Social media has changed journalism. The Web is now the sole distribution channel for newspapers that can no longer afford to publish hardcopy, and those that don’t follow the best practices of social media may see their brands marginalized in cyberspace as well. Social journalism, an extension of those practices, is now an essential component of any news organization’s strategy.
Citizen journalists post photos of fast-breaking events, and cover stories from a different angle than legacy news organizations, but it’s the premeditated watchdog or advocacy role that defines a social journalist. Another factor is the network effect: people using social media to communicate and collaboratively produce content. Editors are still important, but the pieces are shaped by crowd dynamics and the velocity of information.
Here’s a look at the past, present, and future of social journalism:
As Mark Glaser of the PBS site Mediashift points out in his summary of Dan Gillmor’s “We the Media,” a book about grassroots media, the people who recorded the Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King nearly thirty years later did so out of a sense of social duty: they could have turned off their cameras, but kept them rolling, and contacted mainstream media with the results. This was a crowd of social journalists who broke the story before any editor could slow it down.
The Independent Media Center, formed in 1999 to cover the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, was an early aggregator of social journalism. Run by a collective of alternative journalists and activists who provided minimal editing, the IMC allowed individuals to upload their own coverage of political events. Today, Indymedia hosts a network of IMCs serving cities around the world.
In 2005, social journalists responded to Hurricane Katrina by filing coverage from the field that was more detailed, and often more accurate, than that seen on mainstream media. Sites like the Interdictor, self-described as “A small pocket of New Orleans web guys blogging, running off a generator, with a web cam,” provided a firsthand account of the disaster. One person even declared a Katrina Blog Relief Day in an attempt to start a groundswell movement.
The Huffington Post might not be the first organization that comes to mind when talking about today’s social journalism, but it’s actually a leader in this area. Last year, it co-sponsored OffTheBus, described by director Amanda Michel as a “citizen-powered campaign news site.” The idea was to offer alternative coverage of the presidential election by ordinary people, but the process uncovered a market that Michel describes:
“Our market was defined by our access to on-the-ground information that other news outlets lacked, and collaborative, crowd-powered methods of newsgathering that made some traditional journalists uncomfortable. Private fundraisers, official campaign conference calls, volunteer meetings, and rallies—where mainstream reporters found themselves stuck in pens—were our specialty. We wanted to tell stories inaccessible to the national press. This required replacing objectivity with an ethic of transparency…”
Recently, HuffPost announced The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a nonprofit that will produce investigative journalism created by staff reporters and freelance writers. One of the Fund’s advisers is Jay Rosen, who directs NewAssignment.Net, the NYU research project that co-sponsored OffTheBus.
Rosen’s Flying Seminar in the Future of News cites Dan Conover’s piece “2020 vision: What’s next for news” as a definitive source for predictions. Conover, a reporter turned blogger, offers a number of observations about the next decade of journalism. He talks about the continued demise of newspapers: the metro dailies in major cities, not the “web/print nationals” (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal), or local papers serving communities of up to 30,000 readers. His assertion that the Semantic Web and open-source technologies will drive revenue from sources other than advertising and paid subscriptions anticipates data-mining and machine-readable news feeds, and he even mentions the trend of newspapers opening up their APIs, correctly pointing out this won’t mean much unless developers and end-users are given more freedom.
Conover offers a cautionary statement about crowdfunding, citing Spot.us, a Bay area site where writers and individual donors can collaborate to fund stories. He says that “volunteers” who are paid neither directly nor substantially will produce much of the next decade’s writing, editing and producing.
The future of social journalism will be driven by disintermediation, the replacement or removal of middlemen in the supply chain. This has already happened on the revenue side, with CraigslistCraigslist reviewsCraigslist reviews and other online resources taking classified ads from newspapers. As the newspaper industry consolidates, and social media matures, journalists will increasingly work as independents, forming transient relationships with multiple publishers. A handful of national brands will survive, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of new microbrands will flourish. The public good will be preserved, and society will be more transparent.