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Chapter 6: Potential benefits of We Media
Participatory journalism is not going to disappear any time soon. Communication, collaboration and sharing personal passions have been at the heart of the Internet since its inception more than 30 years ago.
David Weinberger, author of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, says that this is because the Web is not just a giant marketplace or an information resource. Rather, "it's a social commons on which the interests of a mass of individuals are splayed in universally accessible detail and trumpeted in an effectively infinite array of personal voices."1
According to Scott Rosenberg, managing editor of Salon.com, what Weinberger reminds us is that "every Web site, every Internet posting matters to the person who created it — and maybe to that person's circle of site visitors, whether they number 10 million or just 10."
"Individually, these contributions may be crude, untrustworthy, unnoteworthy. Collectively, they represent the largest and most widely accessible pool of information and entertainment in human history. And it's still growing."2
If media companies are going to collaborate with their audiences online, they must begin to consider a news and information Web site as a platform that supports social interaction around the stories they create. These interactions are as important as the narrative, perhaps more so, because they are created and owned by the audience. In a networked world, media whose primary value lies in its ability to connect people will win.3
This chapter explores the potential benefits to media companies and businesses that adopt participatory journalism in meaningful ways. Possible examples include enabling editors and reporters to publish a weblog about the subjects they cover; hosting, moderating and participating in discussion forums or groups about news; encouraging audience contribution of editorial content for distribution on a Web site or in a traditional media product; enabling your readers to purchase online advertising through affordable text ads. The possibilities are limitless, as long as it includes an effort to engage the audience in an authentic conversation and collaboration.
An involved, empowered audience could well bring a number of potential benefits to media companies. From our research, we have compiled the following list of benefits:
Increased trust in mediaAccording to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll in June 2003, only 36 percent of those polled believe the news media generally "get the facts straight."4 News media have their work cut out in restoring their reputations and their readers' sense of trust.
Participatory journalism provides media companies with the potential to develop a more loyal and trustworthy relationship with their audiences. This can happen, for example, with a reporter who writes a weblog, asking the audience to fuel her efforts by providing tips, feedback and first-hand accounts that confirm a story's premise or that take it in a different direction. We Media can also provide the audience a deeper level of understanding about the reporting process by illustrating, for example, how a reporter must balance competing interests. This communication can lead to a lasting trust.
Time magazine media critic James Poniewozik explains how this is possible, when he describes the perception gap between the audience and the media about trust. "Journalists think trust equals accuracy. But it's about much more: passion, genuineness, integrity."5 Honest conversation and passionate collaboration could instill respect and trust into the relationship between both parties.
Involving an audience, either small or large, in the creation of content also gives them a sense of ownership — an affinity with the media brand that they believe they are not getting today — as well as a more intimate relationship with the storytellers.
Shared responsibility in informing democracyAn audience that participates in the journalistic process is more demanding than passive consumers of news. But they may also feel empowered to make a difference. As a result, they feel as though they have a shared stake in the end result.
According to Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, authors of the book The Elements of Journalism, citizens must take an active, collaborative role in the journalistic process if we are to realize an effective journalism that appropriately informs a democracy.
"Journalists must invite their audience into the process by which they produce the news," Kovach and Rosenstiel write in their book. "They should take pains to make themselves and their work as transparent as they insist on making the people and institutions of power they cover. This sort of approach is, in effect, the beginning of a new kind of connection between the journalist and the citizen. It is one in which individuals in the audience are given a chance to judge the principles by which the journalists do their work."
"The first step in that direction has to be developing a means of letting those who make up that market finally see how the sausage is make — how we do our work and what informs our decisions."6
Many journalists who are already weblogging are doing just that — exposing the raw material of their stories-in-progress, posting complete text of interviews after the story is published, and inviting comments, fact checking and feedback that contribute to follow-up stories.
Memorable experiences createdOnline interactive experiences are more memorable than relatively static experiences such as newspapers, according to Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen. "Moving around is what the Web is all about," Nielsen explains. "When analyzing the 'look-and-feel' of a website, the feel completely dominates the user experience. After all, doing is more memorable and makes a stronger emotional impact than seeing."7
Collaborating and having a conversation with audience members is sure to provide an even more meaningful and memorable experience than passive consumption of news.
Likewise, enabling your audience to talk about and extend news stories also increases retention and understanding. When we read a story that grabs us, we want to tell others, who will also likely tell others. Good stories are inherently infectious. Sharing and discussing them is a natural extension of the experience.
"As users have greater effect upon the experience, they become more absorbed (immersed) in the experience," according to the authors of a research study, "Interactive Features of Online Newspapers."
"What users do with content is more important than how content may affect users. Users are actively chasing discovery, rather than passively being informed."8
Ultimately, the authors argue, "journalists today must choose. As gatekeepers they can transfer lots of information, or they can make users a smarter, more active and questioning audience for news events and issues."
The next generation of news consumersIncreasing interactivity and enabling audience participation have an additional benefit — attracting a younger audience, the next generation of news consumers.
"Kids today expect to interact with their media," according to Steve Outing, a senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and an interactive media columnist for Editor & Publisher Online. "From playing interactive online games, to using instant messenger (IM) services to communicate with friends, to interacting with their television (by having control over when programs are watched, and skipping commercials with devices like TiVo and ReplayTV), today's kids expect their media to offer a two-way street of communication."9
"A safe assumption is that when today's children and teenagers reach adulthood, they'll not be tolerant of media that's one-way, that's not interactive. They expect to be able to manipulate media content, and to share it with others. The one-way conversation of a printed newspaper won't do — thus print's prospects for the young digital generation are not promising. Newspaper Web sites and other newspaper digital media formats likewise cannot afford to perpetuate the one-way model. They've got to become more interactive."
Better stories — and better journalismAn interesting question, yet to be addressed by research in this field, is: Does participatory journalism — the process of collaboration and conversation between media and the audience — ultimately help create better stories and better storytellers?
"I've found that my readers definitely know more than I do, and, to my benefit, they share their knowledge," says San Jose Mercury News technology columnist Dan Gillmor, who has been writing a weblog since 1999.10
Based on Gillmor's experience and that of others in the field, reporters who write weblogs and collaborate with their audiences in various ways ultimately write more compelling and accurate stories. One reason is that listening to and collaborating with your audience helps to develop a broader base of sources who are experts in wide-ranging subject matter.
Journalism researcher Mark Deuze explains: "The Internet as it wires millions of individuals as potential information experts into a global communications infrastructure provides an ideal platform for improving journalism by incorporating the expertise of people 'outside of the Rolodex.' "11
Sheila Lennon, a features and interactive producer with Projo.com, the Web site of The Providence Journal, says collaborating with the audience "can make for better reporting, especially when sources contact me out of the blue because they feel the know me from the weblog and choose to trust me with their news."
Voice and personality are also key hallmarks of participatory media. Several observers have argued that the informal style found in many participatory forms free the writer from the "official voice" of the media company, and that makes for better storytelling. The official voice of journalism is usually formal, often drained of color and attitude, and written as an objective and balanced account. In contrast, weblogs and discussion groups thrive on their vivid writing, controversial points of view and personality-rich nature — traits that many readers find compelling.
Columnist J.D. Lasica goes so far as to argue that newspaper webloggers should not be subject to the newsroom's routine editing filter. On his weblog he called for a form of Editing Lite: "Perhaps the chief appeal and attraction of weblogs are their free-form, unfiltered nature. You get to hear people in their natural dialect, writing from their gut with a voice and tone that too often can be filtered into a homogenous blandness after passing through the typical newsroom's editing machine. A lightly edited, hands-off weblog would show journalists as human beings with opinions, emotions and personal lives."12
Audience participation serves another salutary function. The mainstream media tend to dispose of stories in a fast-paced news cycle. Even important news events often fall off the media's radar screen after 48 hours. The blogosphere and discussion forums keep stories alive by recirculating them and regurgitating them with new angles or insights. Weblogs have been credited with keeping in the public spotlight Sen. Trent Lott's statement expressing fondness for the Dixiecrat era of one-time segregationist Strom Thurmond, a controversy that led to Lott stepping down as Senate majority leader.13
A scalable virtual staffAn involved audience can play the role of a scalable virtual staff — a massive pool of grassroots writers, commentators, photographers and videographers. Collaborating with them enables media to be and go where they normally cannot, due to geography or cost.
For example, in the weeks leading up to the Iraq war, BBC News asked its worldwide audience to send in digital images from anti-war protests held around the globe, then published a slide show of the best images on its Web site.14
The events calendar on SciFi.com is a good example of building a virtual staff as well as editorial content getting better through user participation. Craig E. Engler, a general manager at SciFi.com, says that one-quarter of all events on the calendar are submitted by their fans. "They usually send us things that we might otherwise miss on our own, so it balances our work nicely," Engler said.15
Using the audience as an extension of your staff will help develop a broader base of editorial voices and perspectives from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds.
Fostering communityTraditionally, media companies have viewed the concept of online community no differently than a section of a newspaper (ŗ la Letters to the Editor) or a segment of a newscast. It is something that has been segregated from the news — a closed-off annex where readers can talk and discuss, as long as the media companies don't have to be too involved. Such an architected virtual space is not a true online community. Real communities have leaders, moderators and involved participants who care about their space.
Participatory journalism helps develop real community around reporters, stories, and the media company's brand experience. With a weblog, for example, a reporter has a place to extend reporting, interact with readers, exercise personal conscience, and share some level of personality that might be absent from his "unbiased" reports. These are elements that attract real community.
Projo.com's Lennon shared with us an excellent story describing how this occurred with a breaking news story in February 2003. The rock band Jack Russell's Great White used a pyrotechnic display that triggered a fire and killed 97 people in a Rhode Island nightclub called The Station. It became a national story overnight.16
"When The Station nightclub fire happened, I created a special weblog for that on The Providence Journal Web site, and it resulted in a real exchange of information. I was updating constantly with information found in the forums at sites such as roadie.net, KNAC.com, in newsgroups and in smaller local papers and far-flung hometown papers of victims.
"My email address became a contact point. Friends and relatives of victims emailed me the URLs of pages set up for those in the hospital; the photo on the weblog of the club before the fire originally came by email from the mother of the man who had painted the mural, and the National Fire Protection Association emailed me looking for the original. Clubs emailed information on hastily arranged benefits for the weekend after the fire — and, in the course of calling to check details and confirm those benefits, I learned that the first of many clubs had been temporarily closed after a sudden wave of fire inspections and broke that news.
"I was in the office of the deputy managing editor as she read my story about it on the website to the bureau manager in the closed club's town. It was the first he'd heard of it, and he was being dispatched to follow it up for the paper.
"The readers became the sources as a community pooled its knowledge. The nature of this event, which involved so many people, so many questions and reporting spread all over the web, would have led to the invention of a weblog on the spot even if I hadn't already been weblogging on the site. It was the only way to handle that much incoming information in a way that invited readers to add what they knew — or found — to our common body of knowledge.
"I answered every email, and expressed my sympathy to every friend and relative before diving into the substance of their information. It reinforced that caring humans were reporting this story, and 'Thank God for The Journal' was commonly heard in those dark days."
Using participatory journalism, Lennon engaged the readers in the reporting process, creating a community around a breaking news story as well as building a community around the reporter's brand and the newspaper's brand.
Network identityIn the past 10 years there have been numerous scientific discoveries about how networks form and behave. This has led us to understand that networks are driven by hubs and nodes.
"There is a hierarchy of hubs that keep these networks together, a heavily connected node closely followed by several less connected ones, trailed by dozens of even smaller nodes," writes Albert-László Barabási in his book Linked: The New Science of Networks. "No central node sits in the middle of the spider web, controlling and monitoring every link and node."
"Real networks are self-organized. They offer a vivid example of how the independent actions of millions of nodes and links lead to a spectacular emergent behavior."17
News media have traditionally viewed themselves as central nodes in the information network, with the power to control the ebb and flow of news. On the Web, that is no longer possible. News sites that sit behind registration firewalls, or whose content is quickly moved into paid archives, display the characteristics of a cul-de-sac rather than a connected node on a network.
Adopting various forms of participatory journalism will increase the importance of your company's hub in the network economy. By increasing the number of connections — though weblogs, forums, XML syndication and collaborative publishing engines — the strength of a media company's node is enhanced.
In the last chapter, we look at various ways in which media companies can retool themselves to become a powerful force in an era of participatory journalism.
1. Scott Rosenberg paraphrasing of Weinbergerís concepts in "The media titans still donít get it," Salon.com, Aug. 13, 2002. Also see: David Weinberger, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web (Perseus Publishing, March 2002).
3. Ellen Kampinsky, Shayne Bowman and Chris Willis, "Amazoning the News," Hypergene.net, February 2001.
4. James Poniewozik, "Donít Blame It on Jayson Blair," Time, June 9, 2003, p. 90.
6. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Three Rivers Press, 2001), 191-192.
7. Jakob Nielsen, "Differences Between Print Design and Web Design," published on the author's Web site, Useit.com, Jan. 24, 1999.
8. Keith Kenney, Alexander Gorelik and Sam Mwangi, "Interactive Features of Online Newspapers," FirstMonday.org, December, 1999.
9. Steve Outing. "Newspapers: Donít Blow it Again," Stop The Presses column, Editor & Publisher Online, Feb. 13, 2003.
10. Dan Gillmor, "Here Comes We Media," Columbia Journalism Review, January/February 2003.
11. Mark Deuze, "Online Journalism: Modelling the First Generation of News Media on the World Wide Web," FirstMonday.org, Volume 6, Number 10 (October 2001).
12. J.D. Lasica, "Should newspaper bloggers be subjected to the editing filter?," New Media Musings weblog, Feb. 5, 2003.
13. Mark Glaser, "Weblogs credited for Lott brouhaha," Online Journalism Review, Dec. 17, 2002.
14. "Your pictures of the anti-war demonstrations," BBC.com, Feb. 18, 2003. Steve Outing also has documented several other excellent examples of audience photo submissions in his Stop The Presses column, "Photo Phones Portend Visual Revolution," on Editor & Publisher Online, March 12, 2003.
15. From an email interview conducted by the authors with Craig Engler, June 21, 2002. See Scifi.com events calendar.
16. Sheila Lennon's story comes from an email interview, conducted by the authors July 2003. You can see the reporting process unfold, if you read the weblog Sheila created on Projo.com, starting from the bottom up.
17. Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Perseus Publishing, May 2002), Pg. 221.