Citizen journalism is a 'democratic conversation'

Richard Keeble

The key to citizen journalism is that it reverses the traditional dissemination of news from a lecture to the public by powerful journalists to a democratic 'conversation', editor Marc Wadsworth told students at the University of Lincoln.

Wadsworth, founder of the citizen journalism website, said:  "No longer are readers' views consigned to a letters page buried deep inside a publication or a parish pump  'local round-up' section of a newspaper. As The Guardian, which has trail-blazed on the subject puts it, from now on the reader holds sway:  'Comment is free  — and instantaneous.'"

But he added that the big media companies were not really committed to independent citizen journalism which they see as a threat.  "They want what they euphemistically call  'convergence' and  'integration' to protect their position: in other words, to co-opt citizen journalism."  "Citizen journalism" was an umbrella term for a number of different ideas.

 "Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis run a US media consultancy and the Hypergene weblog which is one of the leading sources of commentary on the new form. In 2003, they defined  'participatory journalism' as  'a citizen or group of citizens playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information.'"

Yet the most successful citizen journalism site  — South Korea's Ohmynews  — has heavy editorial oversight. Launched in 2000, it now had up to 40,000 contributors and an annual profit of $400,000.  "Ohmy's website currently gets an average of 700,000 visitors and 2m page views a day which puts it in the same league as a large newspaper.

Articles are edited by its founder Oh Yeon Ho, a former magazine journalist, and a few colleagues. Ho likes to think of Ohmy as a  'playground' for South Korean hobbyists where  'adults' set certain rules and thus give the site credibility." One of Ohmy's biggest innovations was economic. The site had a  "tip-jar" system that invited readers to reward good work with small donations.

 "Ho, who left his career in the mainstream media because he was sick of what he saw as their conservative bias, also reckons that Ohmy has helped to improve the balance. If the media scales used to be tilted 80 per cent in favour of the conservatives, he thinks Ohmy has reduced that to 60 per cent  — and wants to make it 50 per cent." Citizen journalism also touched on the crunch issues of amateurism, professionalism and trustworthiness in the media.

Yet the mainstream could not claim a monopoly on veracity.  "Take, for instance, the  'embedded' reporters in the Iraq invasion. How are the public to believe the impartiality of journalists who are fed whatever their British and American military guardians so choose? Who believes the infamously  'embedded' journalists of the Iraq invasion are regurgitating anything other than American and British propaganda. My colleague, Terry Lloyd, from ITN refused to be embedded and was murdered by US troops. He was a true citizen journalist."

The citizen journalism brought out by events such as the London bombings of 2005, Hurricane Katrina, Asia's tsunami tidal wave and other similar big news stories had sent a new joke into the blogosphere: that Andy Warhol's proverbial  "15 minutes of fame" had now become  "15 megs" of fame for everybody.  "That may be true. But the area of citizen journalism that is currently growing fastest is the least glamorous end: the so-called  'hyper-local' coverage of, say, high school sports or petty neighbourhood crime, which is usually too small even for local newspapers."

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