NEW MEDIUM, SAME OLD TEST FOR GOOD JOURNALISM
Johncom's new website -- www.reporter.co.za -- highlights the potential and limitations of the new craze for citizen journalism.
The site invites members of the public to play at being journalists by submitting reports, columns or photographs of news events to be edited and published on the site with the potential of earning a small fee.
Johncom paid little heed to the web for the first 10 years of this new medium, so it is a latecomer. Now it is jumping onto the broadband-wagon and offering not traditional journalism -- the company's great strength -- but a trendy pop journalism.
Citizen reporting of this sort is taking off globally, fed by the ease with which one can now record and transmit words and images.
A glowing example is the Ohmynews site of South Korea, which has attracted up to 25000 contributors and an audience of millions. This venture had two things going for it: it operated in a country where the government has promoted broadband access to the internet; and it caught and rode a political wave.
Its major claim to fame is the role it played in the downfall of that country's previous government and the scoop of hosting the first interview with the incoming president.
In SA, only 7% of the population uses the internet, and household broadband is still only for the rich. Have a look at the Johncom site and you will see a hotchpotch of suburban trivia, hardly the sort of news to set the country alight.
The chief spokesman of citizen media is Dan Gillmor, author of a book called We, the Media. Gillmor hailed the democratisation brought by the internet, where anyone could publish and no longer had to find their way past the gatekeepers who control the media.
Citizens armed with their cellphone cameras and laptops were bringing an end to earnest, professional journalists deciding what was important and interesting. Ordinary people could influence the news agenda, not just those who had the public relations machinery to do so. Traditional journalism would be superceded by a bottom-up, participatory exchange of views, more of a dialogue than a lecture.
Gillmor left his newspaper job to pioneer a citizen journalism project serving San Francisco, called Bayosphere. Just last week, Gillmor had to explain why Bayosphere had failed and announced that he was moving on.
He still believes in the cause -- "Citizen journalism is booming around the world," he writes -- and is now running the Centre for Citizen Journalism.
The unmediated voice of ordinary people has proved invaluable at times. Some of the best early reports of the London bombs of last year, or the tsunami of December 2004, came from ordinary citizens putting up their eyewitness accounts and photographs. But it also allowed for a range of hoaxes and rumours, which spread like wildfire on the net. Citizen journalism proved to be a good supplement, rather than replacement, for the force of traditional journalism. More than ever, we need real professionals who know how to find, check and double-check the facts, how to fill out and give balance to reports, how to present them quickly and in an accessible way and -- most of all -- who are accountable.
Take a look at Johncom's site.
It promises a range of lively material, but on closer inspection the reports are half-baked, the sort you'd expect from beginner reporters who would be sent back by a news desk to plug the holes. The pictures have a charming amateurishness to them.
Think of the potential problems. How do you verify stories e-mailed into you? How do you prevent commercial interests from placing their public relations material? Or planting stories for fun or to harm their competition?
If citizen journalism is not just going to add to the media clutter, then it still needs to be edited.
There is a place for citizen journalism. Done well, it has a rawness and freshness missing from our media. "User-generated content adds to the strength of BBC content," says the head of BBC's News Interactive, Peter Clifton. As a complement to traditional journalism, he argues, it is here to stay.
Imagine if www.reporter.co.za began to carry material from those township residents we have seen recently with stones in their hands, protesting service nondelivery. Imagine if they used this medium to start telling us why they are doing it. Now that would be something.