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One thing that's become pretty clear on the news innovation front is that collaborative work between citizen journalist operations and traditional mainstream ones is becoming more popular. It seems as if both sides are seeing the merits of such partnership projects, which are being announced with increasing frequency.
The value of such symbiosis is something I explored in my dissertation five years ago.
A Poynter Online column by Mallary Jean Tenore marking the debut the Bay Citizen, a San Francisco project that went live today, cites four emerging trends among news startups, including "A working relationship with a mainstream news organization." (The other three are community engagement, a hybrid business plan, and an experienced staff.)
The New York Times is in on several such projects, including Bay Citizen as well as the Chicago News Cooperative, which kicked off last fall, and The Local: East Village, a collaborative with New York University set to begin this fall.
Similar projects have been reported on by the Online Journalism Review, which in February covered a collaborative effort involving some at Hearst papers, and Nieman Lab, which similarly reviewed a project in Charlottesville, Va. back in October.
Then there is the new Washington, D.C. site backed by Allbritton Communications, called TBD.com.
And last but definitely not least, one of the most prominent projects that J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism has been sponsoring this year -- called The Networked Journalism Project -- has five large news organizations from around the country each working with at least five hyper-local news sites or producers in their communities.
I think all of these are terrific projects. I am especially encouraged because they provide evidence against a line of argument prominent in the journalism blogosphere that traditional news media deserve to die, and that we would be better off (or at least not worse off) without them. (OK, that's hyperbolic. No one is really saying that, at least not in so many words. But a lot of blog postings and tweets sure lean in that direction.)
I hold the opposite view because I remain convinced that in our complicated society with powerful institutions that need to be called to account, we need credible, professional journalism. It ought to be augmented by participatory and hyperlocal efforts, no doubt. But that's why one of the chapters in my recent book Public Journalism 2.0 (co-edited with Burt St. John of Old Dominion) is titled "A Place for the Professionals."
These new journalistic collaborations also validate a point I made in my dissertation five years ago (here comes the self-promotion), which is that traditional news organizations must assert leadership that helps to organize, highlight and present a broad range of citizen views for the most effective form of accountability journalism.
Traditional media offer an ability to lend worthwhile prestige and credibility to bloggers, individual hyperlocal reporters and the like -- including the hyperlocal sites at the heart of so many of the recently announced projects. The view that because the network (read: blogosphere, or social media-sphere) makes effective knowledge of the world theoretically possible means that participation in it makes such knowledge inevitable is just plain wrong -- some observers' views notwithstanding. (In my snarkier moments, I refer to those attitudes as the "blogging-will-save-the-world" mentality. Or the "I can learn everything I need to know from Facebook and Twitter" world-view.) The word gatekeeping has bad connotations of keeping information away from people. But its value lies in making information exposure manageable. Which may be why filtering is the more popular term these days.
The dissertation itself was built around two primary pieces of research done in October 2004, at the height of that year's national election. One these was a content analysis of online news sites, later republished as an article in Newspaper Research Journal, while the other part was a case-study of the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review, which at the time was doing some really innovative things to engage the community in its election and other public affairs coverage.
What follows (further warning: at some length) are some of the observations, and conclusions, made as a part of that dissertation about the value of presenting citizen content under the umbrella of the traditional news organization -- which seems to be coming to pass with greater frequency in the news collaboratives that are now coming on the scene.
Excerpts from: The Fourth Estate in the Networked Age
Dissertation done at State University of New York at Buffalo
Jack Rosenberry, 2005
"Online papers can provide a sense of authority and direction for information such as links to online sources. Louis Bloom of Camano Island, WA does the kind of work that exemplifies disintermediated, citizen-directed democratic action that proponents of cyber-democracy find so valuable. Bloom files Freedom of Information requests with the state government to get the names of state employees, the agencies they work for and their salaries, then posts the information on a World Wide Web site. He writes on the site that he does this to expose nepotism and cronyism in state government. This is cyber-democracy in action, at least in the sense of providing interesting and valuable political information for widespread use, even if it lacks a forum for its discussion or mobilization of action upon it.
"But realistically speaking, how likely is it that Bloom’s work would become widely known or accessed under most circumstances? Those most likely to locate the fruits of his labors and use them are those who are already politically savvy and knowledgeable. But reporter Rich Roesler, who covers Washington state government for the Spokesman-Review, has made sure that anyone who looks at his blog on the paper’s Web site knows about Bloom. Roesler encourages readers to look at Bloom’s site and offers a link to it near the top of the page where Eye on Olympia is posted. Further, this exposure is persistent; unlike a one-time report in the print paper, the publicity for Bloom’s work is on Roesler’s page day in and day out. People will not miss out on accessing Bloom because they happened to not read the paper the one day he was profiled, or because they misplaced the paper clipping with the URL in it. The way Roesler directs readers to Bloom’s work exemplifies how Kovach and Rosenstiel say journalists have to help readers find the “good stuff,” and another example of journalists adding authority, structure and facilitation that makes cyber-democracy work better. "
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"Arguably, motivated and interested citizens would find these links on their own. But motivated, interested citizens can attend City Council meetings, too. Nevertheless, newspapers cover City Council because not everybody can or will attend the meetings, and the journalists see it as their job to improve the public’s access to what happens there by reporting on it. The online paper provides the same sort of public service, based in technology, when it collects and presents valuable links to the public."
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"But critics of cyber-democracy ... note that the power of the network can be harnessed through settings that provide a certain degree of management, editing and gatekeeping. Such online interaction works best when it is fostered by such facilitation, research such as Dahlberg’s indicates. But who should the facilitators be, and how are they to be found? Anyone can post a Web page with his or her political views, invite and even moderate discussion. But what credibility will they have with respect to the community at large? What level of traffic will they achieve? What impact will they have on the political power structure?
"This is where a new role and function for journalists could emerge, using the interactive power of online journalism to reclaim their eroded Fourth Estate role in ways that are not possible under traditional source-message-channel-receiver models of mass communication. Online and off, journalists already can and do fulfill important roles regarding surveillance and social cohesion/construction of common knowledge. Combining these with sponsorship/facilitation of discourse and extension of the forms by which political information is presented can add up to a more powerful impact on public opinion and a more powerful process for reconnecting the public with public life.
"Two crucial features separate this model from basic notions of cyber-democracy. One is the framing and backgrounding of basic information provided by the news coverage. The other is that the involvement of the paper, a community institution, gives the information exchanged and expressed there a certain traffic level and institutional authority that makes the interaction more meaningful than would be accorded to independent agents who are doing the same thing—but who may or may not be working with accurate, credible information and whose work may or may not even be noticed by any sort of larger public, much less institutional decision makers.
"This new conception builds on theories that are well-established in the literature, such as computer-mediated communication’s ability to merge characteristics of mass and interpersonal communication, the opportunity (some would say obligation) provided by interactive presentation for journalists to adjust their role with respect to the audience, and cyber-democracy’s capacity to foster discourse but its accompanying need for structure and facilitation to do so effectively. By integrating the theories, weaknesses associated with each that undermine their practicality can be mitigated by strengths of other models. "