Richard Sambrook, Director of Global News at the BBC World Service and a great blogger, is giving the opening talk at a small conference hosted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the Berkman Center. The aim of the conference is to talk about how we can begin to assess how the media are changing and what’s going on with participatory journalism. One of the focuses will be on what research we need done (where “we” = our democracy) and how we can get it done. [I’m posting this without re-reading so I can go to the reception, frankly. As always, I’m typing quickly, not keeping up with Richard’s fast pace, getting things wrong, misspelling, etc. etc. If that’s not ok, then read no further. Also, when in doubt I’m reporting what Richard is saying, not inserting my own comments.]
This afternoon, a bunch of us sat in the Annenberg’s atrium, in front of four large panels showing mainstream news channels. We were just trying to do our email and talk with one another, but it was hard as CNN looped for 45 minutes about the discrimination against “short, obese” people and then for an hour about a murdered women. Wow. Great scene-setting for this conference. (Doc may also be blogging about the multi-screen atrium experience.)
Richard is giving the opening “provocation” (as John Palfrey puts it in introducing him). Richard points to Jay Rosen’s saying “Blogging vs. journalism is over” (showing the power of agood sound byte, Richard says) at a conference 3 yrs ago. Much has changed since then, says Richard. Consolidation has happened. Social networking has taken off. Video and conversation have become more dominant. There are still issues of trust and transparency. He mentions someone who said that journalists ought to answer questions and bloggers ought to ask questions, which he thinks is an interesting way of thinking about it. He points to how much blogging and podcasting the msm are doing. “But these aren’t really about participation,” he says, because there are very few links going out and very little interaction.
New research shows (he says) that news sites are now way-stations, not final destinations. He points to memeorandum, “and algorithm replacing a newsroom.” Google is the fourth most trusted news brand in the world, but doesn’t create any content.
The big payers talk about user generated content. It’s a marketing tool. “You have to be seen to be talking about citizen journalism.” But it’s narrowly defined. Four categories: 1. Eyewitness news. MSM have always done that. 2. Sharing of opinion. MSM have not done a good job taking this in. 3. Sharing of discovery. 4. Sharing of expertise (or networked journalism). This is the most valuable and richest example of what citizen journalism holds out, but is the most difficult to deliver. But it’s a minority of the audience that engages in this.
He gives an example. Last year, the BBC chartered a boat and took it up the Bangladesh River to chart the course of climate change. Flickr, Twitter, Google Maps. They had 50,000 followers on Flickr but only 26 on Twitter. Several million listened on shortwave radio.
It’s not about technology, Richard says. What’s the social purpose of social networking, he asks. Have we found one?
Corporate media still has a huge grip on the Internet, he says. The top 5% of sites reach a billion people. With that type of corporate grip on access, will anything change, he asks. Richard says big changes are indeed happening. In the recording industry, what used to be a simple process (get radio play, get on MTV, distribute the disk) has become complex. Same thing is happening to the newspaper industry.
He talks about The Guardian’s leap of faith, trying to become a digital platform. Meanwhile, the NY Times is saying that “Demand has never been greater…” He meant that there are 17M unique visitors to NYTimes.com, half from search and half direct. NYT.com makes money but not enough to fund the Times’ operations. Online advertising is slowing, especially on journalism sites, Richard says. The economic basis of journalism is in qusetion.
He talks about networked journalism. E.g., iPM from the BBC. Highly participatory and transparent. Newsnight on BBC invites people to come to the daily meeting about what stories to cover. He says CBS closed its own experiment on open journalism because “they said they couldn’t find a business model” for it. “As if you have to find a business model for accountability.”
He points to how much live video is now around, from seesmic to vpod.tv. “We need to take the cameras out of the backyard to where things are actually happening.” The video community can be very self-referential, he says. This is early stage of a powerful new technology, so it’s bound to be in a bit of a bubble, he says but he’d like to see us grasp the opportunity more fully. This is about the move from mass to community-based communication.
Technology is bringing in “the new creatives,” he says. Many are very good. Nextnewnetworks.com. TheNerve.tv. Vidshadow.com. The cost base is a quarter of commercial TV and if they can gather a community they can make a business out of it.
He shows a dummy [?] page from the BBC. “My Democracy Now: Create your own political dashboard.” Aggregate what you want. What’s happening in your area. Right now the plan is to only aggregate BBC content, but Richard says that that’s just a first step.
He talks about the shift to the importance of the DJ in music. “What’s the equivalent of that in the information ecology?” Last.fm news? News scrobbling? Personalization is about to work, at last. Tagging, Calais, Twine all add metadata. It’s all about to happen and will take us up to the next level.
He ends with questions, but I can’t keep up. Great talk.
Q: (Ethan Zuckerman) Almost all the examples you gave were of you inviting people into your universe. But often people didn’t show up. Are there ways citizen participation can shape what the story will be?
A: I agree. Inviting people to your party is a very old media attitude. We’re starting to shift. We’re now allowing people to embed our video on their site. We’re starting to understand that. And we do respond to how people define the news, etc. Most of the comments are people shouting. We’re happy to have them there, but they’re not defining the news agenda. We haven’t found the right way to enable that.
John Palfrey: Ethan, be a consultant. You have something in mind…
Ethan: Bloggers have become commentators and error-checkers. That’s not changing the agenda. The question is whether citizens can change what stories show up on the BBC site…
A: We try to do that. We use GlobalVoices. There are examples…
Q: (susan mernit) In hyperlocal journalism you see events that have happened or things that need to be changed. Traditionally, organizing and journalism are separate. BBC lowering the barrier to entry so that local people can reflect local issues?
A: We had ICAN [?], a site to provide people the tools to discover what’s going on and link them up with people with shared interests. Community issues. And we gave them the tools for civic engagement. It was reasonably successful for a while, but it wasn’t getting enough interest.
Q: What gets in the way?
A: The BBC has a huge audience and is growing. There are managerial problems nurturing deep innovation; generally it has to come in from the outside. It’s not that there’s huge resistance to it. We know we have to change. But pushing it through and getting it to work is a big and complicated project.
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