Citizen journalism 07

In the latest instalment of her Sunday Age commentary on the intertubes election, Rachel Hills was kind enough to quote me:

Mark Bahnisch, founder of leading Australian blog Larvatus Prodeo, believes that, to change this, citizen journalists need to focus on beats not being covered in the mainstream media, and to find original voices.

To elaborate on that a little, I think that “citizen journalism” is possibly an unfortunate choice of term. As Hills writes:

It can be difficult to determine exactly where the line between citizen and professional journalism falls. After all, even hardened political commentators are also citizens and there is substantial overlap between independent and mainstream media, both in personnel and in the exchange of information and ideas.

There is an increasing recognition (well analysed by Margaret Simons in her recent book The Content Makers) that journalism as a form can, and perhaps should, exist independently from the medium which delivers it. Just as “blogging” is now too narrow a concept for what has become a practice rather than a platform, so too I suspect that aspects of “journalism” crowd out what’s involved in “citizen”. That is to say, I question what value is added if those who see themselves as citizen journos try to do the same sort of thing in the same sort of stereotyped way as journos do. That’s not meant to be a criticism of journalists as such, but rather a recognition that the constraints of editorial power, format and traditional form place real limits on creativity and innovation. Although CitJ doesn’t have the resources that big J Journalism does, its contribution should be distinctive and not an echo. I’m not sure at all that interviewing candidates and asking a bland set of questions (“what are the main issues in this electorate?”) becomes interesting just because it’s popped up on YouTube.

Some of this might be compounded because many of those attracted to CitJ are actually journalism or media students doing a bit of resume building – there’s nothing wrong with that – but it would seem to me to encourage a more formulaic style of practice to pad out the resume and the writing portfolio. While Jason Wilson of youdecide2007 is right to suggest that CitJ has the potential to break outside of an “insider’s perspective”, actually doing that requires something more than just being someone who’s “reporting” but not getting paid for it. None of this should be taken as critical – I’m well aware that CitJ in Australia is in its infancy, but it is worth doing some thinking about what role it can play, and how it can play that role.

Hills points to Election Tracker as a positive example of CitJ practice. She writes:

Where these sites, often referred to as “citizen journalism”, differ from traditional media is that while the content they publish might be of professional quality, that content is as much about the experience of the contributor as it is about informing the reader.

That’s spot on, I think, and that’s what’s good about blogging (and for that matter, much of the writing in online media such as Crikey and New Matilda) – the sense that a different perspective is being offered, and one that doesn’t just offer a distinctive voice but also is deeply personal. The interactivity that online writing fosters also adds to the fact that what we are or should be seeing is a conversation between persons rather than a “professional” message directed to an audience. If you think about it, this isn’t necessarily all that new – the great “literary journalists” such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion exemplify at least the first aspect of this form of writing.

So my advice to aspiring citizen journos would be to put the personal into the political.

Election Tracker facilitates that, because as well as filing stories, the writers comment on the experience through blogging on the same web platform, and through various other aspects of the site.

It’s something you can also do via the YouTube interview, and a good example of how to do it, in my view, is this interview with Julian Burnside QC conducted by Jessie Taylor, who blogs here. Taylor lets Burnside speak for himself, and doesn’t push too hard for a “money quote”, but her questions are also well framed to express both her own view and that which others might want to be put to him. The way the video is filmed also says “discussion” or “conversation” rather than “interview”, and folks can flesh out where Taylor is coming from by reading her blog, and a Facebook group she started which is what led me to this video. So, what we have here, I think, is an individual expressing a set of concerns and using a variety of platforms to reach and discuss those concerns with others who have similar interests – and that’s very far from the model of a “journalist” writing for an “audience”, and a lot more interesting.

No doubt there’ll be all sorts of reflections on the online coverage of the election – and Hills is quite right to say that one of the most fascinating aspects of it in an Australian context is that there are far more people writing about it than ever before – but it’s also worth taking stock while we’re still in the midst of it. I’d be very interested in what LP folks think has and hasn’t worked, what’s good and what’s mediocre, about the intertubes coverage of this election.

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Posted in culture, federal election '07, life, media, sociology
18 comments on “Citizen journalism 07
  1. skribeforti says:

    Speaking of CitJs there are now new NORG sites. Apart from the original PerthNorg, there is SydneyNorg, MelbourneNorg, BrisbaneNorg as well as the previously LP mentioned Election07Norg. BTW, IIRC the owner of NorgMedia came up with the term CitJ.

  2. mbahnisch says:

    It’s a good acronym!

  3. Andrew E says:

    Never mind the platform.

    Journalism involves telling you about things of which you mightn’t have been aware, and why those things are (or ought to be) important to you. This is either done well, or badly.

    Everything written by professional journalists stuck on a bus following some politician around is garbage. Everything. Merely transcribing the press release is not worth doing. Sticking a mike under the nose of the politician, who reads the same lines as those in the press release, is not worth doing. Doing snarky pieces bemoaning the slickness of modern politics is not worth doing. Colour pieces on unexpected moments (the pensioner who abuses politician X, the cheeky kid who asks a strange question of politician Y, the bird that poss on politician Z) is not worth doing. It’s not worth doing and it’s not worth reading either.

    Broad engagement has its merits but a fetish for amateurism or the grassroots view doesn’t. If I’m interested in education policy, the mainstream media assume I want to hear the latest lines from Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith (or some other party on the subject). The citizen journalist assume I want to hear about the school their kid goes to. Both are mistaken.

    I want to hear about how issues affect people, and how higher-level (political, economic etc.) policies affect that – but spare me the homespun narcissist fumbling for the universal.

  4. mbahnisch says:

    Broad engagement has its merits but a fetish for amateurism or the grassroots view doesn’t. If I’m interested in education policy, the mainstream media assume I want to hear the latest lines from Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith (or some other party on the subject). The citizen journalist assume I want to hear about the school their kid goes to. Both are mistaken.

    That’s something of a false dichotomy, Andrew – what’s stopping the citizen journalist either filling in the policy picture the party press release journo leaves out and/or relating it relevantly to personal and/or anecdotal experience? There is value in the latter, particularly if combined with the former.

  5. adam says:

    “…There is value in the latter, particularly if combined with the former.”

    agreed: it is always interesting and valuable to see how far the spin diverges from the empirical reality of daily life. that’s the reason i read the msm. to get the spin. so i can dismantle it.

  6. Sir Henry Casingbroke says:

    I think the direct-to-consumer channel that blogs permit (and instantaneous feedback, too) is what makes all the difference. I do not think we should laud amateurism for its own sake, but it has its merits that it – by definition – works outside received journalistic “wisdom”.

    In other words, the format allows the writer to break new ground, by cutting out the middleman. Who is the middleman? Apart from the dead hand of the proprietor, or the absentee proprietor’s ethos, which some hacks strive for in order to a. keep their job b. climb up the greasy pole of internal promotion and thus double-guess the take on political issues the Ethos would like to see in the media outlet, there are myriad elements running interference: in daily print at least, it is news editor, copy taster, section editor, chief sub, sub, and check sub, in addition to the journo’s own perception of what is expected.

    The nature of the medium too is part of the mix which shapes the news and commentary. In newspapers and magazines it is the limited page real estate. In TV and radio it is time. That sometimes is not a bad thing. Some bloggers (such as myself, even) tend to run off at the mouth a bit with bon mots and asides that are superfluous and can get boring to read. That’s why you need a second pair of eyes and a blue pencil.

    While journalists are trained, and opinion writers learn by experience in seeing what is left of their efforts when it is printed after the middlepersons have been through their piece, bloggers learn by experience in gauging the reception from other bloggers, if any. Sometimes the commentary, self-perceived as immortal words of wisdom sinks without a trace, plop. A cruel but effective self-educational tool.

    At other times, the comment lives. If you are a serious blogger, that is serious in your craft rather than content, put your blog name into google and see what pops up, especially in other blogs than where you have originally blogged. If you are being referenced with attribute, than you have made it.

    This is a developing medium, still. Craft in blogging is as is important as in other media. Experienced and or gifted bloggers will always find an appreciative audience, irrespective of the blog where they appear. Blog readers seek out/scan comments as they would with their favourite columnists, because there is a pay-off: wit, insight, new information, or old information presented in a new light; it actually doesn’t matter. Hence for me, on LP, I look out for (not in any particular order): Katz, Merkel, EC, CK, wbb, kim, Gummo, Bahnisch, tigtog, Frank Calabrese, Mr Denmore, Fyodor in his many guises, Nabakov, Pavlov’s Cat, Joe E, Fiasco, FDB… plus a few others.

    Among them is a nice spread of roles, too, that mimic the paid meeja. You have your news journalists there, reporting events accurately and with very short timelines, like Frank Calabrese, you have ascerbic commentators such as Fyodor, Nabakov, CK and Fiasco, expert-knowledge columnists such as Robert Merkel and Gummo, and all-rounders like Mark B. Then there are those who come up with the mind fux unexpected (EC, tigtog).

    In a way, this is a kind of de-amateurisation of blogs. Those that do it well, find their audience and sort themselves out. It takes a bit of experience, and talent. Just like in real life, really.

  7. Liam Hogan says:

    Ahem. Sorry about the dust, and please forgive the smell. It’s OK, it’s just a bit of ozone from the arcing. Do you good.
    I’ve just fired up my reverse-teleological polyrhythmic sub-warp messaging machine, to see about any future wisdom that might shed light on this particular period of communicative flux. Needed a bit of fresh 10W-30 and the timing on one of the cylinders was way off, but it’s firing cleanly now on all twenty-four and I’ve been opening up the eight throttles really wide. With the 1907 model RTPWMM, you can get hyper-etheric transmissions from most future non-zombie dystopias, and idealised pasts, as long as you use proper lead replacement fuel.
    Gotta be honest with you, most of the Idealised Past stuff I’ve been logging lately has been bonnets and bodices. It’s not bad, but all of that port after dinner and bunched ribbon clogs the float bowl in the new carburettor. The sideways one’s never been as good as the OEM, I wish I hadn’t switched. Anyway, where was I?
    Oh yes. The assembled thoughts of the late Professor McLuhan, embedded in the Global Above-Conscious, has sent this communiqué from the Singularity, addressed to the Individuated People-Beings Of The, World and dated Year Zero Point Nine Eight Point Eight Nine (beta release, not for use on production platforms):

    Come into my parlour, said the blogosphere to the citizen journalist. The so-called “medium” is at a stage of development in which everyday function obscures the systematic purpose, both as an event and as a process undergone by victim-participant. Communication between sentients in the era of individual consciousnesses, from the tribal drums of free plains people to the tip-tap-tappings of the piped-in cooped-up incarcerated, always involved compromises of reality and power in favour of “understanding” and “seeing”. How much more, then, must a medium like the internet, whose power is drawn from assimilating the ordinary processes of life—buying, selling, chatting, arguing, loving, hating, looking, learning, etcetera—necessarily blank out its initiates’ contact (outside the medium) with their own lived experiences! Is that not clear?

    Yes, well, it wasn’t much before I ran it through the MK5 translator. Maybe the blades aren’t sharp enough. Goran! My whetstone and a tin of linseed oil!

  8. shishkin says:

    “but spare me the homespun narcissist fumbling for the universal”~!!?? – hahahaha – i thought that’s all there was!! (;

  9. Kevin Rennie says:

    When this campaign is finished I’ll reflect in greater detail on 4 months of plogging and citizen journalism. Some initial thoughts:

    Firstly, the local/global and personal/political cliches certainly apply. a real story beats a polemic any day.

    The medium (in this case Web 2.0) is important because it demands constantly expanding skills and knowledge across a range of sub-media: video (both production and post-production), web coding, graphics, social networking.
    Not to forget the interview and writing skills of both print and video journalists.

    The aspect I have enjoyed most so far was the production of the ‘Broome Voices’ video interviews for Youdecide2007. The people speak for themselves. Except for Carol Martin’s, they have virtually no editing except for the images which I added. The greatest disappointment is that they have had much fewer viewings compared to my shorter satirical videos.

    Finally, “citizen” seems to be a euphemism for “unpaid”.

    ‘Labor View from Broome’

  10. Katz says:

    Bloggers do to journalists what journalists should do to each other — explicitly point out their breaches of logic and professional practice.

    We all rely on professionals for information behind the scenes. We also know that the professionals are telling only a fraction of what they know. There are legal, professional and personal reasons for this. Some of these reasons are legitimate.

    Commenters have much more freedom fo experiment with and to develop ideosyncratic styles of self-expression. The best of this work is far better and far more entertaining than anything that appears in the MSM.

    I’m not going to name names. But you know who you are. (And yes, I’m including YOU specifically in my list of favourite commenters.)

  11. Derek says:

    I’m fascinated by the rise of citizen journalism and am guilty of dabbling in it myself. I see a big opening for newcomers especially in the area of public forums most of which go unreported by media orgs. In my interview posts, I have been guilty of Mark’s charge of asking the ‘bland question’ of “what are the main issues in this electorate?”. In my defence, I’d say that most of the candidates I talk to rarely have the opportunity to publicly answer this question. Whether the question and answer is of any interest to an audience is a moot point.

    For me, CitJ serves a number of disparate purposes including genuine curiosity about the world, understanding multiple point of views, getting practice at doing interviews, honing skills at turning interviews into writing and addressing the challenge of how to make that interesting and relevant to a wider audience. I can’t say I’ve been successful in many of these tasks, but I’m certainly enjoying the challenge. It’s a developing phenomenon and one with lots of opportunities for those prepared to be early adopters.

  12. Liam Hogan says:

    I’m not sure at all that interviewing candidates and asking a bland set of questions (”what are the main issues in this electorate?”) becomes interesting just because it’s popped up on YouTube.

    Getting away from banal sarcasm and Marshall McLuhanism (sorry everyone) I think the answer to this is that the Australian political press scene is dominated by insiderism. We’ve got the most disciplined Party culture in the world, which goes for the minor Parties as well as for the majors, which accounts for the relative structural power in agenda-setting of the Press Gallery and the polling organisations. Of course the internet hasn’t materially altered anything: election tedium is a function of the restriction of information, not the means of its dissemination. Of the fifty-minus who I’d say would be actively covering this election on a full-time basis, a fraction would be able to explain to you the function of a web browser. Conversely, the rest of us have no insider status and deal in speculative fact—not that there’s anything wrong with speculative fact, but you know.

    So my advice to aspiring citizen journos would be to put the personal into the political.

    Me? I like the idea of citizen journalism. It’s just that I can’t fucking stand the citizen journalists. What kind of sad wanker obsesses about politics and dedicates hours to its information-free discussion?
    …no, wait, don’t tell me.

  13. jinmaro says:

    yeah, Liam, there’s sure been a dearth of insider ALP reportage on the blogs. What gives?

    Indeed, does the ALP any longer actually have any real live members? That is, apart from candidates, letterboxers, and apparatchiks? I’ve never seen such a creature since before the last Ice Age.

  14. […] Citizen journalism 07 « Larvatus Prodeo in exile (tags: citizenjournalism citj) […]

  15. barry says:

    Derek, I must say I’ve been loving your work this election.

    As for asking the bland questions – sometimes it’s the bland questions that inspire the interesting responses. There’s too many journos (particularly, but not exclusively broadcast journos) who spend so much time thinking up their next question that they miss the huge, important thing that the interviewee has just said. Sometimes just asking the same question over and over can elicit some interesting stuff: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uwlsd8RAoqI

  16. mbahnisch says:

    I think Derek’s been doing a great job, as well. Perhaps I was too sweeping in my statement but I did have several bad examples in mind.

  17. Derek says:

    Thanks guys, I didn’t mean to sound defensive with my comments and I thought this was a very useful post on a topic I have a particular interest in.

    I think the real test will be how the likes of the Norgs, Youdecides, Election Trackers and independent citizen journalists adapt to the post-election realities and find a new niche for themselves to keep the momentum going.

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