When the Buncefield oil depot blew up, the BBC received more than 6,500 emails from the public containing pictures and video footage. Mike Ward argues that news organisations and individual journalists cannot afford to ignore the technology or culture of the ‘citizen journalist’
BLOG. IT’S AN UGLY WORD, inviting disdain.
Blogging is polarising opinion among journalists like little else. To some, it’s an over-hyped flash in the pan; to others, its significance bears comparison with the invention of the printing press and the cathode ray tube.
To blogging, you can add moblogging (blogging from mobile phones), vlogging (video blogging), citizen journalism and wikis. These are all manifestations of the same phenomenon — the public’s newly found power to publish information, as well as receive it.
The worldwide web is a medium unlike any other.
Before, print readerships and broadcast audiences were, for the most part, passive recipients of news, entertainment and information. They could influence what was on offer, by deciding not to watch a programme or buy a paper, but this was the extent of their power. The print and broadcast technologies only allowed a one-way, producerdriven method of information choice and delivery.
Almost at a stroke, the web changed the rules of the game. From the beginning, web users had the potential to choose what, when and how they wanted their news. Significantly, they could publish information as well as receive it. This "in-principle"change was evident from the web’s earliest days, but it has taken over a decade for the potential to be fully realised.
Initially, mainstream news operations such as the BBC and The Guardian learned how to build websites that allowed users free rein to choose, so providing distinctive offerings. But the public’s power to publish on the web remained relatively dormant.
Anyone who has built their own website will know it’s not as easy as sending a letter or writing an email.
But technology never sleeps. Mobile phones got in-built cameras. Blogging software developed to make setting up your own website simpler. By the turn of the century, the building blocks were in place for the current explosion of citizen publishing.
Currently it’s estimated that there are over 27 million blogs, and that number is rising exponentially.
Why do people do it? Blogs take many forms: some are personal diaries, others are debating arenas. More still are resource banks of links to other sites of interest. Many are all three.
Blogs are also opinionated. When the subject matter strays into the idiosyncratic — for example, thrash metal bands from the west coast of America in the 1990s — many journalists may struggle to see their relevance, either as an opportunity or a threat, to mainstream news media. Making this judgement could be missing the point.
Rupert Murdoch sees the point. Last year he spent $580m on the social networking site MySpace.com.
Not long after, ITV snapped up its nearest British equivalent, FriendsReunited, for £170m.
What drives these acquisitions is the growing belief that people, particularly young people, will increasingly use their power to publish to create their own information marketplaces. Members of these online communities still need news and information to make sense of their daily lives. But, the theory goes, in the future they will be as likely to seek it from each other as from the professional journalist.
The view from within this blogging community goes something like this: why should we rely solely on journalists for our window on the world any more? We need to supplement and compare what we get from the mainstream media with the views of others, the millions now publishing online, some of whom will be experts in their field.
As Dan Gillmor, the doyen of citizen publishing, put it: "Journalists cannot hope to reflect the world as well as the world itself."
The blogger’s scenario still leaves a role for the journalist as a part of the mix. But there could be more.
The coverage of the Boxing Day tsunami was hailed as a turning point for bloggers, when they came into their own, and provided a unique picture of the disaster through a mosaic of personal accounts and breaking news. But The Guardian’s director of digital publishing, Simon Waldman, believes that coverage "has shown both the greatest strengths of citizens’ journalism, and its greatest weakness".
The strengths lie in the volume and vividness of the personal accounts, through blogs, text messages and pictures — a revolution in supply. "The great weakness, though, is the lack of shape, structure and, ultimately, meaning that all this amounts to. It is one thing to read hundreds of people’s stories. It is another to try and work out what the story actually is," he says.
Waldman argues that the journalist’s skill: reducing, prioritising and shaping information, aids understanding and adds meaning.
Reuters chief Tom Glocer seems to agree. He told the recent Online Publishers Association conference: "I believe the world will always need editing… the role of old media companies in the new-media age is that of content facilitator, tools provider and editor."
Murdoch, Glocer and others like them seek to be a part of Gillmor’s new media "ecology" because, otherwise, they risk becoming increasingly marginalised in this new media world order. For the media magnate, commercial concerns are paramount.
But the individual journalist also has little to gain from becoming irrelevant to their future audience or readership. The latest ABC figures for regional newspapers are a depressing reminder of the declining popularity of the printed word.
This challenge for journalists is a fundamental one.
One of the curses of the internet age is that important issues such as these can be obscured by a miasma of overheated argument — such as in the recent debate over citizen journalism.
When the Buncefield oil depot blew up last December, the BBC received over 6,500 emails containing pictures and video footage from the public, the first arriving at 6.19am, just minutes after the explosion. Local press also benefited — the Hemel Hempstead Gazette received many emails and phone pictures enhancing the comprehensive coverage provide by Gazette reporters on their paper’s website. By the next day, the site was providing half the top ten links on the opening page of the Google News search for the explosion.
Such public participation in newsgathering raised real issues about public safety; but it also sparked argument about whether this could be called journalism.
The National Union of Journalists indicated it couldn’t, labelling those who sent such pictures as "witness contributors".
It also published a code of practice, stating that news organisations should check the accuracy of such contributions before publication and should "strive" to use material from NUJ members instead, if available as an alternative. Media commentators queued up to criticise the NUJ and its code. It was archaic, unworkable, not "real world", they said; the product of a Canute-like mentality.
It is too easy to get into a semantic tangle here. If, by journalism, we mean the full range of issue and event-driven coverage and analysis, it’s probably going it a bit to give that description to a member of the public who finds them themselves in the middle of a breaking news story with a mobile phone in their back pocket. But to dismiss such contributions out of hand would be equally dangerous.
The 6,500 Buncefield pictures are simply one manifestation of the public’s power to publish, which is growing in range and sophistication. This particular example — and the London bombings earlier last year — simply brought it to the attention of the majority of professional journalists, who then "discovered" citizen journalism. The professionals now need to handle the interface with citizen publishers carefully. Any whiff of condescension could alienate the digitally literate still further, at a time when canny operators such as Rupert Murdoch believe bridges should be built.
Condescension would be misplaced for a number of reasons. Bloggers have their own code. It’s not based on a professional requirement to be objective, just transparent.
Bloggers are open about their allegiances and urge and help readers to get other perspectives before making their own mind up.
Sites such as Digg get readers to vote for stories. Those with the most votes get promoted to the home page.
Those who doubt the seriousness of the peoplepublishers, and their ability for concerted collective action, need look no further than Wikipedia , the extensive online encyclopedia created by user contributions. They now claim more traffic than the CNN website.
Little wonder that Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently told the FT Digital Media and Broadcast conference that mainstream media should now focus its mind on connecting with the growing number of online communities and social networks. He believes mainstream media has a role to play in the mix: "Everybody makes jokes, but we still need professional comedians".
But how to do it? How does the professional journalist join the party without embarrassing the other guests?
One obvious first step is for journalists to write blogs themselves. The Guardian has been running its own blogs for over five years — writing more than two million words in the process, with an average of 10 comments per post in return.
Increasingly, individual journalists, including Melanie Phillips , Simon Waldman and Nick Robinson are blogging. Regional newspapers such as the Carlisle News and Star are hosting blogs by a wide range of local people and their own editorial staff.
Fuller integration But fuller integration may need a different approach, and once again technology is playing its part.
A recently-launched site called Newsvine offers some interesting possibilities. This provides mainstream news, but within an interface that also allows users to comment on, vote for and link to or from the news items.
Currently Newsvine is using international wire stories for its mainstream content, but the potential for national and local news organisations is clear.
Newsvine’s approach appears to provide a platform for mainstream news organisations to link into existing online communities, create their own and get their professionally generated content integrated within the public offering. It is an opportunity to build those bridges.
The need is there. As The Guardian’s Simon Waldman recently told journalism.co.uk: "A new generation of under-25s is emerging with radically different expectations of media. We can’t just think of them as our future readers and users, but as the brand managers and media buyers of the future.
"We ignore them — and their expectation of us — at our peril."
Michael Ward is head of the University of Central Lancashire’s journalism department and author of Journalism Online