Sunday, September 07, 2008

Africa takes to citizen journalism

A conference of African journalists commencing tomorrow in South Africa will look at the emerging trend of citizen journalism. Held at Grahamstown’s Rhodes University in Eastern Cape Province each year, this event is the 12th Highway Africa Conference. 700 Delegates (including journalists, media educators, bloggers, publishers and students) from 40 African countries will take part in three days of talks, workshops and skills training and will hear a keynote address from technology writer and author of “We the Media”, Dan Gillmor.

The conference is an exciting event for the world’s least Internet connected continent. The theme “Citizen Journalism, Journalism for Citizens” will focus on how media professionals and citizens can improve their contributions and work better together. According to Rhodes University’s school of journalism head Guy Berger the conference will examine the extent African journalists contribute to democracy. “Much media content around Africa calls itself journalism, but is really a far cry from promoting citizens' rights,” he said. “It shamelessly promotes the rights of political rulers at the expense of broader human rights.”

Berger’s lament is not unique to Africa and is one of the common drivers for citizen journalism across the world. Queensland academics Terry Flew and Jason Wilson examine this and some of the other issues around citizen journalism in their paper “Journalism as Social Networking: The Australian youdecide project and the 2007 federal election” (pdf) which has been submitted to the journal Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism” for peer review.

The paper draws on the authors’ experience in the youdecide2007 project which acted as an online news and opinion site in the lead-up to last year’s federal Australian election. The site was founded with the aid of a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) research grant to invigorate public debate about Australian politics in a digital arena and worked with industry partners such as the public broadcaster SBS (who provided legal services for a site-prepared citizen journalism manual), as well as IT company Cisco, online publishers The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion) and The Brisbane Institute public affairs think-tank.

The book of Highway Africa’s keynote speaker, Dan Gillmor was also quoted by the Queensland authors. In “We The Media”, Gillmor pointed out the difference between big media journalism and citizen journalism as that of the evolution from “the news as a lecture” to “journalism as a conversation”. And when that happens, he said, the lines between producers and consumers will blur and the communications networks would “become a medium for everyone’s voice”.

Such was the aim of the youdecide site which deliberately set out to provide hyperlocal “bottom up” content that would act as a counterpoint to the “presidential narratives” of news-lecturing big media. But the experiences of Wilson, Flew and others at youdecide showed that new hybrid forms of media still require a significant amount of professional mediation. For starters, they needed to be technically proficient. The site managers (“produsers”) tailored an open-source content management system called Joomla! to allow the submission of multimedia content through the public areas of the site as well as editorial work in the “back end”. They also ran a weekly television show each Friday on Brisbane community television which attracted a decent audience of 12,000 viewers, about half that of the ABC’s Stateline show which appears in a similar timeslot.

Site staff also generated a significant amount of “seed content” for the site as well as editing user content for legal and quality concerns. In this they perform a similar gatekeeping function to the Korean Ohmynews! which is perhaps the most successful international template for citizen journalism. The youdecide experience was that the “pro” content was crucial in attracting visitors to the site and was generally the most-read stories (though intriguing the “am” content generated more comments!). The site’s one “gotcha” story was a staff story: the so-called “Crategate” affair when Jason Wilson’s interview of a Liberal MP was quoted in parliament by then-Opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

Another crucial learning experience from youdecide was the value of networking. In order to get attention for the site, staff members needed to draw on their connections and make alliances with the mainstream journalists. For all its faults, big media is still the best way to get in contact with a mass audience and can help citizen journalism sites thrive if site managers can cultivate relationships with professional journalists and political operatives. Content can also be networked across platforms and the Briz31 output was repurposed on Youtube.

Staff members also provided mentoring services for their amateur content providers. They provided user training in legal and licencing issues, how to post content (and make it compelling), how to register or comment, or how to use linked off-site technologies like digital editing technologies or YouTube. They provided site specific information and also mediation services to stop flame wars, respond to objections and ban repeat offender users.

Flew and Wilson’s key conclusions were fourfold. Firstly, citizen journalism remains at the margins of news production but the production values and multi-skilling at such sites as youdecide are moving to the centre. Secondly the relationship between mainstream media and independent sites is becoming increasingly inter-connected (“porous and permeable” as the authors put it). Thirdly all citizen journalism endeavours should be seen as works in progress and should seek out new areas to engage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, networked journalism has significant repercussions to the future of journalism and will contribute, as those at Fairfax known only too well, to a further decline in the traditional newsroom environment. “Learning from citizen journalism initiatives,” conclude the authors, “will be an important part of what will define journalism as a professional practice in the 21st century.”

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