Nurturing News Sources

Posted by on 20.06.2009 in civics, london, media

Contrary to what a lot of professional journalists seem to resent citizen journalism for aspiring to — essentially just cheap and undisciplined journalism — my vision of open and participatory journalism is that non-journalists will play complementary and contributing roles. More people will have some of the basic skills and reflexes needed to contribute whenever they happen to be in or near a breaking event.

I made a case for this back in February:

Democracy isn’t just about voting, it’s about having a voice in the conversation around us – an articulate voice with which to render opinions more objective and knowledge more sociable…

It’s important to develop a cohesive yet dynamic network, and networks need a complex sets of affinities (and aversions) to work — composed of concrete, identifiable relations between individuals and among groups (or tribes).

Even if you’re not really into the business of opinions, decisions, and expertise, eventually we’ll each have our turn playing a part in a big story — or at least adjecent to it — and we have a responsibility to keep an account of it as accurately and generatively as we can.

That starts with people texting or tweeting and documenting (e.g. with photos or video) breaking events so that information can cascade quickly to people with more professional resources to carry on with the account.

And wow — that has certainly been demonstrated by recent events in Iran. (There has been so much meta-commentary on social media’s role in Iran that I’ve lost track. For a start here’s Gina Chen’s roundup.)

But the ecosystems are still developing. Everyone’s learning on the fly, mostly making it up as they go. I’m pretty sure that we’re only seeing a fraction of the volume of information (and noise) that digital journalist/editor/curators will have to cope with a year or two from now.

As with traditional journalism, most of the work will be done before there’s an actual story: identifying the best sources and nurturing those relationships. Jeff Jarvis posted on this today:

You need to have the best head start you can have. The larger the network of people a news organization can organize, the better shape it will be in when news breaks, the better it can filter the reports that come – whether from people in that network or in the larger network of people those people know. The more people in the network, the more who can go to the scene of news or research closer to it – the more you can ask for help.

Global Voices is an example of this infrastructure: someone who knows someone who knows someone, each able to judge what the next in the chain is saying.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I think news organizations need to do more to legitimize blogs and other social media sources. News organizations need to actively include and encourage independents and earnest amateurs, citing these emerging sources to supplement normal coverage — even when it isn’t necessary — or at least acknowledge them (I mean us) with criticism, nudging us into more symbiotic relationships.

Readers need to be conditioned to become comfortable with news originating in this way (note: this can be done without sending readers away; the vast majority will still prefer to get blog-sourced information through the most trusted mainstream filters rather than directly from the blogs). 

As blogs become more legitimate and mainstream readers become more comfortable with them, more readers will become bloggers and social media contributors. They may say “I can do that too” and start their own blog, or they may simply enjoy the personality and community of a handful of blogs and get involved that way — while still getting most of their news from the major organizations.

And as more people gain experience and become familiar with the whole process, then there will be more channels for discovery and more filters for vetting information. The bigger and broader your sample, the more accurate your results will be. Cultivate a big, broad, deep, diverse, and dynamic network and the easier it will be to skim the cream off the top. 

For later: that kind of network is almost completely non-existent here in London Ontario. I’m going to discuss what we can do in more detail on LdnBeta.ca (which is NOT primarily a news-oriented project).