Archive for the “participatory journalism” Category

The morning starts with two insider views of participatory journalism in mainstream online media: Rosa Jiménez from and Nathalie Malinarich from BBC News. is one of the most daring online newspapers in Europe regarding participatory journalism. But Rosa is not completely satisfied with how they are doing everything. She feels they are still exploring.

She argues that quantity should not be the main criteria to evaluate success of participatory options. She does not feel that forums are useful. They have 3,000 daily users, but comments on news seems to her to be much more useful.

Managing the community of blogs is her main duty. There are 6,000 users and 200-300 daily new posts. They have a metablog that summarizes the takes of the bloggers on current issues, and this is linked in the news stories.

Yo, Periodista is the citizen journalism section of ElPaí Rosa would like more visibility of their section, but they don’t always have good stories to be shown in the main homepage. They stopped giving out monetary prizes to the best articles. They are thinking now about giving out tools for citizen journalism (a mobile phone…) or starting a point-based system so that everyone can have some reward in the end. Their challenge is keeping people interested, motivated.

Citizen media in Spain

In the second session, Pau Llop explained his citizen journalism project,, and Marta Torres and Laura Rahola presented their website mapping stories about Barcelona, was born January 2007. It is run by professional journalists who write stories and edit those contributed by citizens. They discuss editorial decisions collectively on a forum and have online materials to help citizens train themselves as journalists. is a 7-year-old project. It is an open space for Barcelonians to contribute stories about specific places in the city (photos, narrations). It is like a geotagged collective blog that tries to reveal the subjective city, the voice of the citizens, the microhistory of the everyday life that is not covered by the media. They have a weekly program in a local radio where the stories of the web move to the mainstream media.

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Ari Heinonen (U Tampere) and Thorsten Quandt (Free U Berlin) have started the first session of the International Online Journalism Seminar, in Vilanova i la Geltrú (Catalonia). I will be live blogging during the two days of the event, here and in the official blog of the conference in Catalan.

Ari and Thorsten agree in their diagnosis of the attitudes in Finnish and German professional media: they have embraced participatory journalism after an initial phase of ignorance and reluctance, but they don’t have a plan. They somehow feel the urge to be inside the phenomenon of Web 2.0 and citizen journalism, but they don’t know what to do with it and they don’t want it to change their routines.

Ari argues that blogs are relevant as a symptom that media are not alone anymore as publishers of information. Thorsten is skeptical about this: there are many bloggers, but their readerships are not comparable to professional news websites and they actually tend to comment on news produced by the media rather than contributing original content. Also, journalists are more necessary than ever to filter and select what is relevant and trustworthy in the blogosphere. The agenda setting and long-tail effects (that many small publishers can have as large impact as few bigger ones) of blogs are theories that have not been proven yet.

In the second session, Neil Thurman (City U) and Steve Paulussen (Ghent U) discuss the trends in the UK and Flanders. British online newspapers have developed many participatory journalism initiatives in the last two years. Blogs have exploded: only 3 online newspapers had them in 2005; 18 months later, twelve of fourteen online newspapers had blogs (more than a hundred in total). Most of them had fully moderation of comments, some after exploring more open options. Online editors acknowledge that the reasons for exploring these options are mainly competition (not being left behind of the trends) and the risk of losing their audiences (keeping the newspaper role of the space for public debate).

The practical experience with audience participation in UK online newspapers is bittersweet: Online editors said that there was always people abusing the opportunity of contributing content. Legal concerns (the responsibility of the web publishers when they publish libelous user contributions) were another worry for editors. They were committed to have their audiences read quality content, therefore actively filter and select their users’ contributions. Obviously this is very time-consuming for the newsroom, and that is why many online news sites are creating specific teams to manage user-generated content and developing software to manage content. Editors feel that creating an active community will be good on the long term, to have a more loyal audience.

Neil notes that individual journalists’ attitudes towards audience participation are very diverse, from fearing it, neglecting it, to engaging in active debates with their readers. No clear pattern yet. Also, he points out that there seems to be a ceiling to active participants in the media: The Guardian, for example, one of the most successful ones in audience participation, has never gone beyond 10,000 active participants even if the traffic of their blogs and message boards keeps growing.

Steve Paulussen is involved in serveral research projects in Flanders that try to bridge the gap between traditional journalism and citizen media, exploring pro-am options (examples: Het Belang Van Limburg, Professional and citizen journalism have very different production processes. Again, Steve argues that the media do not have a clear strategy when they explore participatory journalism, they don’t have a clear goal. He adds another factor to the slow development of participatory journalism: organizational constraints. Newsrooms need to adopt new routines, new roles, to integrate pro-am journalism, and they tend to resist change.

Reasons for pro-am collaboration: cutting costs (not desirable, nor efficient), reengaging the community (but you also need to engage the journalists), improve journalism (requires investment, training). In the case of Hasselt Lokaal there was a clear intention (generate community publishing, reconnect with their community), but no clear plan, and therefore the journalists of the company ended up being not involved at all in the project. You need to know why and how you want to develop participatory journalism… But that is just the beginning: you will need to convince the newsroom to embrace the idea, there is always resistance.

In a specific case (CoCoMedia project at Concentra), the organizational structure is clearly a factor preventing innovation: online and print journalists do not collaborate even if they are in the same newsroom; the IT department develops new tools without taking care about the needs of journalists, training is scarce; there is conflict among the different departments; journalists are too busy to handle user-generated content, they prefer to rely on the official, traditional sources. Keys to be successful: training, new tools, motivation.

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Let the conversation continue! Over the Thanksgiving break (in the US), a nice group of researchers and practitioners of participatory journalism in and outside mainstream media will meet at Vilanova i la Geltrú (in Catalonia, 50km South of Barcelona) to discuss the challenges and opportunities that the active audience brings to journalism.

The speakers:

Amy Gahran, Poynter Institute
Jan Schaffer, J-Lab /
Steve Outing, Enthusiast Group (videoconference)
Georgia Popplewell, Global Voices Online
Javier Moya,
Pau Llop,
Marta Torres and Laura Rahola,
Ari Heinonen, University of Tampere
Thorsten Quandt, Free University Berlin
Neil Thurman, City University London
Steve Paulussen, University of Ghent
David Domingo, University of Iowa

It is the 5th edition of the International Online Journalism Seminar, and we would love to see people from all over the world joining the conversation by the Mediterranean sea… or from your computers if you can’t make it. I’ll be live-blogging during the event, come back to tell your 5 cents!

To attend the event, register through this form or sending an email to

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Lately I am more an more convinced that in the phenomenon of participatory journalism in mainstream news sites we tend to take the exception for the rule. Burma’s coverage by the BBC, the Minnesota bridge collapse i-Reports at CNN and beyond… They are singular cases where citizen journalism adds a lot as journalists are not there to report themselves.

In mid-September I attended in a superb conference in the Cardiff School of Journalism (in the photo) on the “Future of Newspapers“. The rise of tabloids and free newspapers was one of the big topics. The other one was audience participation (the “Tampere group” presented our first set of empirical data). Listening to research results and comments from British online journalism professionals reassured me in my skeptical perspective on how this trend is developing. The summary:

  • Online news sites offer participatory features “because everybody else is doing it” and because the business side of the company feels it may be a way to build/keep an audience. There are not many public journalism rationales behind what is being developed. Why?
  • Online journalists do not trust their audiences. They fear that the quality of what they will send in will be dubious and a burden to the daily routines of the reporters.
  • That’s why more and more online media are dealing with audience content management (including comments) by having a specific person in the newsroom devoted to that (so that it does not interfere with the work of the rest of the journalists) or even outsource it to non-journalistic “web 2.0” companies.
  • Our own results on the participatory features on 16 European and US online newspapers show that most of them restrict the users to the role of audience reacting to professionally produced news and offer more participation opportunities in the soft news sections than on the hard news.

How can anybody expect citizen journalism arise from this context? What is the point of having audience participation if it does not “affect” the work of the journalists? My feeling is that we should drop the concept of participatory journalism when we refer to mainstream online media and talk more about collaborative journalism. That is where there can be some actual changes happening, when journalists and citizens engage in a common news project. The concept of crowdsourcing connects with this, but the experience of Assignment Zero shows that there is a lot to refine in terms of how to make such collaboration work smoothly.

Obviously, active citizens are finding other venues to publish their reporting. There is a lot of research to be done within and beyond mainstream online media in order to assess if all this participation can, at some point, redefine journalism and the public sphere:

  • Theorising the potentials of online tools and new working routines, such as wikis (as did the brilliant presentation by Paul Bradshaw in Cardiff).
  • Assessing the quality (in comparison to professional news) of what is being submitted and published;
  • Understanding the motivations of those who participate and of those who manage the process inside and outside professional media;
  • Exploring professionals’ attitudes both at the editorial and the business sides of the companies;
  • Including a political economy perspective to assess the role of business decisions in the development of participatory features;
  • Developing experiments with media companies, such as CoCoMedia, the Flemish case presented in Cardiff (PPT about the project), involving the development of software for the journalists to better integrate citizen-generated content into their workflow, but also training to change the professional reluctancy to collaborate with their audiences.

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