Networked journalism: For the people and with the people

The war is over. There is no new media vs old media anymore. The old battle between the professional and citizen journalist is also at an end – we are all on the same side. That was the message from the Networked Journalism Summit in New York last week.

The guru of networked journalism is US media blogger, entrepreneur and teacher Jeff Jarvis. He told the summit: ‘Journalism can and must expand even as the institutions that do journalism shrink. The future is ‘pro-am journalism’, doing things together.’

Networked journalism is where the people formerly known as the audience contribute to the whole editorial process. The public write blogs, take pictures, gather information and comment as part of newsgathering and publishing. The professional journalists become filters, connectors, facilitators and editors.

As Scott Clarke of the Houston Chronicle said: ‘I want my reporters to be conductors of an orchestra of citizen journalists”.

The Networked Journalism Summit (www.newsinnovation.com) was full of entrepreneurs producing great journalism for the people, with the people.

Regional papers, political bloggers, entertainment websites, sports forums and social sites were all there. They ranged from internationally-known organisations such as the BBC and The Washington Post to neighbourhood sites. Some are making money, but most were still looking for ways to turn public participation into profit.

Many of the sites use old technology in combination with the internet. The BostonNow website is an aggregation of 500 local bloggers. Much of the content it gathers goes into the BostonNow daily free newspaper. BostonNow founder John Wilpers said it does all the regular reporting you expect from a city paper but with the added content of those citizen journalists.

‘The bloggers are happy for us to use their work because our website links back to their blogs. They also like to see their work appear in hard copy in the newspaper,’says Wilpers. ‘We’re not stealing content, it’s reverse publishing.’

But networked journalism is not just about bloggers or user-generated content. It is also about something called ‘crowdsourcing”.

Kate Marymount, of the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida, said that after Hurricane Katrina, the News-Press went to the courts to force the federal relief agency to release details of which citizens had received government help. The News-Press put the data online and encouraged readers to look through it. Within 24 hours, there were 60,000 searches from readers, who then told News-Press journalists about neighbours with wrecked homes who had not received aid. The readers did the investigating and the paper then reported the stories.

This is networked journalism in action, doing things that conventional journalists could not do on their own.

‘When you pick up the newspaper it looks the same, but the journalism is better,’said Marymount.

Networked journalism can go international. The Guardian has a website, The BAe Files, which features a long-running investigation which produced front page exclusives on bribes and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. All the data is now available online, which has encouraged a network of amateur and professional investigative journalists around the world to add to the digging.

But the big question is: Does it pay? Much of this new networked journalism is done for fun or political motives. Even a website such as Alive In Baghdad – a video blog that aims to present ‘real life’in today’s Iraq – needs to look for payment to keep going. Alive In Baghdad founder Brian Conley said: ‘We have managed to sell some of our footage to major networks like Sky but we are also trying other methods to raise money, such as asking our viewers for voluntary subscriptions. We are raising money, but not enough to keep this going, let alone expand it.’

That may be because there is a limited market for pictures of conflict in Iraq. Other journalists had rather more down-to-earth ideas for networking their journalism. One writer for Wired magazine got readers to test out sex toys, while another film critic took a group of his readers with him to the cinema to review a new release.

There are limits to networked journalism. Jay Rosen of New York University is running experiments which try to find new ways to create what he calls ‘distributed journalism”. He has gathered a group of ‘beat reporters’who will try to push networked journalism into interesting new areas such as science, religion and sports reporting.

But he warns that only one per cent of any group of people who volunteer to get involved are truly creative and only 10 per cent produce anything journalistic.

‘You can’t just open the floodgates and expect the public to produce’he says. ‘If there are too many people involved then it simply creates too much work for the journalist to make it worthwhile.’

Networked journalism is already happening in the UK, too. One example is the BBC’s User Generated Content Hub.

Networked journalism is more than just another glib new media cliché, but it is not an easy option. It means we are going to have to change the way we work and treat the public as partners, not punters.

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