Citizen Journalism as an Alternative?

August 13, 2008 • Digital News • by

Corriere del Ticino, July 4,2008
After the successful launch of French citizen journalism website AgoraVox, an Italian version is about to emerge.
Citizen journalism, also known as public or participatory journalism, is currently at the centre of global attention. Everyone is discussing the practice and many are beginning to experiment with reporting. The Internet serves as host – a place in which anyone can generate and upload content to share with the rest of the world. Whether content emerges as text, photo or video, importance is placed on communication and participation, the ability to interact and the potential to maintain a continuous real-time dialogue with the entire planet.

The method couldn’t be simpler. One might create a blog or simply post a message, comment, video or photo on specialised websites like YouTube, Flickr, Second Life or Wikipedia. Alternatively, it is possible to interact through various forums, blogs and podcasts on the websites of major newspapers.The only trouble seems to be trudging through the seemingly infinite outlets.Despite the benefits of such democratic participation and the total freedom of expression that comes with it, the consequences of “citizen journalism” are truly hard to predict – for laypersons as much as for experts in communication and journalism.

American journalist and media expert Steve Outing describes citizen journalism as one of the most “happening” trends of our time – as well as one of the most controversial and confusing ones.

J.D. Lasica, a journalist, blogger and specialist in social media, defines it as a “slippery creature” and goes on to say, “Everyone knows what audience participation on the Web means. The question is, however, when does this participation qualify as genuine journalism? The line between journalism and personal publishing is a blurry one indeed, now that we all possess the means of gathering and spreading the ‘news.’”

On the other hand, there are those who whole-heartedly believe in participatory journalism and invest their resources to further the practice.

As a case in point, take Carlo Revelli and Joel de Rosnay, founder and co-founder of AgoraVox, the “first daily online paper in Europe that is written entirely by its citizens.” According to them, citizen journalism is nothing less than the future of journalism, a journalism created by a new breed of street reporters who write for an equally new breed of newspapers: online papers modelled after modern social networks.

Launched in France during March of 2005, AgoraVox is a Belgium-based foundation that boasts one million Web visits per month, publishes articles written by around 35,000 citizen journalists (most of them Europeans) and generates monthly advertising revenues in the amount of €40,000. The trigger for the project was – as Revelli recounts on his website – the great Tsunami disaster of 2004 and the echo it created on the Internet.  With countless eyewitness reports, videos and photographs began to circulate, submitted by those who had experienced this terrible tragedy first hand. All this made Revelli realise that everybody – not only professional journalists – has the potential to become a source of information.

Following the success of this innovative project, another will soon surface: AgoraVox Italia. Francesco Piccinini, project manager, and Carlo Revelli, co-initiator of the follow-up, explain how and why AgoraVox Italia came to fruition.

INTERVIEW

Why and how did AgoraVox Italia come about?

There are three main reasons. First, AgoraVox Italia was born out of the will of Carlo Revelli, founder of the original AgoraVox. Second, it was born out of our determination, Carlo’s and mine, to give Italian citizens their own voice, just as the original AgoraVox has done so successfully in France. Third, the project is the result of a meeting I had with Carlo where we discussed our views on the future of journalism, and our ideas on how to remedy the problems from which it currently suffers.

Will the website be identical to its French predecessor, or will there be some changes?

In terms of graphics, it will be completely different, but its editorial policy will be the same. This policy is bolstered by our decision to set up AgoraVox Italia as an independent foundation whose goal it is to guarantee the diversity of its contributors and to promote freedom of speech.

In addition, AgoraVox Italia will also offer some technological innovations, such as a mobile version, or the possibility to create a ‘basket’ wherein users can gather all their favourite articles, as PDF files, which later may be printed and read at their convenience.

How would you define Citizen Journalism, also known as public or participatory journalism?

It’s journalism by the people for the people. The ‘reader 2.0’ cannot, and certainly doesn’t want to be, excluded from the public debate. Instead, he produces his own content, which may be read or watched by thousands of other Internet users, many of whom get their news from the legacy media as well. And he accesses and shares information in real-time, which sometimes serves to document events which none of the traditional news agencies or editorial staffs manage to cover. This new kind of reader doesn’t subscribe to the dichotomy between the mainstream media and the Web that is regularly maintained by professional commentators. Instead, all he cares about is to communicate, to supplement certain news items with his own take on the matter, his own opinion on events which he sometimes may see unfold live before his very eyes.

Modern journalists, therefore, can no longer ignore the contributions made by their readers, who resemble more and more media-savvy critics rather than the mostly passive media users of yesterday. To say it in the words of Dan Gilmore, a journalist, blogger and expert in new media, ‘as a group, my readers know more about any given topic than I ever could.’

At AgoraVox, we don’t want to privilege a certain viewpoint, a certain ‘take on reality’, to put it in cinematographic terms. Instead, we think that a variety of different perspectives helps us better understand what’s going on in the world. We don’t want our news coverage to be partisan, biased or lop-sided – but rather it should consist of many angles which together create a more complete picture of the world.
What’s the difference between AgoraVox and other newspapers, online or paper-based?

The aim of AgoraVox Italia is to gather the articles sent in by people from everywhere and to upload them onto the Web, under a common roof, as it were, side by side with official declarations and reports. Hence we add something to the news, instead of taking something away. By doing so, we offer our readers-cum-writers a meeting place, a novel kind of online paper which is compiled by its own users who, without any outside interference, decide on their own what they want to focus on, and what not.

For us, there are no news items which are intrinsically more important than others. Information as such shouldn’t be seen as some kind of inert matter, because any piece of information can only become effective if it is read and understood. Therefore, any ‘insignificant’ news article might only be one in the eyes of those in charge of deciding, in traditional terms, on what page to print it – but not in the eyes of those who read it.

Who writes for AgoraVox?

Anyone who wants to. We are open to all contributors, from professional journalists to all members of the public. Anybody can become a reporter for AgoraVox, regardless of their political, religious, social, cultural or economic background or viewpoints. The same goes for our editorial staff, which is also composed of a variety of very different people. We believe that this diversity can only benefit the news we offer or the debates we may provoke. For this reason, we make sure that all our articles are open to comments.
So there is an editorial staff. How is it composed?

Given the particularities of the AgoraVox project, our staff is different from that of any ‘traditional’ newspaper and consists of independent editors, all of which have specifically requested to take part, and a small newsroom formed by professional journalists. They act as ‘moderators,’ assessing the sent-in articles in terms of their importance, topicality and, above all, originality. Apart from this filter, AgoraVox relies entirely on the collective intelligence of its users who will automatically check the veracity of the reports published. This process is based on the comments and votes sent in by our readers.

How are the different news items produced? What are your quality standards?

The editorial policy of AgoraVox aims at publishing only information that can be verified and which, ideally, hasn’t been published anywhere else. We are confident that today’s internet users are well capable of providing us with information that is new and, often, inaccessible to other media. We will publish around 75% of all submitted articles, and while we don’t adhere to any quality standards as such, any article containing elements that could be qualified as racist, pornographic or as inciting hatred or violence is banned from publication.

AgoraVox is generating a monthly advertising income of €40,000. How is this possible?

The French website is visited by 1 million people each month and today it’s the second most frequently quoted medium after Le Figaro, hence it is the size of our audience which is responsible for this income, we are charging the standard fees for online advertising.

For quite some time now, we have been reading that the Internet threatens the printed press, mainly because of all the advertising money that wanders off from traditional newspapers to the World Wide Web. And yet in an interview, Carlo Revelli was quoted as saying that ‘participatory journalism supplements the legacy media. It is not a menace, but rather a democratic opening up.’ Can you explain what he meant?

Citizen Journalism, neighbourhood journalism, in short, any form of journalism that is based on today’s new communication technologies, does not represent an antithesis to the professional journalism that dominated up until a few years ago. Your average citizen who captures it with his camera if something peculiar is happening around him doesn’t compete with professional reporters who search for newsworthy information on behalf of a traditional newspaper, looking for clues, investigating and researching, in order to give us the reasons why a given event has occurred. No, they are not competitors but rather two sides of the same coin, the two faces of journalism in the age of the Web 2.0.

When will AgoraVox Italia be online?

At present, AgoraVox is running as a closed beta version, and anyone who’s interested can contact us and help test the website in advance of its official launch Agoravox Italia. Around 150 bloggers, journalists, web editors and average citizens have already opened up their own account and are taking part in this testing process. The official launch of the website is scheduled for September.
Do you think it will be as successful as its French predecessor?

I must leave this question unanswered since, as a napoletano, I am not entirely without superstitions, and hence I’d rather not jinx it by making any premature predictions…

***

After this interview, everything seems much clearer. Citizen journalism is a form of journalism by the people for the people, most of whom are not professionally trained. It is a bottom-up exchange, one with the potential to reach people everywhere in the world, in real time. Moreover, it is a collective effort, a democratic undertaking which serves to promote freedom of speech. But is it genuine journalism? Does it involve the same standards of veracity, the same expertise and experience that are part and parcel of professional journalism?  Or is it something that only looks like journalism, something that might serve to supplement it, but is completely different in nature – exactly because it is based on today’s digital media, and not on your paper-based variety of the news?

Everyone must answer these questions for themselves and form a personal opinion – ideally by browsing the Internet and perusing as many different news sites as possible, including some non-journalistic counterparts.

In the meantime, we can only wait and see how the Internet and multimedia communication in general will evolve.

A Guide to Citizen Journalism

On the website PoynterOnline (www.poynter.org), Steve Outing offers a guide to citizen journalism, in which he explains exactly what the term means and illustrates ways to integrate this new variety of journalism in the online section of traditional newspapers. In addition, he describes roughly a dozen standard procedures, the most important being:

  • How to open a website up for comments by its users via videochats, blogs and discussion forums (which today is practically a standard feature of the websites of all major newspapers including, for example, the one provided by the Corriere della Sera with its sections ‘Italians’ by Beppe Severgnini and ‘Media Blog’ by Marco Pratellesi)
  • How to combine the articles and reports of professional journalists with contributions from the users of a given website, always clearly marking the latter as comments
  • How to engage in a kind of ‘open source journalism’ where a professional journalist or editor invites the people from the street to send in extra pieces of information, to verify certain facts or figures – which then will be integrated in the final article
  • How to install a blog where readers can send in comments and material (see professional news blog Blogosfere: http://blogosfere.it)
  • And finally, how to design a full-fledged citizen journalism website to gather the contributions of non-professional journalists and filters, corrects and verifies them before posting on the Web – as is done at AgoraVox (www.agoravox.com) or American examples like MyMissourian.com (http://mymissourian.com), created and operated by students, or WestportNow (http://www.westportnow.com), an independent website.

Translation: Oliver Heinemann

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