Citizen Journalism

30 September 2005

Last night the Frontline Club  hosted a talk on “Blogging and the Citizen Journalist” which provoked some impassioned debate.

The line up of speakers seemed premeditated to fuel a healthy discussion. Monitored by John Owen from NewsXchange, the panel included participants in blogging from the full spectrum of journalism today. Owen began by summarising a brief history of blogging and highlighting some of the influence that it has had on world events. Sites included were Wonkette, which had a large following during the American elections (and which seems to be doing quite nicely out of advertising revenue as a result – does this now make it part of the mainstream?) and Rocketboom, a videolog run out of New York that spoofs broadcasting news.

Elizabeth Lee, co-founder of iTalkNews, spoke about her new “citizen journalism site” run out of San Francisco. The premise is that anyone can send in a blog. The articles are then edited by a professional team of journalists and members get to vote on which pieces should be elevated to the front page. Closely modelled on the South Korean phenomenon  OhMyNews, the site advocates creating a community of citizen journalists who can break down traditional forms of media prevalent in the world.

Kyle MacRae from Scoopt introduced the concept of ‘citizen photojournalists’, describing his agency which sells images taken by the public to the mainstream press. He was patently unapologetic about his commercial aspirations. Unlike flikr, this is not an idealistic concept but rather one rooted in capitalism. It also opens up a moral minefield : does it encourage ‘citizens’ to re-enter disaster scenes to get their scoop? Is it promoting a world where everyone is a paparazzo? (MacRae denied this accusation but suggested that if you did happen to see Jude Law walking down the street then please snap him on your camera phone and send it in. You could supplement your income nicely).

Neil McIntosh from the Guardian spoke about how his newspaper has been using the medium of blogging as a different form of representing their news and views. Not much else really.

Finally we had Simon Bucks, the Associate Editor of Sky News, defending established journalism practices. His first analogy -would you rather have brain surgery performed on you by a professional brain surgeon or a citizen?- fell flat on its face (isn’t everyone distrustful of doctors?). It was later riposted smartly when he was asked if he would rather have sex with a professional or a citizen.He didn't have an answer to that.

The talk didn’t really provide any answers to the questions it set out to explore (What does citizen journalism mean for mainstream media? Can it be considered a valid form of journalism?). However it did introduce an array of innovations out on the web.

Perhaps the roles played by the four speakers best reflected the four directions in which blogging and citizen journalism can go: one idealistic, one commercial, one wants to assimilate it into its system while retaining the status quo, and one wants to deny its relevance. It’s a new world and the possibilities are endless.

Whatever the Labour Party conference can do the Frontline Club can match. While Tony Blair’s heavies forcibly ejected Walter Wolfgang from the building, the Frontline Club was less heavy-handed with its heckler. It seems to be the season for heckling. Perhaps it’s a barometer of the import the subject being discussed. Look out for a more vitriolic report on the discussion here over the next few days. I believe our friend was there arguing with Simon Bucks from Sky long after everyone else had left.

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