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Networked journalism: the death of the reporter or too much to hope for? 18 October 2008

Posted by jordanfarley in Citizen Journalism, Networked Journalism, User Generated Content.
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I can see networked journalism going one of two ways, either the public will embrace it to such an extent that news reporting as we know it will never be the same again; or it will go the other way ignored, unloved and unused by all but the dedicated few. I tend to err on the side of scepticism. I do not doubt that Web 2.0 and User Generated Content are already essential tools for a journalist, but continuous collaboration with the public on a specific news story seems a little too much to hope for.

First however I will try to stay positive. As has already been proven networked journalism can work. The reporting on Hurricane Katrina by the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida would not have been possible with the limited resources available in the news room. Likewise The Guardian has got in on the act by open sourcing all of the information on its BAE fileswebsite, encouraging amateur investigations around the globe. One of the crucial benefits of networked journalism is that greater public participation in an open media forum will inevitably lead to greater trust in the media itself. Trust is something journalists have always been short of with the 2008 Ipsos-MORI poll putting journalists joint bottom with politicians as the least trusted professionals in the country with levels at just 18%.

Taking it to the extreme if networked journalism were to take off the potential for breaking news originating at a local level would be limitless, so much so that how would it be possible for a journalist to keep up and continue to operate as a reporter? Wouldn’t it be the case that the journalist was now a glorified sub-editor, at best an aggregator, shaping key information from the public into a news story capable of publication? (Jay Rosen seems to share this fear statingYou can’t just open the floodgates and expect the public to produce. If there are too many people involved then it simply creates too much work for the journalist to make it worthwhile.”)

This however seems highly unlikely. Many commentators have talked about the benefits networked journalism could have on our profession (notably Jeff Jarvis and Charlie Beckett) but most seem to put too much hope in the public’s willingness to engage in the journalistic process to the extent required by networked journalism.

Jarvis has said, “even as journalistic organizations may shrink, along with their revenue bases, journalism itself can and must expand and it will do that through collaborative work.” However if the majority are choosing to engage less with the news as readers why would more people choose to devote their time and effort to a product where they are unlikely to have any significant impact  or even be credited?

On the other hand networked reporting is often not feasible or appropriate. In high politics where the breaking of news stories is often reliant on the journalist’s close ties to those involved in the political process, how can the public expect to contribute? With the internet demanding news be continually updated the pressure to get a story out as soon as possible means that the public is unlikely to have a hand in shaping such stories, even if they are present at their inception. Once the story has been broken it’s unlikely the public will be able to add anything else which isn’t just superfluous.

If just 1% of those who contribute are “truly creative” and 10% produce “anything journalistic” as Rosen claims it is unlikely that networked journalism will take off any time soon. It has greater potential at the local level, where events happening in and around the community are what drive the news, but is there not more chance that at this level the journalist will be fed inaccurate information or, even worse, deliberately misinformed by a member of the public? If networked journalism ever does take off will it be the case that journalists are all resigned to a life as glorified fact-checkers and filters for publicly sourced information?

Beckett has claimed that “to retain value journalism must engage with the public,” a statement with which I whole heartedly agree, however my scepticism lies in the practicalities of networked journalism. Only those with the technology, specialist knowledge and time available are likely to participate, a shallow well for the journalist to draw water from.

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1. egrommet - 31 October 2008

You make some very good points here.

But a shallow well? That’s where I’d disagree, this offers us the potential to tap into, and collaborate with groups that would not be engaging with us offline.

The issues here are the same as with UGC, who is doing it and who can we work with? But if we can amplify our newsroom by working with just a few more creative, interested and engaged people on certain projects – that has to offer a lot more to everyone.

You are right, crowdsourcing will not work for everything but there is a lot of potential here.

How this works depends on how projects like Spot.us pan out, after all this is still a fairly new concept in this form.

But you could argue that it has its roots firmly in the idea of working with the community correspondents, the interested amateur who has always wanted to be part of what their local news outlet is doing.

You’ve made some very interesting observations – but you seem to be rooted in the idea of either/or. So what if a CJ/citizen partner/collaborator is there at the start but not at the end? Haven’t our stories always come from tips, letters, phonecalls? The journalist gets the start and then moves on from there?

How this will pan out remains to be seen, but it has some interesting implications and offers some great potential.


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