Street journalists versus 'ailing journalists'?

About the author
Tamara Witschge has a PhD from the Amsterdam School of Communications Research, University of Amsterdam.

The internet is currently the fastest growing news platform (Ofcom, 2007). New media technologies have changed and multiplied the ways in which news can be accessed, but the promise of greater diversity in news seems elusive. "Street Journalism" projects, like Demotix, the recent winner of the Media Guardian's 2009 award in the "Independnet Media" category want to change that. In justifying their place, these crowd-sourcing projects are needing to transform the theory of media's place in democracy. It is no longer enough to be informed to fully enjoy citizenship; you now need to be an information producer. But do we?

This article reports on findings of the Goldsmiths' Spaces of News project (in particular on Redden and Witschge, 2009) and an interview with Turi Munthe, CEO of Demotix, conducted on 22 January 2009.

The Spaces of News project at Goldsmiths' Media Research Centre, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Our research has found that UK journalists are ‘trapped' in an administrative news culture, where many journalists are desk-bound and stories are ‘recycled' from existing material rather than stemming from independent journalism -this in line with research conducted by Cardiff University for Nick Davies' book ‘Flat Earth News'. From interviews with journalists, editors, managers, and news sources and newsroom visits a picture emerges of journalists spending a large amount of time monitoring other media, the wires, user-generated content, and material produced within the organisation. Rewriting stories gained through this constant monitoring is the main task of many journalists (especially in online newsrooms).

Analysis of the content of mainstream online news (almost all of the UK national newspapers and the BBC online) further backed up this finding revealing that much of the abundant news online is homogenous: news organizations often cover stories from the same angles and different news organizations repeatedly present the same information in their stories (be they images, quotes, or descriptive passages) (Redden and Witschge 2009).

Our analysis also shows the importance of informed commentators and specialist correspondents in news coverage as they provide diversity and quality in content and thus play a crucial role in providing unique information. However, recent years have shown news organisations cutting back on specialist correspondents, foreign bureaus and investigative journalism (House of Lords 2008). These cuts preceded the current economic crisis, and it is likely that the economic downfall will be felt ever more strongly in these journalistic outposts.

Apart from expert commentators and specialist reporters, diversity and quality in the world of online news analysis is also provided by alternative sites, such as openDemocracy. This and kindred alternative websites (such as Indymedia and Global Voices) often provide perspectives that differ from those represented in mainstream news coverage and contain expert information and feature informed debates. 

But even though independent and alternative news content is more easily accessible online than offline, it has still proven difficult for such content to reach a wide audience. Search engines pre-structure access to information (Koopmans, 2004) and as internet users do not often venture beyond the initial page (Jansen and Spink, 2005, 2006; iProspect, 2008), this does not bode well for opening up the news sphere.

Even though alternative perspectives abound online, traditional news outlets (as well as search engines such as Google News and Yahoo! News) are still the most frequently visited (Ofcom, 2007), disappointing earlier hopes that smaller news providers would be on an equal footing with transnational conglomerates. This then is why the newly started initiative Demotix seems promising: Demotix is a citizen journalism website that aims to sell citizens' contributions to mainstream news organisations, its objective being to share "pictures and videos of the world's news with the ever-growing Demotix community, and with the mainstream media". 

An interview with the CEO of Demotix, Turi Munthe, shows the idealism driving the initiative. Based on the notion that the media ‘need fixing', that civil society and freedom of speech are ‘sacred', and stemming from the wish to do ‘social good through business', Demotix is highly ambitious in its aims. Launched earlier this year, Demotix will face its first challenge of establishing a name in a time of recession when newspapers are making continuous cuts, and other citizen journalism initiatives are closing down (for instance Getty Images' Scoopt).

So how does this website seek to provide a cure to the ailments of modern day journalism? Early on in the interview, CEO Turi Munthe explains that the material he tries to convey is not best described as ‘citizen journalism'; rather, the people who provide images and videos for Demotix are better viewed as ‘street journalists'. He uses the term ‘street journalism' to emphasize the difference with the current culture of ‘office' or ‘administrative' journalism, where journalists are desk-bound and do not originate stories but rather repurpose existing material. Demotix, however, is keen to stress the notion of ‘citizen' as they aim to strengthen civil society by their initiative. 

The problem news organisations face with citizen journalism and ‘user-generated content' in general is its sheer quantity. At the BBC, for instance, a large number of journalists sift through the massive pile of contributions every day. The quality of these contributions is more often than not very poor. At Demotix they try to maintain a high quality of contributions to avoid the team (consisting of mainly recent graduate volunteers) being swamped with useless commentary. To this end they have installed ‘reporting teams' of street journalists and insist that any text sent in is always accompanied by images (whether photograph or videos).

The recently installed idea of ‘reporting teams' sounds like an exciting feature of Demotix, and is aimed to push towards ‘collaborative reporting'. Each region ideally will have its own network of street journalists who produce high-quality reporting by working together. Munthe dreams of these regional networks of journalists ultimately setting up local newspapers, again showing the idealism behind the venture.

Demotix also seeks to guarantee quality in the contributions through accepting contributions only when accompanied by images. This not only makes selling the contribution to mainstream news easier, but is also claimed to better guarantee the reliability of the stories and encourage more factual reporting than pure opinion: a key issue for Munthe.

Interestingly, journalists themselves use the distinction between fact and opinion to differentiate professional from amateur news (Witschge & Nygren 2009). Blogs and other citizen contributions do not constitute news according to many journalists, as they are not ‘objective' and do not contain factual content. Munthe shares their opinion that most amateur material is of a quite low standard. And yet Demotix expects a high professional standard in its contributions.

This brings us back to an important criticism of citizen journalism: It is cheap labour -outsourcing salaried work to amateurs (for a debate on this, see: Deuze 2008)- to the benefit of the large profit-making multinationals. Even though news organisations that use material obtained through Demotix have to pay the contributors a fee, and although the rights initially remain with the authors, Munthe admits that the street journalists would not be able to make a living from it: "What I hope we'll be able to do is to supplement the income of professional journalists, and what I really hope we'll do is reward political participation, essentially". In this sense, Demotix seems to function more as an agency for freelance journalists than anything else.

Munthe's remark about rewarding political participation raises the interesting question of what the role of news in modern day societies is. Whereas theories of democracy normally focus on the role of the consumption of news for democratic purposes (the notion of the informed citizen), here the focus shifts to the public as a producer of news: News production on this view is considered as a political act.

But does this not depend on the intention of the newsmaker wanting to share this information? Even though information provision might be considered political activism under certain circumstances (for instance, when no information is available or the information provided is contested), in most cases the ultimate result depends on whether and how this information is received. Surely consumption is as important a step in the news process as production and provision. Though the possibilities created by the internet may have had wide implications for the publication of information (and hence may have been empowering for a variety of groups), the way in which the public engages with this information is what is important (see Witschge 2007 for a more extensive discussion of the type of interaction needed in the public sphere).

This brings us back to the question to what extent the internet opens up the public sphere --- not just in relation to the information published, but also in terms of how people engage with this information. What is the role of journalism going to be in this public sphere, given the blurring concepts of ‘journalist', ‘news consumer' and 'political activist'. What does this make the new intermediary actors such Demotix: agency, journalism web-site, political institution ...? All the polyseme in the name "demotix" carries over to its identity. Congratulations are in order for the prestigious award, whatever Demotix actually becomes.

References:

Deuze, Mark (2008). The People Formerly known as the Employers.  http://deuze.blogspot.com/2008/10/people-formerly-known-as-employers.html

House of Lords (2008). The ownership of the news.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldselect/ldcomuni/122/122i.pdf

Jansen, B. and Spink, A. (2005) ‘An analysis of Web searching by European AlltheWeb.com users', Information Processing Management, 41(2): 361-381.

Jansen, B. and Spink, A. (2006) 'How are we searching the World Wide Web? A comparison of nine search engine transaction logs', Information Processing and Management, 42(1): 248-263.

iProspect (2008) iProspect blended search results study. http://www.iprospect.com/about/researchstudy_2008_blendedsearchresults.htm (Last accessed October 2008).

Koopmans, R. (2004) ‘Movements and media: Selection processes and evolutionary dynamics in the public sphere', Theory and Society, 33(3): 367-391.

Ofcom (2007) New News, Future News. United Kingdom: Ofcom. http://www.ofcom.org.uk/research/tv/reports/newnews/

Redden, J. & Witschge, T. (2009) ‘A new news order? Online news content examined'. In N. Fenton (ed.) New Media, Old News: Journalism and Democracy in a Digital Age. London: Sage (expected publication date autumn 2009).

Witschge, T. (2007) (In)difference online: The openness of public discussion on immigration. Doctoral Thesis. University of Amsterdam.

http://dare.uva.nl/en/record/292549

Witschge, T. & Nygren, G. (2009) ‘Journalism: A profession under pressure?' In Journal of Media Business Studies. 6(1), 37-59