On Tuesday I was fortunate enough to attend the debate organised by Blottr and hosted by the London College of Communication on “new media and the role of citizen journalism” a subject that, unsurprisingly, is of great interest to me.
On the panel were: Adam Baker the founder of Blottr, Ben Matthews the co-founder of the PR company for charities Bright One, Ramaa Sharma a senior lecturer at the BBC College of Journalism, Russell Merryman a lecturer at the LCC who helped launch Al Jazeera English and Mark Stone a Sky News reporter who shot straight from his iPhone in the middle of the London riots, chairing the debate was Milo Yiannopoulos Blottr columnist and broadcaster. A lot of interesting points were made but I thought I’d share my thoughts and impressions from the point of view of someone working on the front lines of citizen journalism.
Citizen journalism hopes to harness the power of people to report news faster than established media can (from here on it I’m just going to say “the media” to save a few pixels) Why rely on a small team of journalists in their office to try and keep tabs on the whole of a country when you have a couple of hundred people on every street that are perfectly able to take photos or video and report from the scene as events unfold?
Only in the last year or two has this really become possible. With the proliferation of (relatively) cheap smartphones and mobile internet nearly anyone can become a reporter. Sites like Blottr capitalise on this to create a platform for people to share their local stories and provide a news service that may be more relevant to their users than what they are given by the media.
But by relying on untrained amateurs a number of associated problems arise, accuracy of the information, bias and vested interests, plagiarism and even the newsworthiness of what is submitted. These problems are not insignificant, but none of them are being ignored. The future of citizen journalism rests on how well these issues can be overcome to allow the medium to be recognised as a legitimate source of news.
One of the first points raised was whether the majority of the articles posted to Blottr can actually be classed as “news”. Who cares if a bus has crashed in somewhere you’ve never heard of? Well the obvious rebuttal is the people that live there. This is the essential appeal of the website. However small a story might seem, if someone thinks it’s important they can tell people about it and other people in the area can read about it.
The media have been so used to to cramming a daily national digest between a few pages of A3 that they’ve lost a certain degree of perspective. Although big stories on politics and economics may have a huge effect on the country, they’re going to have a far smaller impact on individuals compared to something relatively insignificant happening just down the road.
Blottr tends to fill the gap left by the dying local newspapers. Why wait a week for local stories and pay for it when you can get it for free within 10 minutes of it happening? Ramaa raised an interesting point that small newspapers had blocked the BBC from covering hyper-local stories on the grounds that it would run them out of the business. Maybe it will be an unfortunate consequence of citizen journalism that it will be the nail the coffin for local papers.
The issue that was reflected on most often was whether a user could trust what was uploaded by citizen journalists as the stories aren’t submitted to the same rigorous fact checking that the media use. It was commented on that many Blottr users would find a story on the website and then go to BBC or another news site to verify it, the way the statement was phrased made it seem as if it was a bad thing. But as I see it it’s exactly what Blottr is supposed to be used for.
It’s not as if Blottr bulk approves everything submitted, they have an editor who checks the stories and can remove them in the case of libel, obscenity or accuracy. Without a list of trusted contacts they have to rely on more organic checks. Reaching out to those on twitter who’re at the scene and encouraging them to provide more information is remarkably effective and the option to retract is just as available to Blottr as it is to the media. This is why Blottr can break the pictures of Gaddafi’s death 8 minutes after the photos were taken and the media take hours.
Mark Stone said that Sky News undergo less rigorous checks when breaking a story than the BBC. Both claim to be accurate to a degree that separates them from Blottr, but they both still make mistakes. Sky News used to have the tagline “Never wrong for long”, their justification is that viewers appreciate that the story is breaking and that mistakes can be made and corrected so less than perfect accuracy is tolerated. The same thing goes for Blottr fourfold, it isn’t a straight replacement for factual news but a supplement to it and it’s users know as much.
One of the points I found most interesting was Milo’s that the citizen journalism, techy crowd self selects for a left leaning liberal viewpoint and how that would skew any news coverage. It may be quite true, but the value of Blottr is that it has no editorial policy, it may be mostly lefties now but those with differing viewpoints will never be discounted. Although a problem could arise if a tipping point is reached and the users themselves begin to crowd out dissenting voices.
Throughout the debate it was interesting to see the voices from the mainstream getting rather anxious about Blottr and what it meant for the institutions that have come to rest on the (rapidly eroding) status quo. It was rather inevitable. Live musicians hated the radio, radio hated the television, television hates the internet.
As it was pointed out in the debate by Mark Stone, and as I see it, the emergence of citizen journalism isn’t a major threat to the media. Blottr isn’t doing journalism badly they’re just not doing “journalism”. There exists a whole scale of media, balancing content, accuracy and speed and each outlet occupies a niche within it. Blottr may not be damaging the mainstream yet, but it’s eating up slices of someone’s pie, most probably the future earnings of local news.
The bigger it gets the hungrier it will be, that’s when the media might need to worry. It’s important to realise that Blottr is only a year old. They’ve come a long way in that short time and they’re learning from their mistakes fast. But I feel like the more they grow the more they’ll come to look like the empires they grew up under.
The Blottr ethos of engaging with it’s readership rather than dictating to them makes them very powerful, their only danger is whether the mainstream media will clip their wings before they ever get to fly.