in Glaser). As Mark Bahnisch points out, Brisbane had three daily newspapers and a daily state based 7.30 Report twenty years ago which contrasts with the situation now where there’s no effective state parliamentary press gallery and little coverage of local politics at all (“State of Political Blogging”). Brisbane’s situation is not unique and the gaps are there to be exploited by new players.

While the high cost of market entry renders the “central square” of the public sphere inaccessible to new players (Curran 128) the ease of Web access has given the citizen journalists the chance to roam its back alleys. However even if they fill the voids left by departing news organisations, there will still be a large hole in the mediascape. No one will be doing the hardhitting investigative journalism. This gritty work requires great resources and often years of time. The final product of investigative journalism is often complicated to read, unentertaining and inconclusive (Bower in Negrine 13). Margaret Simons says that journalism is a skill that involves the ability to find things out. She says the challenge of the future will be to marry the strengths of the newsroom and the dirty work of investigative journalism with the power of the conversation of blogs (“Politics and the Internet”). One possibility is raised by the Danish project Scoop. They offer financial support to individual journalists who have good ideas for investigative journalism. Founded by the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism and funded by the Danish Foreign Ministry, Scoop supports media projects across the world with the only proviso being that a journalist has to have an agreement with an editor to publish the resulting story (ABC Media Report).

But even without financial support, citizens have the ability to perform rudimentary investigative journalism. The primary tool of investigative journalism is the interview (McIlwane & Bowman 260). While an interview can be arranged by anyone with access to a telephone or e-mail, it should not be underestimated how difficult a skill interviewing is. According to American journalist John Brady, the science of journalistic interviewing aims to gain two things, trust and information (Brady in White 75). In the interviews I did with politicians during the federal election, I found that getting past the “spin” of the party line to get genuine information was the toughest part of the task.

There is also a considerable amount of information in the public domain which is rarely explored by reporters (Negrine 23). Knowing how to make use of this information will become a critical success factor for citizen journalists. Corporate journalists use databases such as Lexis/Nexis and Factiva to gain background information, a facility unavailable to most citizen journalists unless they are either have access through a learning institution or are prepared to pay a premium for the information. While large corporate vendors supply highly specialised information, amateurs can play a greater role in the creation and transmission of local news. According to G. Stuart Adam, journalism contains four basic elements: reporting, judging, a public voice and the here and now (13). Citizen journalism is capable of meeting all four criteria. The likelihood is that the future of communications will belong to the centralised corporations on one hand and the unsupervised amateur on the other (Bird 36).

Whether the motive to continue is payment or empowerment, the challenge for citizen journalists is to advance beyond the initial success of tactical actions towards the establishment as a serious political and media alternative (Bruns 19). Nguyen et al.’s uses and gratification research project suggests there is a still a long way to go in Australia. While they found widespread diffusion of online news, the vast majority of users (78%) were still getting their news from newspaper Websites (Nguyen et al. 13). The research corroborates Mark Bahnisch’s view that “most Australians have not heard of blogs and only a tiny minority reads them (quoted in Simons, Content Makers 219). The Australian blogosphere still waits for its defining Swiftboat incident or Rathergate to announce its arrival. But Bahnisch doesn’t necessarily believe this is a good evolutionary strategy anyway. Here it is becoming more a conversation than a platform “with its own niche and its own value” (Bahnisch, “This Is Not America”).

As far as my own experiments go, the citizen journalism reports I wrote gave me no financial reward but plenty of other compensations that made the experience richly rewarding. It was important to bring otherwise neglected ideas, stories and personalities into the public domain and the reports helped me make valuable connections with public-minded members of my local community. They were also useful practice to hone interview techniques and political writing skills. Finally the exercise raised my own public profile as several of my entries were picked up or hyperlinked by other citizen journalism sites and blogs. Some day, and probably soon, a model will be worked out which will make citizen journalism a worthwhile economic endeavour. In the meantime, we rely on active citizens of the blogosphere to give their evenings freely for the betterment of the public sphere.


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