When Media and Citizen Media Meet

Solana Larsen
Solana Larsen is the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Before that she was an editor with the global politics website openDemocracy.net for nearly five years. She has an MA in international journalism from City University in London, and taught a postgraduate journalism class about illegal immigration at New York University in 2005. She is Danish-Puerto Rican and lives in New York.


Anyone who still doubts whether the mainstream media is in crisis, has never been to a media industry conference. Participants always flock in droves to sessions on how new media might help mainstream media regain trust and  audience and develop new revenue streams. I’m the managing editor of a   website named Global Voices that tracks what bloggers are talking about worldwide. My colleagues and I are often invited to these conferences to share our perspectives on what lies beyond the land of ‘old media’.
Perhaps the fact that mainstream media corpora-tions are looking to a non-profit organization with no physical address for inspiration should give you an indication of how deep the crisis is. But it can’t all be bad news. I’m one of those people who is optimistic about what might come out of this shake up of the media industry, and I believe mainstream media is thinking more and more creatively about how to use the web because they have finally been convinced that it’s useful and rewarding rather than out of some kind of desperation. At least that is what it seems like looking at our own experiences looking for ways to combine citizen media with mainstream media.
I don’t need to tell you about how Iranian bloggers used Twitter during post-election protests, or how Haitians used the internet in the aftermath of the earthquake. You’ve probably heard it before. But if you think of all the dramatic events taking place in the world right now, you might wonder why we don’t hear stories like this more often from other parts of the world too. Will the balance tip away from mainstream media when it comes to setting the agenda? Attracting a mass global audience may soon become less dependent on gaining mainstream media coverage first.
Global Voices focusses mainly on developing world citizen media and one of our goals is to seek ways to integrate what bloggers are saying in places like Thailand or Madagascar into international foreign stories. There is a lot to say about how local citizen media can impact both national and foreign news reporting. But the point I’d like to make is that the success stories in less developed parts of the world should be indicative of what might work for media in richer parts of the world too.

Mobilizing online citizen media

At Global Voices, I help manage a virtual newsroom of bloggers who report on world events by quoting and translating from blogs and citizen media worldwide. Global Voices was created five years ago at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet research as a response to the fact that even though the world wide web connects almost everyone on the planet, most people still seem prefer to read and write about their own local issues. We’re trying to help foster a global conversation, and  support free speech for all. As our slogan goes, “The world is talking. Are you listening?”
Over the years, we’ve created a global community of more than 200 volunteer bloggers and translators who all work with out part-time editors. We report on the activities and the topics that concern bloggers and citizen journalists worldwide – with special emphasis on developing countries and marginalized voices. For instance, what do gay bloggers in Uganda think about their government’s stance on homosexuality? Or how are Thai bloggers preparing for a citywide Bangkok protest of citizens dressed in red t-shirts?
So this is citizen journalism of a kind that begins on the personal websites of a few individuals, and is adapted into an article that tells a broader story. Over the five years since Global Voices was founded we’ve experimented with numerous approaches to integrating these kind of global citizen perspectives into mainstream media.
In March I spent two weeks working with BBC News website editors in London. The goal of our project was to explore how citizen media could help inform their foreign news coverage and vice versa. We added links to Global Voices directly from BBC news stories when it could help add context and we also published free standing stories. One example of when this worked well was during an extremely heated political debate in the upper house of parliament in India about a bill to increase the number of female lawmakers across the country, spilled   over into online discussion in Indian blogs and on Twitter. The straight news story left you with almost a black and white view of the controversy, while  the Indian bloggers shared perspectives that showed why even feminists might be against the bill.
Among our weaknesses were imperfections in article format, and relative lack of speed compared to a 24/7 news organization like the BBC. The collaboration was very useful in pointing out some of the things Global Voices could do better, including forward planning. On the other hand it renewed my feeling that what we do is valuable because it’s different from what they do – especially because we are more inclusive of stories that world citizens themselves tell us are important. We don’t believe that citizen media exists in opposition to mainstream journalism. The two need to work together.

Challenging old working methods

Among several initiatives to spring out of the Global Voices community is an outreach project   called Rising Voices that has provided micro-grant funding for new blogging projects in marginalized communities to help address the digital divide that exists even in our own global community. We have helped launch 22 projects (of which 15 are still active) in places like in Liberia, Yemen, Colombia, and Ukraine.
One Rising Voices project is in Madgascar: the FOKO Madagascar Blog Club. This was a group of socially minded young people from Madagascar that first got together to train youth in blogging in 2007. Much of the teaching was done from abroad over instant messenger with Malagasy diaspora bloggers in the United States. The young people started doing cool things. A first breakthrough moment was when one of the bloggers met a young woman who’s baby was in desperate need of an operation and decided to use her blog for fundraising. They raised the money, and were able to help.
Many months later, political events in Madagascar led to rioting and killing in the streets. It was never intended for the bloggers to act as a kind of news service, but they had the newly learned skills to do it. In those days of turbulence, many Malagasy outside the country relied on blogger reports to know what was going on. As international interest in the story grew, the bloggers ended up in newspapers, television and radio in both the United States, France, and worldwide. They provided a combination of first-hand reporting and analysis at a time when mainstream in Madagascar media was biased, threatened, and scared of threats from both army and political supporters.
It was a full-blown coup, but once things calmed down, the bloggers hosted a meeting to discuss their activities. It was attended by several journalists, former journalists, and even a former minister of culture. A spirit of collaboration was fostered, and their influence was cemented. In February of this year, bloggers from FOKO organized a workshop in blogging and Twitter for journalists and social workers.
I think this example shows how citizens can get involved in helping to change the media agenda both locally and internationally. A lot of the time it’s the bloggers who are ahead of mainstream media and need to teach the value of engaging with online communities. We have seen numerous examples of bloggers taking on this leadership role in their own countries, and also of media integrating the words or perspectives of bloggers to try and tap into the energy and new conversations that live on the internet.
As an international community Global Voices tends to focus mostly on instances where bloggers and online communities are heard in international media. One of our earliest funders was the news agency Reuters, and our co-founder was the former Beijing bureau chief for CNN. However, this is not the only criteria of success for citizen journalism – nor is it usually the end goal for the people involved in the projects. They are local citizens and will usually have the best interests of their community at the center of their concerns.

Connecting with communities

In a developing world context where it can be complicated to deal with lack of electricity, slow internet, and often long travel – people need a very strong sense of purpose to keep going. I sometimes feel that evangelists of citizen journalism get carried away and imagine that people just do citizen journalism for the sake of doing it. Or that if you have a newspaper or a website, a whole bunch of people will submit lots of free content and photos if you ask them to. Not to mention that it will be interesting to read.
We need to be completely honest that citizen media projects sometimes do not produce the most exciting stories. You can train a dozen people how to blog and only one or two of them will be really good. You can even have a clear goal for your citizen media project, but you can’t expect that people will always write what you think they will. There is nothing magical about a blog. Most of the people we work with at Global Voices don’t think of themselves in terms of journalism. Part of the idea is for people to find a venue for self-expression and to give them the tools and flexibility to rise to a challenge when the occasion calls for it – whether it’s for the world cup, a cultural event, or a national crisis. What people may lack in technical skills or writing finesse, they usually more than readily make up for with passion and integrity.
One way that online citizen media is really coming into focus in the developing world is through initiatives that aim to increase citizen engagement in their own societies. Rising Voices has created a new website and research team that is mapping these projects called Technology for Transparency. In Guatemala, representatives from more than 41 organizations put the spotlight on the selection process of nominees for key public offices. In Ghana, an online information portal is covering and monitoring elections in ten African countries and in three languages. In Israel, citizens have converted the Tel Aviv municipal budget from PDF to a spreadsheet format with visualizations. Is it citizen journalism? It’s certainly powerful public information of a kind that previously required journalists to help tell the story. In this regard citizens and journalists can do a lot of good by working together.
In seeking solutions to a mainstream media crisis, it would be silly to think that the same solutions will work for everyone. One thing worth noting in the media landscape of the United States is that there  is one sector of the media industry that is less affected by the economic crisis and media closures. A survey of ethnic media in the United States commissioned by New America Media in 2009 (that means the Chinese, Spanish, African-American newspapers, broadcast etc) showed significant growth since 2005. New America Media attribute it to the fact that these publications are actively serving and representing specific communities; have small budgets; and don’t rely on big corporations for advertisements. Altogether the ethnic media reach 50 million citizens in the United States, so it’s not an insignificant sector in a population of 309 million.
Have U.S. newspapers filled with newswire stories and syndicated columns strayed too far from the traditional ‘old media’ pillar of public service? My point is of course not that all news media should be divided along ethnic or geographic lines, but that journalists and editors really need to ask themselves who they are serving for what purpose, and whether they are delivering true value for their audience or community. One way to identify this is to engage and reconnect openly with readers in meaningful ways over the internet. Chances are that monitoring how citizens are engaging with each other about important public interest issues on the web will provide inspiration for what a professional media organization may be able to help do even better.

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