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Posted: October 29, 2005 10:20 PM
‘Participatory journalism' making news, breaking barriers

By Kara Andrade
ONA Convention Online Staff

Participatory journalism is here to stay, is the consensus among online journalism experts who spoke on a panel on grassroots journalism at the Online New Association conference in New York on Saturday.

In a rapidly shifting climate in which online news sites incorporate blogs, phlogs, wikis, Web casts, podcasts, forums and other interactive tools to increase their readership, the concern isn’t so much about whether participatory journalism is a lasting trend, so much as how to use it effectively, the experts acknowledged.

“Don’t get hung up on the tools, think about the goals,” said Robert Niles, editor of USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism Review. “When you think of blogs and wikis it’s about opening your mind to new ways of obtaining information, but the ultimate goal is reporting.”

The use of interactive media tools is widely adaptable as demonstrated by the panel, which also included Will Femia of MSNBC speaking about the use of blogs for breaking news, Christopher Grotke and Lisa LePage of iBrattleboro, a site which serves 12,000 people in the town of Brattleboro, Vt.

“There’s a benefit to showing that you’re open to this kind of journalism,” Femia said. “People want to be included and there is a good chance that the name ‘citizen journalism’ won’t stick because it will become the way that journalism is done.”

For LePage and Grotke, who started their site without even knowing it was called citizen journalism, the idea was to create an online site that reported on an actual geographic town. The site was meant to serve as a space where people could connect and dialogue with each other in covering news that mattered to them, and in that process create an “institutional memory” of the town and its history.

“We discovered that people love having a place to report the news in their town,” said Grotke. “Part of the reason is because there’s only one newspaper and if given an open forum where anyone can post, including unregistered users, stories, and people will use it.”

Both LePage and Grotke acknowledge that their news model works well at a local level because the people have an interest in the same smaller area. Stories on iBrattleboro will sometimes be carried in the local paper and become larger pieces; residents, in turn, will take a larger newspaper story localize it.

Participatory journalism is not without problems, the panelists noted. Femia highlighted some of the issues including credibility, keeping content fresh and dealing with technical glitches.

These obstacles are no different than those all journalists are encountering as people change how they access news. The next logical step, the panelists agreed, is to embrace it and like a talk show host, take a leading role in keeping the conversation going.

Participatory Journalism: Advice, tips

  • The volume of participation is hard to keep up with. A news organization has to determine how many resources it can allocate to sort through all the e-mails and information.
  • Keep the content fresh while being editorially efficient.
  • Deal with the technical side of handling attachments, file types and extensions.
  • Distinguish between reporting and reaction pieces.
  • Determine the credibility of a source. A news organization has to develop a system for verifying sources and information which involves following your instinct, calling and interviewing the person who submitted the story, and accepting the fact that there will always be the possibility of misjudging a situation.
  • Choose tools to best communicate the story. It’s important to get a developer hired at a news organization that is serious about doing online journalism in a thorough and effective way so that tools are created to tell a story well.

About this site

News on the 2005 conference is produced by the Online News Association Student Newsroom, which is supported by grants from the Scripps Howard Foundation, National Association of Black Journalists, and CBSNews.com.

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