When The News Lets Everyone Really Participate, It Changes The Way News Works

from the participatory-journalism-is-about-more-than-comments dept

When we talk about things like "participatory journalism," or "news as a community," we've had traditional newspaper people insist they "get it." They say that they've "added comments" to their website, so it's now participatory. But that, of course, is cargo cult participation. They look at sites that have a lively community, and they see comments, so they think "well, if we add comments, we'll have community." They don't bother to understand what actually makes journalism participatory, or what actually brings a real community together.

Clay Shirky has written another of his essays, once again, building on the idea of "cognitive surplus," highlighting the difference between a "pipeline" model of journalism and a true community model. The pipeline model involves passing a story along a pipeline. Someone makes news, someone reports the news, someone edits the news and then everyone consumes the news. But the community model actually involves people who become a part of the story itself, in digging deeper, in adding their own input to the story, in shaping the further story. Shirky provides numerous examples of this, with the following being my favorite:
In 2005, the London transit system was bombed. Sir Ian Blair, the head of London's Metropolitan police, went on radio and TV to announce that the cause had been an electrical failure in the underground. Within minutes of Blair's statements, people began posting and analyzing pictures of a bombed double-decker bus in Tavistock Square, and in less than two hours, there were hundreds of blog posts analyzing this evidence and explicitly contradicting Blair's interpretation.

Seeing this, and overriding the advice of his own communications staff, Blair went on air again less than two hours later to say that it had indeed been a bombing, that the police didn't have all the answers yet, and that he would continue reporting as they knew more. When he spoke to the public, Blair had the power of all the traditional media behind him, but it was clear that merely having a consistent message on every broadcast channel in existence was no longer the same as having control.
This is not about just "adding comments" -- it's about enabling people who have the inclination to actually be a part of the overall process. It's not "the 4th estate" talking down to everyone, but it's about the press enabling those who wish to participate to do so. This doesn't mean that there is no role for traditional journalists or editors or publishers. To the contrary, those roles are still important, but in a different manner.

As Shirky notes, this is a big change that may be difficult for some used to the old "pipeline model" to full grasp. It involves a different conception of what it is a journalism outfit needs to accomplish:
What's going away, from the pipeline model, isn't the importance of news, or the importance of dedicated professionals. What's going away is the linearity of the process, and the passivity of the audience. What's going away is a world where the news was only made by professionals, and consumed by amateurs who couldn't do much to produce news on their own, or to distribute it, or to act on it en masse.

We are living through a shock of inclusion, where the former audience is becoming increasingly intertwined with all aspects of news, as sources who can go public on their own, as groups that can both create and comb through data in ways the professionals can't, as disseminators and syndicators and users of the news.

This shock of inclusion is coming from the outside in, driven not by the professionals formerly in charge, but by the former audience. It is also being driven by new news entrepreneurs, the men and women who want to build new kinds of sites and services that assume, rather than ignore, the free time and talents of the public.

This a change so varied and robust that we need to consider retiring the word "consumer" altogether, and treat consumption as simply one behavior of many that citizens can now engage in. The kinds of changes that are coming will dwarf those we've already seen, as citizen involvement stops being a set of special cases, and becomes a core to our conception of how news can be, and should be, part of the fabric of society.
Until the various media players begin to recognize that participation within journalism isn't about delivering the news, but enabling everyone who wants to to participate, they're going to continue to struggle with the changing marketplace.
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Filed Under: community, journalism, participation


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Nov 2010 @ 6:35am

    "They look at sites that have a lively community, and they see comments, so they think "well, if we add comments, we'll have community." They don't bother to understand ..."

    Clearly you are impressed with your ability to identify the specific thoughts of whole groups of people, and you feel you only need to blog your "insights" it to contribute to the "participatory journalism", but this is cargo cult participation and omits the the important step of engaging brain.

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