I was recently invited to give a talk in Istanbul on the topic of working with your audience. I wanted to share a little bit here of what I talked about.
For those of you who don’t me in my professional incarnation, I’m the Online Producer for News at Current.com. I blog regularly on the Current News blog and oversee the mix of content on the News page. I also spend a lot of time thinking about citizen journalism. For two years I ran Current’s citizen journalism program: Collective Journalism, where we combined reports from outside contributors into comprehensive looks at big issues. Personal and local stories stitched together to give you the bigger picture. All right, that’s me. What about Current?
Current has been focused on working with our audience since we started back in August of 2005. The company was founded with the mission to “democratize media”: to offer its audience the chance to get have a voice in the conversation in global media that at the time was just open to a very small number of people.
I joined Current at the end of its first month, the weekend Hurricane Katrina hit. I’m originally from New Orleans, I have family that lives in Louisiana, and so I was put to work real fast. I was a producer and in the few weeks after the storm I produced some of the work that I was most proud of in my career to date.
But none of it compared to this piece: Citizen Rescue.
Citizen Rescue was produced by a young man named Jared Arsement who lived west of New Orleans and outside of the storm’s path. Jared took part in a rescue effort in the flooded city carried out by everyday folks and their flat-bottom boats. As you can see in the piece, he shows us this amazing personal perspective that you just weren’t seeing from the news reporters who had parachuted into New Orleans. He was literally just holding the camera out in front of his face and talking. This piece was a wake-up call for me – the point at which I realized the power of what we had started calling “citizen journalism”. Powerful personal and/or local perspectives from people who had unique access to stories because they were living them.
Things have changed a lot since Aug. 2005: YouTube and Twitter have launched, for example. And the way people think about citizen journalism has changed. Back then people thought (worried) that low-cost citizen journalists would replace professional journalists. That hasn’t happened. What we’re seeing more and more is that professional journalists are looking at citizen journalism as a tool to augment their reporting.
Not to say professional journalists haven’t been losing jobs. Journalism is in crisis – especially newspapers, which are still the primary source of new stories and information in the news cycle. Just this year the Rocky Mountain News shut down and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed its print side, going online-only. The New York Times is in such financial peril that it accepted a massive bailout from a shadowy Mexican billionaire named Carlos Slim.
But despite this dire situation I believe we’re in a moment of opportunity: a chance to rework how we conduct journalism. I personally believe a key to this is working with our audiences. Beyond “citizen journalism” – I’m talking about collaborative journalism.
So what have we done at Current? Well one of the projects I’ve worked on has been Collective Journalism – where we invited our audience to submit elements for collaborative documentaries. Here’s an example focusing on the mortgage crisis:
Additionally we’ve asked our audience online to suggest the stories they thought were the most interesting and important on Current.com. But not to just talk about Current – who else out there is working with their audience in interesting ways? Here’s some of my favorite examples.
The Huffington Post asked its audience to help out with its reporting during the 2008 election with a program called “Off the Bus”. They were able to build a network of people to report “ground-level” stories from their towns and also from within the campaigns themselves. Right now a similar model is being pursued by the folks over at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism outfit, to track the spending of the stimulus funds.
Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo broke one of the major scandals of the Bush Administration, the politicized Attorney General firings, by asking his readers to report what they’d seen in the comments on his blog. Simple, surely, but wow it was effective.
UK-based site Demotix invites contributors around the world to submit photojournalism. They’ve been able to attract a wide-range of talent from professional to amateur.
South Korean citizen news site Oh My News has thousands of contributors that write short articles. They’ve actually been around for quite a while, launching in 2000. A similar model is being pursued by French site Le Post, an off-shoot of newspaper Le Monde. Le Post combines professional and amateur articles about each day’s news.
Ushaidi isn’t a news-site but a software platform. Developed during the violence-stricken Kenyan elections, Ushaidi invited people to report incidents of violence in small very easy ways: via an email or text message. The software then mapped that data to a Google Map.
The Guardian in the UK found an even simpler way for its audience to get involved in its reporting. When British MPs were found to be engaged in expense report tomfoolery, the Guardian took every single one of the thousands of expense report pages, scanned them, and put them online. Then they asked their audience to identify which pages needed following up on.
Cable network CNN has been in the game too. As a 24-hour broadcaster, they have two things they need: unique breaking news and commentary on the day’s stories. They’ve been able to use their citizen journalism platform IReport to accomplish both of those.
Some outlets are even asking their audience to get involved through their checkbook. SF-based Spot.us is a platform that “crowdfunds” journalism – inviting people to give small amounts of money to fund reporting on stories they care about.
These are just a few of the innovative examples out there and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. Online social media tools make it easier with each passing day to involve your audience in your reporting process (ask people for story ideas via Twitter!) or for people out there in the world to just report on what’s happening around them (think about the Hudson River plane crash photo: shot with an iPhone and uploaded via Twitpic).
If you have any other examples you think I’ve missed, let me know. Or big ideas to share, those are great too.
I had to start a blog, you understand. I’ll admit, this is not my first blog. My first blog was called Apologies for Woodrow Wilson and was where I wrote about foreign policy and international news. Usually after a scotch or two. (It was a fun blog.) I guess you could say I’ve moved that work to my second blog, the Current News Blog, where I also blog about foreign policy and international news. But that’s for work, so there’s less scotch involved.
Who am I? I’m Andrew Fitzgerald. I’m a journalist and writer in San Francisco. God, that sounds terribly unoriginal doesn’t it? Hmph. Also, I grew up on a boat. I’m on Twitter and I work for Current TV.
What’s this blog? I wanted a catch-all blogging space to talk about anything and everything that crossed my little mind. I wrote a book this past year, I wanted to be able to talk about that. I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of journalism, this is also a space for that. And sometimes, you know what, I’m going to want to get drunk and poke fun at Vladimir Putin. It happens!
Why Promiscuous Intelligence? I believe information wants to be (and should be) free. Not free in the pricing sense (sorry Chris Anderson) but free in the liberty sense (lookin’ at you founding fathers). My goal is to aid that process. Also, andrewfitzgerald.com is being squatted upon by a hypnotist or something.
Why the janky WordPress theme layout? Give me some time! My last blog was on Blogspot, I’ve already taken a big step up!
What about this book I wrote? That will be the subject of the very next post, I promise. The skinny is this – I wrote a novel and it’s called The Collective. Anyone who wants a copy of the book can sign up for a Kickstarter project I’m going to launch in January. Details to come.
That’s about all – let me know if you want to be in the blog roll. I’ll be directing a firehose of traffic your way in no time, I’m sure.