As citizens become more aware of urban issues, they can also provide news to the media,” wrote the reader. “They can even use their mobile phones to take candid photos and send them to newspapers. It is time to open your pages to us citizens.”
The technical term for what the reader wants is “citizens’ journalism.” In the US this was all the rage five years ago, when the circulation of newspapers began falling.
In a bid to connect with readers, from whom journalists seemed alienated, and to broaden the base of sources for stories, which often originated from bland official handouts, the US journalism community began discussing this concept.
So what is it? There isn’t one airtight definition; there are variations. But what I think these share is the notion that the story should not only originate from citizens who are not journalists themselves but be given shape and released to the outside world by non-professionals.
The Internet is a natural forum for citizens’ journalism. A group of citizens can merely get together and decide to write about whatever they want and put it on the Internet. Although this concept is far newer in India, we, too, have such sites, of which merinews.com whitedrums.com and mynews.in are examples. I have chosen these three sites randomly: I have no idea what their standards are in terms of accuracy, balance, insight, etc.
This brings me to the important point of quality control. I believe that non-professional citizens can be very good sources for stories and provide crucial feedback (as they do on this page), but a newspaper cannot attach its name to a citizens’ venture without getting its own professionals to vet the final product. And if it does do that, then the venture is not pure citizens’ journalism in any case because professionals have control over the final narrative.
Over time, it is possible that some purely citizens’ ventures may gain a good reputation, but I suspect that in such cases, there would have developed a group of people who are doing the job of professionals.
I’d like to think that good journalism requires full-time professionals, people who are well trained and decently paid.
What I do think might work, however, is “collaborative journalism.” This involves getting non-professionals to do a lot of the initial reporting, but have professionals closely supervise the process and also go on to edit and give final shape to the stories.
Hindustan Times has just begun a venture that contains the seed of collaborative journalism. Starting last month, it has been asking 10,000 citizens to articulate their concerns about the city. Simultaneously, it has been talking to citizens and citizens’ groups in localities across the city to find out what their micro-level concerns are.
This will provide rich material for the newspaper’s journalists to go out and write stories.
Here, citizens’ are not quite doing the reporting, but they are providing more than just casual tip-offs. They are applying their mind and telling journalists what concerns them most.
This is invaluable because it extends the capabilities of already stretched newsrooms and provides a view from the ground that often gets lost in the din of the spin doctoring of public relations executives and self-important talking heads.