Citizen journalists - enemies or allies?

CITIZEN journalism is full of dreadful, unedited content, but it could bring opportunities for professionals too. February's London Freelance Branch heard two speakers, both from the NUJ's New Media Industrial Council.

New Media Assistant Organiser Lawrence Shaw was an online editor with Newsquest, which put its South London freesheets online in 2000. The site initially attracted many hits, with "advertising managers running up and down dreaming of untold riches". When the hit count soon dropped, management dreamed up "a nightmarish online beauty pageant" for the cutest kids in the borough, with families clicking on buttons endlessly to get their kids to the top. Lawrence was one of two trained journalists deployed endlessly to upload readers' kid pics.

Photo © www.isabellemerminod.com
Jemima Kiss (left) and Lawrence Shaw (centre)  debated citizen journalism at February's London Freelance Branch meeting, with Branch committee member Phil Sutcliffe (right) and other listeners providing "user-generated content" in the form of contributions from the floor.

The NUJ's recent report on multimedia convergence highlighted examples of best practice, like ITN's clearly-defined user-generated bits of its website site that make it more of a viable concern, without replacing hard news. But some media seem to be relying on user-generated content to shore up poorly- staffed newsrooms. Lawrence researched coverage of the January crash-landing at Heathrow, when Sky rushed a phone interview with one Jason Johnson. His testimony was still on the online Times on 29 March - though he emailed Sky soon  after the interview to admit he wasn't on the plane: he'd been drunk and "having a laugh".

At a recent new media summit which Lawrence attended, a banker from Credit Suisse responded to fears about media convergence, advising media groups to invest in their "content" and make sure it's the best that can be.

Jemima Kiss, now at Media Guardian, pointed out that the multimedia giants like Google or Yahoo only manage content, as producing content is so expensive.

"Many blogs will be crap," Jemima said, "but at the top end there's a very small number that are very good and extremely influential, with minimal publishing costs."One professional  technology journalist started a paid-for content tech industry blog when he was made redundant, and now employs 23 people including specialist journalists, making money from advertising and sponsorship for events run by the blog.

News sites like the Wall Street Journal, with their more traditional, less flexible business models can only just keep their edge against quality techie blogs like Engadget.

If we're creative, exciting new editorial offerings can complement proper journalism, and none of these blogs could operate without the background of professional reporting. The job of an editor in filtering the bigger amount of content we have online is more important than ever. "Blogs are just a platform," Jemima says: "we need to reclaim their content to the standards it should reach."

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