There was a time networked journalism was called « citizen journalist. » Then a smart guy asked if you would trust a citizen dentist or a citizen brain surgeon and the term was dead, until it was rebranded as… network journalism.
The rebranding, proposed by Jay Rosen – a press critic, a writer and a professor of journalism at New-York University – satisfied the mainstream editorial geeks. Still, you can find on the web enough of endless lexical discussions about citizen journalism by editorial über-geeks. That’s the thing with editorial people: they love to debate the terms. I’d like to keep this post short, so you can judge by yourself on Wikipedia or on newassignment.net. I call it the Oxford comma syndrome.
Edit: In a comment left on this, Mr Jay Rosen said he “never proposed re-branding citizen journalism as networked journalism” and stated I made up this rebranding. This is true, of course. I had (and still have) the impression that the “citizen journalism” concept lost kind of its appeal after being discussed and criticized by the media corporations and the professional journalists. From “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism” (definition by Jay Rosen) the concept evolved to network journalism (where citizen and journalists co-produce news).
Mr Nobody wants its 15 retweets of glory
With the Internet, journalists and media people discovered that Mr Nobody not only had something to say about almost everything but that he could do it online, easily and for few pennies. Worse, Mr Nobody could even express himself about what established media were publishing or broadcasting, to the point where it challenged the well balanced order between those-in-the-know and the rest of the world. Well, the rest of the world can now take the floor.
« Citizen journalism », as an editorial concept, opposed « quality journalism ». The latter, as explained by Charlie Beckett, « was for quality people: educated, opinionated, influential, responsible, concerned and powerful. (…) It was different in production, style and above all, subjects and story selection. It was more expensive and expansive, but it was defined primarily by its self-conscious intelligence and its concerns with identifying and arbitrating the exercise of power. »
In the early ages of « citizen journalism », a certain taste of revenge could be discerned against The Media. If not the power, at least the news would be given back to the people. It would be all about who would write it first and tell the truth, the one that The Media did not want you to know. And, in some aspects, it happened.
Then, came the joke about the « citizen dentist ». Then, more and more journalists discovered they could blog too (and that it was good fun). Oh, and suddenly newspapers started to disappear – or to lose tremendous amount of money, editorial staff were compressed, TV channels discovered erosion in their audience curves – all of this was Internet’s fault. Even the decrease in car sales is attributed to the Internet. Hackers download their cars via BitTorrent, I am told.
Smart news organizations got the hint they could well leave a (virtual) seat in their newsroom to all those Nobodies out there. I’d be harsh if I compared it to the empty chair my family left at the Christmas table for the occasional homeless guy bold enough to knock at our door and be invited to join the feast (he never showed up) but it does echo, doesn’t it? If that was a timid start, it went further. Nowadays, writes Charlie Beckett in the Guardian, networked journalism « takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism: professional and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other accross brands and old boundaries to share facts, answers, ideas, perpectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make the news. And it focuses more on the process than on the product. »
The first aspect of networked journalism is, therefore, to publish under the brand umbrella of a news organization some blogs written by non-journalists (as well as by journalists from the organization). This single co-existence of products of different nature is enough to raise infinite debate about role, advantages, qualities and flaws of contemporary journalists versus bloggers. Not to mention the famous « win-fuck » deal under which most of agreements between bloggers and medias were concluded: the former work and write to be published on a famous news website in exchange for visibility and notoriety. I’ll let you guess who’s the winner.
It’s not about the product, it’s about the process
More interesting to me is this co-production process where non-journalists and journalist work together on a story – whatever the final product might be (a text, a video, a multimedia). Of course, media have not discovered only yesterday they could use people as sources. For every major far away catastrophy, magazines were buying amateur photographs or video footage. As Frédéric Filloux phrases it, « today Twitter has replaced the checkbook ».
Rue89 and Mediapart are two French news websites built on this editorial model, amongst many others. Some major news organizations have added the network journalism model into their mix. « This is the idea that traditional journalism opens itself up to the public » explains Charlie Beckett. « It uses new technologies to include the citizen in every aspect of news -gathering, production and publication. It means using a lot of jargon like crowd-sourcing, social networking, wikis and Twittering. » This is considered by some as a revolution. « That means, adds Mr Beckett, that journalists must accept that they can no longer be the privileged gatekeepers to information nor the sole arbiters of editorial judgement. »
To be honest, as a casual user, I haven’t really noticed the difference when reading the final products. Maybe because the new process works so well you don’t feel the difference. Who cares how many cooks elaborated the risotto as long as it tastes good? Or, possibly, I trust the brand and that’s enough. I read New York Time stories because I trust the New York Time. They have a tremendous fact checking system, they are a reference in the media landscape (and yet, they’re losing money), I like their style. And I read bloggers as well, with different expectations, as noble as the ones leading me to NYT, delivering me a similar yet different pleasure.
Although, networked journalism is used a lot for covering local news, especially in the USA and in the UK. Networks of « hyperlocal » journalists are set up and partnerships created, as Jemina Kiss and Heather Christie tell in Citizen journalism: can small be bountiful?
I must admit I don’t care the slightest for local news. Possibly because I live in Brussels, possibly because I was raised in the countryside where anonymity was at best a dream. My field is the world, not my street corner.
For news corporations, perhaps in an attempt to help their staff swallow the bitter pill, networked journalism is more critical than a single production process. It is « both a business model and a practical strategy to secure the future of journalism and its freedom » concludes Mr Beckett. He goes further in another article: « anyone seeking to sustain freedom of expression should seek to build networked journalism ».
Wait – should we feel concerned?
We can proudly say we practiced network journalism in two occasion on the European Parliament website. When we handed over the Headlines keys to the young journalists during European Youth Media Day – a fun, tremendous, exhausting experience if you’d ask me. And when we proposed to our audience to send their photos to illustrate a story scheduled in advance. The photographer whose work we appreciated the most was invited to Strasbourg where he could cover the session and propose a slideshow.
There are different obstacles to get over before we can really integrate such a process in our editorial workflow. You may not agree with the importance of it, but, as civil servants, we are bound to respect the institutional Rules of conduct. Those are a good life line to ensure our editorial strategy introduced in a previous post.
Second, the real interest of network journalism lays in the multiple sourcing about an event. The thing is: most of what we cover takes place few hundred meters from where we sit. We don’t really need someone to twit us what an MEP has just said in a Committee meeting. We are watching it via the streaming. Or we have an editor there. Or a Press Attaché.
Of course, opinions, understandings, comments about the subject we report expressed by external people (citizen, experts, journalists) would definitely add great value. I’m afraid we can’t follow this trail yet. As an institutional website, our role is to reflect a fair balanced view of MEPs’ opinions and decisions, as expressed by their speaches, their votes, their work. We are more located at the source of possible discussion between citizen and MEPs than at the heart of it – as an editorial news website. We’d better let our visitors react and produce their own content rather than co-produce our stories with some of them.
This doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear the voice of the people – quite the contrary as our Facebook chats, comments and editorial policy hopefully demonstrate. And yes, we would like to bring this back to the flagship website. In a later post, I’ll try to expose the leads we’d like to follow for our new online digital strategy. Before that, there are still other editorial models that are interesting to have a look at.
This post is part of a series about online editorial models.
Online editorial models #01 – Ours
Online editorial models #02 – Link journalism
Online editorial models #03 – Networked journalism
Online editorial models #04 – Media-enabling journalism aka lol-journalism
Online editorial models #05 – The Huffington Post case
What Is Quality In Networked Journalism? by Charlie Beckett.
Editorial Diversity: Quality Networked Journalism by Charlie Beckett.
Citizen journalists’ shine a light on their own communities (The Guardian)