Wednesday, 10 November 2010

What is a citizen journalist?

First, a confession. I still haven't got round to trying out the video camera I blogged two months ago about buying. I'm obviously not a natural citizen journalist.

Which brings me to the question that has been pre-occupying me over the past few weeks as I discuss it with my students. What is a citizen journalist? Is the term citizen journalism interchangeable with the term user generated content (UGC)? What of grassroots journalism and participatory journalism? And is hyperlocal journalism a form of citizen journalism? Are blogs citizen journalism? Is Facebook a form of citizen journalism, as one of my students suggested in her blog this week?

There is, of course, no shortage of commentators trying to debate answers to these questions. But as is so often the case in discussions about new media, boundaries are becoming increasingly blurred. Maybe trying to define anything in this area is pointless, as everything shifts constantly.

But I'll attempt it anyway. I would argue that the term "citizen journalism" (or any other description coupled with the word "journalism") implies an intentional element of civic or public service on the part of the writer, similar to traditional definitions of the journalistic ideal. So for example, amateur contributors writing for websites investigating wrongdoing or challenging powerful interests could be termed citizen journalists.

But readers uploading pictures to their local paper of a jolly day out in the snow are not citizen journalists. They are, however, providing the paper with user generated content, in other words content produced by amateurs/readers, rather than professional journalists. As citizen journalists are also amateurs, you could argue that all citizen journalism is user generated content. But not all user generated content is citizen journalism because it doesn't have that necessary element of journalistic and public service intention. Millions of people blog or tweet or use Facebook or run websites or upload comments to news websites with no desire to be seen or to operate as journalists.

What of entrepreneurs without a journalistic background who launch and run hyperlocal websites like for example William Perrin of Kings Cross Environment or James Hatts of London SE1? Are they citizen journalists? They are definitely doing what local journalists traditionally do, challenging big developers, finding out things other people don't want them to know. But face-to-face, they stress that they're not journalists. Arguably though, they have journalistic intentions and could therefore be called citizen journalists. Whether they want to be called that is another matter.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

New (academic) year, new skills

I've been working on putting together guides for the two modules I'm teaching this semester - MA multimedia reporting and 3rd year undergraduate special study: Journalism and the Online Revolution. And I feel a bit of a fraud. It's three years since I last worked in an online newsroom (thanks pre-paywall Times Online) and we certainly weren't allowed anywhere near a video camera or video editing software. Hell, we weren't even allowed to crop our own pics in Photoshop. And now we're meant to be teaching our students how to produce nifty multimedia story packages and equip them for a brave new, converged age.

Like most of my print colleagues, my video skills are pretty minimal. But not for long. Like the students, we have to learn new ways of doing our job. So my next Amazon purchase will be a Kodak Zi8 camcorder, about the size of an iPhone, with which I'm going to practise shooting video (of what I'm not yet sure) and editing it with my almost unused Premiere Elements 8 software. The big advantage of a small video camera is that I can hopefully use it without too many people noticing how cackhanded I am. Video is like driving - you only learn by doing. No matter that it took me four gos to pass my driving test..

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Rewrite time

From the nature of convergence to the impact of the digital newsroom on professional journalistic identity. The emphasis of my research has shifted more substantially than I realised over the past year (mainly because I didn't look at my research questions for months on end but just kept on reading in the tiny cracks of time between teaching and marking).

When I looked yesterday at the research aims and objectives I wrote at the beginning of the year, they looked dull and shallow. So I've completely rewritten them to reflect my more recent reading and to focus on what for me is a far more interesting question than the nature of convergence - what it means as a journalist to be a professional and how that professionalism is being challenged now that readers can insult them in comment boxes and blog in a parallel universe.

Cue piles of books on sociology, ethnography and the workings of groups and organisations, all vast areas of scholarship, as I'm now starting to realise. I keep telling myself that I may not be a sociologist by training (or at all) but that journalism studies at Sheffield is in the Faculty of Social Sciences, which gives me what sociologists might call a "pseudo-legitimacy".

My next task after a week's holiday next week: to draft two chapters of 8,000 words each on the context of my research and a review of the literature. I've worked out that if I write 1,700 words a day I should be able to do it in two weeks. Just keep writing....

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Is it worth climbing the Times paywall?

I've finally climbed over the Murdoch paywall and handed over my debit card details for access to Times Online. Partly out of professional curiosity and partly out of loyalty to my old colleagues at TO who fear no-one will go to the site if they have to pay. Rightly as it turns out - according to the latest figures, they've lost two thirds of their traffic since shutting out the greedy readers who want everything for free.

But the big question has to be - is worth paying for? I hate to say it but so far, the answer is no. I've been on the site several times today, looking mostly in vain for stories which I didn't read in this morning's print edition. The typeface is distractingly small and serif faces are difficult to read online. Quite a lot of the content is more than a few days old and there's little evidence of the sort of innovative multi-media story telling and hyperlinking that could bring in new readers or tempt existing ones to part with £8 a month.

Relaunches are hell, as I know from experience, and it's easy to carp from the sidelines. So I'll keep visiting... and hoping to be amazed.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Jewels out of jargon

Back to research (and this blog) after weeks of hellish marking and exam boards. Nothing to do but read. Judging by the emptiness of my inbox, my colleagues are all doing the same. Let's make the most of it before the slash and burn of higher education starts in earnest in the autumn.

Osbourne and co may not realise it but reading is hard work, not least because some academics seem to think that writing a book or article full of jargon somehow makes them cleverer. So what if no-one understands it? Only a handful of people are going to read it anyway and they're all peers to whom you need to do a bit of showing off. This is what academic research means, as my colleagues and I are quickly discovering. The only journals which seem to count in research assessments are peer-reviewed journals with a tiny readership, often written in inpenetrable language. Never mind if you're a journalism professor like my colleague Brian Cathcart who has written some scorching exposes on the deaths at Deepcut barracks, which attracted widespread praise and high readership numbers. This is journalism, not research, he was told by our new "Associate Dean for Research and Enterprise". Isn't it a bit enterprising to carry out a major piece of investigative journalism which exposes a giant cover-up? Clearly not.

At least Times Higher Education isn't afraid to point out that much academic writing is, frankly, terrible, driven by the requirements of the RAE, and now the REF. "Much academic writing would never be read for pleasure and decidedly fits into the have-to rather than the want-to category", the paper says today. Too right.

Back to my pile of books on the sociology of the professions. Will I find any answers to my questions about challenges to journalistic professionalism in a digital age? They may be in there somewhere but prising the jewels out of the jargon is another matter.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Thumbs up for Observer revamp

The revamped Observer is, I think, a success. It's physically a much tidier read, with fewer sections (goodbye, Escape and Business & Media), so less of it risks going in the bin. The new 7 days section is great for busy readers who haven't had time to catch up in the week but its key role is to provide context and analysis. This is what Sunday newspapers should be doing a lot more of. The web is for breaking news and the paper is for comment. It's hard to dish the habits of a lifetime but weaning themselves off the idea that every newspaper has to have all the news is something all journalists need to work at. But one question for Observer Editor John Mulholland. Where have the travel pages gone? Can't Observer readers afford to go anywhere anymore?

And finally.. some personal progress news. I got my research methods assignment back from my tutor at Sheffield with a high mark. Which must mean I was not wrong in pointing out the shortcomings of the research paper I was asked to critique, which I can now name as... Curran et al, Media system, public knowledge and democracy - a comparative study

Friday, 15 January 2010

Journalists as entrepreneurs - easier said than done

What are the most useful things we can teach our journalism students? According to publishing entrepreneur and fomer Telegraph writer Jack Roberts, editor of Bad Idea, the list should include: how to come up with a new idea and draw up a business plan, how to do cash flow projections and how to market and advertise themselves and their product. (Which of course is "hyperlocal", the buzzword of the moment, and done on a shoestring).

All good stuff. This is what 2010's going to be about. There's no way anyone's going to get their foot in the door in this industry as it is now unless they put themselves about and come up with new ideas. But I don't mind betting that I wasn't the only one at the Association for Journalism Educators' workshop on journalists as entrepreneurs today who has never had anything to do with business plans or cash flows. Yes, most of us have been freelance at some stage in our careers but planning didn't go much further than the next story pitch or commission. More hand to mouth than five year cash flow projection.

This could be the big problem with trying to teach our students how to be more entrepreneurial. The elephant in the room is that we've never done it ourselves. We've never needed to. Many of today's journalism lecturers started their careers at a time when the business model was to find a staff job with a local newspaper or trade paper and move steadily up to the nationals, again on a staff contract. Then we moved to a second career, yet again on a permanent lecturing contract. Not much entrepreneurial drive needed there. Some job planning skills, maybe but not the creation of a completely new idea from scratch, searching for funding and generating audiences and advertising revenue.

Guest speakers James Hatts, editor of hyperlocal site London Jack Roberts of Bad Idea and Danny Miller, publisher of film magazine and website Little White Lies were impressive examples of what relatively recent graduates can achieve. But all of them seemed to be natural entrepreneurs, seized with the determination to make an idea work. Not all students are like that. Neither are all lecturers. 2010's going to be a busy year.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Back to journalism

A big freelance commission from the Evening Standard. I've said yes - I hope I won't regret it. Of course I can fit it in alongside a full time job and my PhD research. I have to confess it's a year and a half since I actually last wrote anything larger than a blog entry and I've written more module guides than double page spreads for the past three years. But I felt a bit of a thrill as I opened my contact book (no iPhone contact lists, thanks). I felt a bit less of a thrill when I realised some of the people in my book had left the industry or, even in one or two cases, died. My shorthand is woeful and my interview technique rusty. I've got a lot to do to get back into journalism. My students are far more in practice than I am. But journalism is like riding a bike.. you never forget. I hope.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Online journalism teaching - the good and the not-so-good

An interesting debate is taking place on Twitter and blogs about the quality of online journalism education. Students are quite rightly critical of courses which don't take online journalism seriously (a particularly shortsighted position as many of our students get online jobs when they graduate). We're working very hard at Kingston to keep our courses up to date and have made a number of significant changes, including junking Online Journalism as an option and making multimedia reporting compulsory for all first and second years. They're assessed on work uploaded onto our internal CMS as well as work done for print. Students are introduced to Twitter, blogs and video journalism and learn how to develop an online brand. Our MA students run their own news website, RiverOnline where they put their multimedia skills into practice.

But all this has only happened after a lot of meetings and arguments (sorry, discussion) about timing and resources. As Marie Kinsey @journotutor, my colleague at Sheffield, points out, university bureaucracy is not set up for instant and regular change. Any changes to assessments have to be agreed by a committee which meets only every couple of months, so introducing assessment of students' Twitter use (one suggestion on the blogs) would have to wait an academic year, unless we could sneak it in under the guise of a "portfolio" of work. The obsession with "quality" means that everything has to have a paper trail. Software changes which need technical support or resources have to be planned and agreed more than a year in advance. Obviously we're not alone - the whole university sector works the same way, as far as I can gather from colleagues at other institutions.

As an NCTJ-accredited institution, we also have to shape our syllabus to a certain extent to the demands of the NCTJ exams. The NCTJ has just announced a massive overhaul of its newswriting syllabus and not a moment too soon. The disjunct between its old-fashioned, local newspaper print journalism exam and our attempts to teach our students the skills to survive in a 21st century newsroom make session-planning a tricky task.

Of course students don't see all this frantic paddling under the surface and they could argue, quite justifiably, that it isn't their problem. But in the interests of fairness (good journalism), this is just to suggest that there are two sides to every story...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Citizen journalism: amateur but addictive?

The BBC and the mainstream news websites are all desperately encouraging readers to send in their snow pictures and videos and post their accounts of how they got stuck in the snow/missed their exams/had a baby in the car on the M4 in a snowdrift. Citizen journalism at its most dynamic? Not really. The overall effect is more local newspaper than cutting edge journalism. And this, for many professional journalists, is one of the problems of citizen journalism, or user generated content, or participatory journalism, whatever you want to call it. As John Kelly argues in his paper Red Kayaks and Hidden Gold: "the main criticism levelled at citizen journalism is a simple one: it isn't very good".

It's easy for journalists to be snobbish. There's a growing body of research suggesting that professional journalists are "ambivalent" about the value of citizen journalism, partly because it challenges their own professional status (if anyone can be a journalist, why bother to spend years training and sucking up to editors and being shouted at in the newsroom?) and partly because they worry that poor amateur contributions will damage the brand of their organisation.

But the point is that readers want to read and view contributions from other readers. The top shared story at this moment on the BBC's website is "Your pictures: more snow across the UK". The broadsheet journalists' choice of top story today (the secret ballot letter plotting against Gordon Brown) was nowhere in the top story choice for BBC readers. Which rather goes to back up the widely held view among commentators that what journalists think is news and what readers are actually interested in are two very different things.

Fast reading isn't always good reading

A welcome research week before the onslaught of semester 2 begins. It's so long since I had any sustained time to work on my PhD that it takes me a day to remind myself of some of the main themes of my research so far. I start reading through a stack of journal articles only to find that I must have already read them, because they're covered with underlining and my scribbled comments. Worryingly, I have no memory of any of the content of these articles, or even of having read them, so I go through them again and make notes on the main themes and arguments. Not exactly an efficient use of time but as I'm discovering, one of the most difficult aspects of doing a PhD in the gaps between the rest of my job is that the process of research is very disjointed. I read fast because I have limited time, but how useful is this if I can't remember what I've read? There must be a better way...