net savvy

Revenge of the amateurs

Now South Africa has its own citizen journalism offering via Johnnic’s commendable reporter.co.za

One of the first images of the Asian Tsunami crisis came from a Nordic tourist stuck on a rooftop in Phuket who MMSed it to a major news website, where it was immediately published. During the London bombings we saw grainy underground footage via evacuees’ cellphones. Here at home, e.TV recently received footage of shackfires in Cape Town via cellphone video, prompting the station to ask questions and do a short insert on the “citizen journalism” phenomenon.

The onward march of technology is turning everyone into citizen reporters. Anyone with a cellphone camera is a potential citizen photographer and anyone with a blog or their own website is a potential citizen reporter or columnist.

Citizen journalists are working with established media to enhance journalism, but also competing with established media for stories, audience and sometimes, on the bigger blogs, even advertising. Some citizen journalists are even performing a watchdog role on established media. The competition from citizen journalists have dubbed citizen journalists, the revenge of the amateuers.

Bloggers, with their citizen reporting, are raking in bigger readerships than many established online news sites. Bloggers are scooping stories, being invited to press conferences and sitting alongside journalists with their own accredition.

Big media has noted these developments with interest. Not too long ago Rupert Murdoch said in a widely-read speech last year that traditional media were missing a trick and needed to jump in on the citizen reporting revolution.

The sly old fox said at a gathering of editors: “What is happening is, in short, a revolution in the way young people are accessing news. Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it… They want news that speaks to them personally, that affects their lives.”

“So unless we awaken to these changes, which are quite different to those of 5 or 6 years ago, we will, as an industry, be relegated to the status of also-rans. But, properly done, they are an opportunity to actually improve our journalism and expand our reach.”

Ever since blogs have popularised the internet and made it more accessible as a personal writing platform, big media have been trying to work out how to jump in and grab their slice of the phenomenon.

So its no wonder that big media house Johnnic launched South Africa’s first organised and substantial stab at a citizen journalism offering, reporter.co.za. News articles, photos, audio and video footage is submitted by registered citizen reporters. There are already 3 845 citizen journos publishing about 25 news stories per day on topics including crime, sport and tips and features.

Citizen journalism isn’t exactly a new thing. Talk radio in South Africa has been a platform for citizen reporters for years. It’s just that the internet has further popularised and provided the ideal medium to exploit it. Even the letters pages of newspapers could be considered a form of citizen journalism that has been around forever.

Reporter.co.za may do exactly what Murdoch says — it should add to Johnnic’s journalism and broaden its reach. What better way to get scoops and stories than to invite the public submit them? But it also means sifting through reams of rubbish before you strike gold.

Will it work? Well if the objective is to get tip-offs and scoops and the occasional well-written piece for Johnnic’s media brands, then the answer would be an unequivocal yes.

But if reporter.co.za is to become a successful publishing site, attracting a big audience and selling advertising – it would really depend on the depth, breadth and quality of content they could get from their citizen reporters.

We’ll just have to see whether reporter.co.za will become an interesting online news destination in itself. Big media organisations have a way of attracting top talent and maintain high standards through organised corporate structures which ultimately should result in a good publication.

When you indiscriminately invite the whole world to write for you, you may be heading for mediocrity. What counts in reporter.co.za’s favour is that number power may guarantee it some good offerings and they have a group of powerful editor’s to ensure only the good stories get through.

But would we ever see a citizen journalist Kirby, Eaton or Bullard? If they were discovered, would they continue writing for a R30-a-story citizen journalist site? Probably not. So how would you prevent the site from being ordinary, amateurish and bland?

It’s going to be a challenge for the site to ensure accuracy and motivation and stop deliberate fabrication and vandalism if they have just a cursory relationship with their writers. Johnnic’s Sunday Times has one of the strictest ethical tests for stories in the business.

Like Wikipedia one suspects all will go well for a while and it will take one high profile error to turn people’s eyes to questioning. It only takes a few major mistakes to kill a publication’s crediblility.

You would think the latter is a factor you cannot control. You are largely led by your reporters. There is very little co-ordination between readers, so you may get 50 articles on Bafana one day and a piss poor piece on politics the next.

Juliet Saunder’s, the site’s editor, says the site will also act as a recruitment base for the company. It’s a good strategy that will probably reap dividends, but what does it say about the publication itself when one of the aims is to recruit its journalists to other “better” publications?

Where the site will fill an important niche is reporting local and community news — an area not covered very well by traditional media. It’s also an area where many bloggers cover very well.

It’s brave, exciting initiative from Johnnic and they should be commended for going down this road. If reporter.co.za is to be a successful news brand in itself, the real test for the site will not be how many citizen reporters they get, but how many readers the site gets.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of the Mail & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za

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