Participatory Journalism in the USA: My Talk

J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer will be a hard act to follow, but I’ll do my best.

Next Tuesday in Barcelona, Spain, I’ll be teaming up with J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer to give a talk on Participatatory Journalism in the USA: Opportunities and Challenges. This is part of the fourth Online Media Week. I’m really excited about it. I wish Jan could actually be there, but she ended up not being able to attend in person so she’ll be giving her talk via webcast.

Here’s Jan’s presentation (streaming video), and here are her slides (PowerPoint). It’s a great overview, check it out.

After Jan gets to answer some questions live (technology permitting), I’ll expand this discussion by talking about the bigger picture: Why participatory journalism matters, why it isn’t new, and how the news landscape might evolve because of participatory journalism.

What follows is merely my best guess about how my part of the talk will go. Of course, I don’t really do speeches; I prefer to engage groups in conversation so we can explore issues and think things through together. That’s much more fun for everyone. So I will most definitely stray from this script at some point during the talk. (So translators, be forewarned!)

With that, here’s what I’d like to be able to cover…


  • What is it?

  • Why do people want it?
  • What do they do with it? (That gets to participation)

What is News? Not just facts.

News has always been somewhat subjective and biased.

  • Context: How does this piece of news relate to ongoing issues (race, gender, economics, health, politics, etc.)
  • Interpretation: Turning it into a “story” — includes unspoken assumptions and editorial decisions
  • Analysis & synthesis: Digging beyond the news peg to present more detailed exploration (common in investigations, features)

Those are all things that professional journalists and editors employed by news orgs are trained to do.

BUT: News is much more than just traditional, professional journalism.

In fact, news has been around a whole lot longer than journalism

We’ve always had a many sources of news besides what’s offered by news organizations:

  • first-hand accounts
  • Announcements (from town criers to church pulpits)
  • Art & music (especially folk songs, and graffitti, but includes cave paintings)
  • Self-publication (i.e., pamphleteers, physical bulletin boards)
  • Research and statistical resources (like peer-reviewed journals and the US Census)
  • Gossip

All of those sources of news (except for announcements) directly involved communities and individuals. They weren’t just the “audience,” they were active contributors and collaborators.

Why do people want & need news?

Fundamental human desire to make sense of the world so we can act effective in it.

  • What’s happening?
  • How might that affect me, or people I care about?
  • What should I do, think, believe, or feel?
  • Who should I trust?

Professional journalism helped consolidate and strengthen the demand for news by offering:

  • More rigor (accuracy, credibility)

  • Easier access (newspaper, magazine, broadcast is a neater, richer package than what was available before)
  • Easier prioritization (certain things were deemed more “newsworthy”)
  • Psychological security (it became obvious whose news you could trust – gatekeepers)

Unfortunately, the form of news that news organizations produce often doesn’t “make sense.”

(Technology permitting, here’s a video clip I’ll play, starting at -2:18.)

  • Lack of relevance to many communities or groups — many people and issues left out of the picture
  • Focus on traditional news “pegs” and story format skews priorities for gauging what’s important
  • Lack of continuity from story format, lack of connections between stories, yields lack of context
  • Conflict and scorekeeping gets overplayed; consensus gets underplayed
  • A certain set of (often unspoken) traditional journalistic assumptions gets portrayed as “objectivity” or “balance”
  • Simultaneously too much and too little guidance of the public agenda

Psychological/cultural impact in America:

  • Putting communities in a passive role where they mostly just receive information encourages lazy citizens.
  • “Average” Americans mostly expect to be told what’s happening and what matters, rather than to be aware and speak up.
  • They rely too much on gatekeepers, and fear or distrust a more open news landscape.
  • Journalistic culture: Exagerrated self-importance in defining news, dismissive attitude toward communities and open participation in news.

To a large extent, these problems are artifacts of historic media technology constraints.

The technologies used to produce mass-media news over the last 150 or so years are almost exclusively one-way

  • We publish; you listen.
  • News only gets to you through gatekeepers
  • Most news has to appeal to the largest possible audience (lowest common denominator)
  • Very limited space and time for public participation (like letters to the editor). Heavily controlled.

These constraints also forces news into mostly a story format

  • inverted pyramid, narrative structure
  • That’s an artificial construction. News doesn’t really happen as stories; we create stories about news.
  • Often journalists get that backwards.

The internet and mobile communication technology have changed all that.

Online communication and publishing technology isn’t just one-way — it’s all ways, all the time.

  • Whether mainstream news orgs and mass-media orgs like it or not. (Mostly, so far, they don’t.)
  • People have gained access to remix news stories or create/share their own
  • Or to share news in ways that abandon the story format altogether.

Let’s turn away from technology and back to people…


  • Form opinions and beliefs
  • Organize personal agendas/priorities
  • Take actions (or refrain from acting)
  • Talk to & influence others
  • Plan for the future

The connection, conversation, and collaboration power of online media has released a second wave of pent-up demand for news.

People and non-journalistic orgs are finding ways to meet that demand themselves.

This has news orgs – and hence, journos — really scared.
– Especially because Craigslist is eating their advertising lunch right now.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., trust in the mainstream journalism is pretty low.

  • Rathergate
  • Endless Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears coverage
  • Bill O’Reilly
  • Media consolidation
  • Ad models that target only demographics with money to spend
  • Jon Stewart is so popular for a reason: He’s not just parodying the news, but the news biz.

Fear and mutual distrust don’t help anyone!

There’s plenty of room in the US media landscape for professional journalists, citizen journalists, and other ways for people to work together to make the news.

What might this look like?

Sometimes this means people will be writing articles or posting audio/video stories on their own sites like: Delmar Dustpan

OR on community sites like: MyTown

OR on web sites of advocacy organizations or activist networks like: LA’s Homeless blog, the Independent Media Center, or Current TV

You can find many more examples at the citizen media database at the Knight Citizen News Network.

Those examples mostly addopt familiar formats from news organizations: stories, commentary, editorials, analysis.

Are these news venues less “objective” or more “biased?”

  • Yes, often
  • But that can be OK if it’s transparent, so audience can make their own decisions.

Do these news venues often cover what doesn’t get covered in mainstream news?

  • Yes.
  • They also often discuss, add context to, or expand upon mainstream coverage.
  • That’s not being a parasite. (Common complaint of U.S. journalists) That is adding value.

These days, in online media, transparency is becoming a more important value than objectivity.
– Objectivity can be perceived as dishonest, because it’s not really achieveable.


Life (as opposed to packaged “news”) doesn’t just happen in discrete chunks.
– It’s continuous.

New online formats can provide continuous news:

Wikis: like IBrattleboro Community Brain Trust:
– Ongoing updated resource about a town and its government as they evolve. Provides context.

Collaborative Resources: Like Baristanet Teardown Map
– People contribute photos, descriptions, data.

Discussion: Forums like FredTalk and Blog comments
– Remember: Rathergate started unfolding in a conservative discussion forum.

Twitter is really interesting, lots of potential to combine this with participatory news projects.

  • Esp. apps like Twittermap and Twittervision. Today Steve Outing just wrote more about using Twitter to cover breaking news.
  • Look what KPBS did to reach out during fires

    Don’t underestimate talk radio — reaches huges numbers of peoples

    • During CA fires, SignOn San Diego did a great job of getting journalists and citizens working together to tell what was happening via streaming internet audio.
    • Journalists could be partnering more with talk radio stations

    Tools and usability count

    Bad usability: – Look how hard it is to post there!

    Good usability: NowPublic’s Highlight firefox plugin makes posting very easy. daily blog post function makes linkblogging kind of easy. Geeky to set up, but once set up it just works with all major blog platforms. I use it on Contentious, like this linkblog post.

    And the future? Check out Gigapan
    – People can collaborate via the snapshots function to call attention to details.
    – What if a photo like this got taken at, say a bridge collapse or a war zone?


    Jan Schaffer recently published a great article about how mainstream news orgs can reinvent themselves to thrive in this environment

    They can become less about publishing and more about creating a “community info-structure”

    To a large extent this means hosting, fostering, and guiding public conversation.

    Some excerpts from Jan’s article:

    “Smart news organizations …are concluding it’s time for a new core mission, one that repositions the newspaper in the community and revisits knee-jerk practices.

    “That mission calls for building an overarching local ‘info-structure,’ one created to support new definitions of ‘news,’ new participants in content creation and interaction, and new pathways for news and information. News organizations need to construct the hub that will enable ordinary people with passions and expertise to commit acts of news and information.
    “…This new mission is requiring journalists to embrace new partners, validate supplemental news channels, and support — without always controlling — a vibrant local newscape. Denouncing these alternative channels of information as not ‘real journalism’ will no longer work.”

    “Heading into the future, news becomes less of a concrete deliverable — a story or package of stories occupying some form of real estate online or on the printed page — and it becomes more of an ongoing process of imparting and learning about information.”

    That could mean that in the future, news venues might look more like:

    • NowPublic, which allows anyone to contribute and remix elements of news coverage
    • NewsVine, a lively community that makes connections between disparate news stories, connecting the dots and also offering original news.
    • CNN iReport, which attracts a huge volume of contributed content and highlights the “best” or “most significant” (more controlled model of participation)
    • Global Voices Online, which aggregates blogs from all over the world
    • The Long War Journal and, which aggregate military bloggers (an increasingly important part of the US news landscape).
    • active network of forums on public issues
    • Topic, event, or community-focused groups on photo-sharing services like Flickr.
    • Twitter, Facebook, Jaiku, Tumblr, and other social media or microblogging services

      Of course, the practice of visiting those sites may become obsolete.

      Feeds allow you to collect the content you want into your mobile phone or a custom web page like Zude, iGoogle, or Pageflakes. Or whatever comes next that’s better.

      What could tomorrow’s news orgs be doing?

      • Engaging their communities
      • Aggregating, highlighting the best from the web
      • Guiding and synthesizing public conversation
      • Adding value with “Big-J” journalism
      • Coordinating crowdsourcing

      In US, it all comes down to business

      Hard truths for traditional news orgs:

      • News orgs aren’t adapting business models fast enough
      • Need to get smarter about contextual, behavioral advertising models
      • Need to start partnering with niche ad networks
      • Need to hire more geeks and more community managers
      • Need to stop dismantling factory floor (laying off journalists)

      Personally, I doubt most news orgs will successfully adapt. They’re pretty stuck in a rut.

      Of course, the “news business” as we’ve known it so far might just be at the point that futurist Tom Frey calls Maximum Freud:

      “The period when industry players have to spend lots of time on the Freudian Couch to understand what’s going on. A period of extreme chaos, and also a period of extreme opportunity. But here’s the most important part. All technologies end.”

      Journalists might end up working for Google or Facebook – or whatever the next new-media giant ends up being.
      – Would that really be so bad?

      Let’s discuss….

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