‘A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself,’ said the great American playwright Arthur Miller in 1961, and now the technology is in place to allow that conversation to happen in real time.
Blogging, podcasting and video sharing on sites like YouTube are dramatically changing the media landscape, allowing a host of new voices around the world to be heard. Blogging isn’t journalism on the cheap, as some critics have suggested it’s a natural extension of the core mission of journalism: helping foster a vigorous public dialogue. And it’s allowed us to tap into the wisdom in the crowds.
I’ve been an online journalist for more than a decade. When I first saw a web browser in August 1993, I knew that the internet would be a powerful force for remaking journalism. For those of us who have been online since before the rise of the World Wide Web, the internet has always been about interaction and communication, not just a publishing platform or a better shopping experience.
It’s not surprising to us that people using the internet would want to have their say before news websites gave them that opportunity, they took matters into their own hands with free blogging software.
Neil McIntosh and Jack Schofield launched The Guardian’s first blog in 2001, realising it was better to be part of the conversation than listen to it from a lofty perch. The Guardian now has blogs covering everything from currents affairs on ‘Comment is Free‘ to sport, arts and culture, and most recently food and gardening.
But blogging is not a publishing strategy, it’s a community strategy. Being one of the world’s bloggiest newspapers has led to bloggers linking to our stories, helping us grow a grass-roots following in the United States, so that The Guardian now has more online visitors outside of the UK than inside.
One of The Guardian‘s stated goals is to become the world’s leading liberal voice. And our website’s ‘Head of Communities and User Experience,’ Meg Pickard, has said that we also need to enable the world’s liberal voices.
The art of blogging is about building a community and coaxing people out from behind their keyboards.
Journalism should be about tying together as many threads in a story. But a good blog post teases out threads and sets the stage for a good debate and discussion. It’s a different process to reporting or even traditional commentary, but it can be a powerful way to connect with ‘the people formerly known as the audience,’ as blogger and journalism professor Jay Rosen calls them.
And that connection to the audience is another important benefit of blogging.
The explosion of citizen media has only added to the dizzying number of choices for information and entertainment. Blogging allows us to get out from behind our bylines and connect with people. Marketers call it ‘building our brand,’ but I think it’s about building relationships. Our best blogger-journalists thrive on the interaction with readers like musicians, they feed off an audience’s energy.
Some of my goals are rather idealistic. I see blogging as potentially re-engaging jaded citizens in the political process. I’m often amazed at commentators who bemoan the lack of political engagement and declining voter participation in countries like the UK and the US, but then slam people for speaking up on their blogs. These journalists feel threatened by bloggers and citizen media, seeing them as a challenge to their traditional agenda-setting or gate-keeping roles.
The reality is that media is no longer simply about consuming content. People now want to create, comment and contribute. But blogging is more than just giving average citizens a voice it’s about a new activism that is more than virtual. A study last year by PR firm Edelman found that blog readers were interested in both expression and action attending public meetings on local issues, writing to their political officials, and contacting the media to express their opinion.
Many journalists see bloggers more as talk show hosts than traditional news gatherers or investigators. But as The Guardian’s blogs editor, part of my job is to convince sceptical journalists that there is value in engaging with citizen media that it’s just old-school journalism with new-school, cutting-edge tools.
Before I joined The Guardian, I was a reporter with the BBC, working in Washington DC and London. In June 2005, the BBC made a brave admission that its coverage of the Iraq War gave an incomplete picture of daily life for average Iraqis. So we launched the ‘One Day in Iraq’ project, I worked with the blogging Fadhil brothers who wrote ‘Iraq the Model’ and also with milbloggers soldier bloggers with the US military.
Through blogs, I was able to get both an Idaho National Guardsman stationed in Kirkuk and a US Army intelligence officer on BBC radio. The next year, when I got soldiers live on the BBC World Service, my colleagues burst into our office and asked how we did it. I shrugged and said: ‘I emailed them.’
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, my colleague Chris Vallance and I found a podcaster who had been recording his impressions as he rode up the motorway fleeing New Orleans and later, as he watched the devastation from a hotel room.
We were able to get bloggers with ‘Metroblogging Lahore‘ and ‘Metroblogging Karachi‘ to give first-person accounts about the 2005 Kashmir earthquake speaking to us via mobile phone as they travelled to quake affected areas.
Hours after the bombing in Mumbai last year, we were able to speak to a blogger in the city as if she were in a radio studio, via the internet phone service Skype. At the time, we couldn’t even get a mobile phone call into the city because the networks buckled under the strain of calls from the emergency services and distraught relatives.
My former editor at the BBC World Service used to challenge me to see just how much I could do with the internet alone. I used to call it: ‘Make the geek jump through hoops.’ One of his most difficult challenges was to see if I could contact someone, anyone, in what the Committee to Project Journalists called the 10 most censored countries in the world: North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria or Belarus.
In the end, after five hours, I didn’t get anyone to come on air although, I was able to arrange coffee with a Libyan blogger who wouldn’t come on the radio because she said the authorities would know her by her accent. In retrospect, I should have focused on Syria, where there’s a vibrant, albeit small, blogging community.
After joining The Guardian, last December, a blogging contact in Egypt alerted me to a video on YouTube. The police had detained a man in Cairo. They beat and sexually assaulted the man, taking video of the incident on a camera phone. They circulated the video via bluetooth to others in the neighbourhood as an act of intimidation.
Blogger activists in Egypt posted the video to YouTube, gaining international attention and condemnation. The blog post I wrote in response for The Guardian was added to the social news site Digg. One of the commenters on that site asked: ‘Who can we put pressure on to make this torture stop?’
This is the power of the internet. This is the power of citizen media.
As a professional journalist, I don’t see this as a threat to my job but as an almost unprecedented opportunity.
From a desk in London, I’m part of a global newsgathering network, not the BBC, not The Guardian, but the internet.
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