The pro-am approach to news gathering
Monday October 22, 2007
As news organisations inexorably shrink along with their audiences, revenue and staffs, I believe that one way for journalism itself to expand is through collaboration with the communities it covers. I call this networked journalism, and a week ago I organised a conference on the topic at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
We gathered more than 150 news networkers to share best practices, lessons learned and hopes for the future. These included collaborative, pro-am efforts to dig into local scandals; hyperlocal blogs; new and profitable print publications made up of citizens’ content; and an effort to mobilise an audience to find out who’s paying too much for a bottle of beer. At the start of the meeting, I threatened to gong off any bashing of mainstream media or blogs – and I gonged only once. There was a new spirit of cooperation and learning in the air. Some of our lessons:
First, motive matters. Amateur journalists – like professional hacks – won’t report just because editors want them to. Paying them helps. So does interest in purse-string issues. WNYC, a public radio station, mobilised its audience to report the prices of grocery staples around New York, to show who was being ripped off. The Fort Myers News-Press, in Florida, put data about a sewer project and government storm grants online for readers, who dug into them to help reporters find the juicy bits. The paper now has teams of experts – accountants, engineers – to help it report. There’s some proof that the public and the publication can work together.
But note well that when the public does join in, they take on a sense of proprietorship; that, too, is a motive. So when the founder of Fresno Famous, a California community site, sold it to the local newspaper, some users objected, for they believed – with reason – that it was theirs.
Second lesson: print still has power. It fuels ego and pays bills. MyHeimat.de in Germany, NorthwestVoice.com in California, and BostonNow.com, all freesheets, found that publishing citizens’ reports and photos spurs them to contribute more; it gives them attention as well as respect. Advertisers also trust print more, so these publications are more easily profitable than online enterprises. But I wouldn’t start trying to print the internet. Hyperlocal blogger Debbie Gallant said she had no interest in being published in her local paper, whose editor sat a few rows away. Instead, they want to share content and links.
Third: community brings cost. Jay Rosen of New York University runs an ongoing experiment in networked journalism at NewAssignment.net. The community there has reported a story on crowdsourcing for Wired magazine and is now reporting on the Presidential race for HuffingtonPost.com. Rosen found an ongoing coordination cost: volunteers need to be assigned, enabled, moderated, managed, edited, curated.
There is also the cost to misbehaving citizens, the dyspeptic commenters who can ruin a conversation online and tarnish a brand. This, explained Robin Hamman from the BBC, is one reason why the corporation is moving away from constantly trying to bring the world to its site to contribute content and interact. Now it will also organise the conversation happening elsewhere, in blogs or in Flickr photos or YouTube videos. That’s one step toward what I think will be the next paradigm of online discussion, something more curatorial, built around quality and reputation more than quantity.
Fourth: the role of the journalist changes. Journalists need to become moderators and enablers, and journalism students should be taught management. Why? That leads us to the fifth lesson: nobody has a business model yet. More news organisations should be organising advertising networks among blogs and social sites and whatever comes next. If you want to succeed at being small, you probably need to be part of something big. And big media can bring value still – vetting of quality sites, sales effort, the trust of advertisers, promotion, and the data advertisers demand. It’s time for much more of such bold business experimentation. And that is why our next conference will explore new business models for news. We need lots of them.
Â· Jeff Jarvis is a journalism professor at the City University of New York who blogs at buzzmachine.com