Auteurs and amateurs: The debates on citizen journalism continue…

Steven Levy’s recent article in the Newsweek highlights the frictional nature of debates in favour of and opposed to citizen journalism. Levy flags an upcoming book by Andrew Keen titled The Cult of the Amateur as the latest voice against the participatory media trends and social networking that have resulted from the growth of blogs and new media.

I find it interesting how a lot of discussions on citizen journalism are informed by what is possible (or not) from a US perspective. What is more disturbing is that authors both for and against citizen journalism rarely take into account developments outside the US (and the oft quoted examples of Europe and South Korea) that have resulted in mobiles, blogs and new media in general being used to create alternative voices that critique the sickening bias and partiality in mainstream media.

Clearly, this new journalism has its problems – an inherent parochialism being one of them. The subjective, partial and provincial nature of citizen journalism, if we recognise it for what it is, isn’t necessarily proof that it is useless. As I’ve argued earlier, it’s precisely these individual viewpoints of citizens that the mainstream media, controlled often by interests that have their own parochial agenda, seek to marginalise and over time, erase. Standards matter – and the same standards that we ask for and seek, but rarely find in mainstream media, need to be instilled in citizen journalism that aims to be a cut above the dross that often colours individual blogs. However, the visceral and unpolished nature of citizen journalism is to me what gives it an edge over that which we generally see, hear and read in mainstream media – in stories that are raw and unsanitised by the cynicism, partisan bias or sheer boredom of journalists and Editors who have for too long controlled what we should consume, and how.

To this end, it is necessary that we engage not just with citizen journalism as it is evolving in the US and more developed nations, but also how through mobiles, the growing availability and use of wireless internet and the increasing availability of PCs either through personal ownership or through cybercafes, citizens have access to platforms and media through which even if they are illiterate, they can share their stories.

I’ve noted in an earlier post that it only takes one story – a single photo, a single podcast, a single mobile phone video – to change a regime and hold those responsible for abuses of human rights, and corruption, accountable. Initiatives such as Witness have shown us the way. This is citizen journalism in support of conflict transformation, good governance and democracy – a far cry from the essentially communitarian notion of citizen journalism prevelent in the US that is more about strengthening local voices. Citizen journalism in failing states, or in those that exercise repression, is also about securing and strengthening local voices, but is also about a restoration of civil order, the Rule of Law and democracy.

This nuanced and global perspective is that which I find lacking in much of the online discussion I read on citizen media. Clearly, both sides have much to offer to the debate, and a naiveté of citizen journalism can get one into serious trouble (I should know). There are also significant challenges to online civility brought about by the millions of new creators and consumers of new media content, as those such as Andrew Keen are also quick to point out.

However, the manner in he and others like Amanda Chapel (who strikes me as a woman tragically blinkered by her own genius) and Loren Feldman (who desperately needs to learn that the repetitive use of the f-word is no substitute for essentially vacuous commentary) flag the shortcomings of citizen journalism glaringly ignore the potential of new media, and citizens who find expression through new media, to change the dynamics of polity and society in countries such as Sri Lanka where as Nalaka Gunawardene pointed out in this blog, traditional mainstream media is mainly located in and published through just two urban locations, necessarily marginalising the aspirations, ideas and voices of those resident elsewhere in the country.

Amanda Chapel however does raise a fundamental point – what is the economic basis of citizen journalism?

You cannot have an economic system where half of it is not economic. You can’t have a boat with holes in it! You can’t have a store where you charge at the front door and customers take whatever they want out the backdoor for free. In short order, there will be NO paying customers. And without paying customers, you can’t make anything to sell or give away.

Amanda is surprisingly oblivious to the spirit of the Free and Open Source software development community, the viability of products and services created through open source software development processes, or indeed, the spirit of volunteerism in general.

That said, if citizen journalism initiatives are to scale up and become sustainable over the long-term, there exists a need to create multiple revenue streams, not just from advertising or donor funding. I believe there is an eventual market for the monetisation of citizen journalism content that based on say the ground-rules of content creation I’ve tried to foment in Groundviews, provided that mainstream media is willing to pay for and publish this content, advertisers are convinced that content is read by those with purchasing power for the products and services they seek to advertise and ordinary citizens themselves (based on through models of subscription that operate of scale rather than high-entry costs) see the benefits of subscribing to content that is geared to their interest and have a mix of local, national and global news, analysis and information. The last point would require, especially in countries like Sri Lanka, citizen journalism also engages with the mainstream media in order to tap into their distribution networks and broadcast footprints, which in turn requires a multi-media approach that isn’t solely based on accessing content online.

This is an evolving debate, and through praxis (particularly in the Global South) and the thrust and parry of wit online, I look forward to an evolving understanding of how new media & new technology can support the basic democratic aspirations of all communities and peoples, irrespective of where they live, or who they vote for.

Addition: Just came across Principles of Citizen Journalism, launched recently, which I think is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic.

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