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Participatory Journalism Puts the Reader in the Driver's Seat


Over the past few years, the outlines of a new form of journalism have begun to emerge. Call it participatory journalism or one of its kindred names -- open-source journalism, personal media, grassroots reporting -- but everyone from individuals to online newspapers has begun to take notice.

"It's about readers participating in the editorial process, and it's long overdue," says Dan Gillmor, a blogger and technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, who is writing a book on the subject called "Making the News." "People at the edges of the network are getting a chance to become more involved in traditional journalism by using many of the same tools of the trade. This is tomorrow's journalism, with professionals and gifted amateurs as partners."

Gillmor put his credo in action by publishing his book outline online and asking his readers to react and contribute to it.

A new report on participatory journalism by New Directions for News concludes: "Journalism finds itself at a rare moment in history where ... its hegemony as gatekeeper of the news is threatened by not just new technology and competitors but, potentially, by the audience it serves.

"Armed with easy-to-use Web publishing tools, always-on connections and increasingly powerful mobile devices, the online audience has the means to become an active participant in the creation and dissemination of news and information." (Disclaimer: The writer of this article edited the NDN report).

Today, you can see glimmers of participatory journalism seeping into online news sites. The new media managers at the Santa Fe New Mexican have been won over by the idea and hope to broaden the various forms of reader participation on the newspaper?s Web site.

"We'd like to drastically increase the site's interactivity and the amount of reader contributions," says Stefan Dill, who became the New Mexican's Web editor a year ago. "We just marvel at what OhmyNews has done."

OhmyNews is South Korea?s most influential news site. With a daily readership of 2 million, it is a collaborative media outlet staffed by professional journalists and a nationwide army of 26,000 citizen journalists.

For now, Dill and Web publisher Michael Odza are spearheading an internal study group seeking ways to make the online edition more user-friendly. Santa Fe would appear to be a perfect laboratory for expanding the role of readers in the site's content, Dill says, because of its diverse, educated and politically active population. The daily paper has a circulation of 24,000 while the Web site pulls in 100,000 unique visitors per month. (Besides Odza and Dill, the Web team has only two production assistants and a sales representative.)

Future initiatives aside, Dill points to elements of reader content that have already appeared on the site. A section called CityDifferentNews invites readers to share personal and community news. The site publishes a section devoted to photos submitted by readers. A new section being developed will invite comments from people who were eyewitnesses to key local historical events. And starting July 16, the paper began publishing a Fire Log -- a collection of reports from the scene of a major wildfire written by readers who were affected.

The New Mexican views the Fire Log as particularly successful. Recounts Dill: "When comments on the regular fire stories started to show reader frustration between the Forest Service press releases and the actual amount of smoke and asthma they were experiencing, we invited people to report conditions, experiences, health conditions, fire visibility, etc., in their specific areas. Many people did so, posting information that was very different from what was being officially passed down.

"This struck us as a successful microcosm of an OhmyNews dynamic in action," he says. What resonated with the editors was that users were treating the reader postings as legitimate sources of news. No other fire story during the week ranked in the top 10, but the Fire Log finished consistently among the site?s top 10 stories.

Other online publications have taken to inviting reader contributions. The Dallas Morning News posted photos of space shuttle debris submitted by readers.

The BBC News posted a photo gallery of antiwar protestors taken by readers, and has a standing "Taken a Good Picture Lately?" photo essay feature that uses photos e-mailed in by readers around the globe. BBC's instructions to participating readers state that if submitted photos are newsy enough, they "may be used immediately within a picture gallery or story." 

One news station in Japan recently aired live coverage of a massive fatal accident from a citizen-reporter -- a trucker who happened to have his video-enabled cell phone with him, and e-mailed video of the wreck to the station with his phone. (For a breakdown of the different kinds of participatory journalism, see accompanying story.)

Journalism experts predict more coverage of breaking news will come from citizen reporters as photo and video-enabled phones become more ubiquitous worldwide.

"The truth is that most people are not witnesses to news most days," said Jeff Jarvis, a seasoned journalist who is author of the blog and president and creative director of, the Internet arm of Advance Publications.

"But on that occasion when big news happens, the odds are better and better that witnesses who are there will now have the tools to capture and share images and news."

'Thin' is in: Citizens take up journalism?s tools

Many examples of participatory journalism have taken place outside the sphere of traditional media. Individuals who once would have shied away from describing what they do as journalism are increasingly trying on the term and concluding that, yes, they?re quite capable of providing credible news without any help from big media.

Community news sites published by amateurs are storming the suburbs. And many other independent publishers are now doing more than commenting on news reported by mainstream press -- they're doing original research, interviewing sources and posting original content.

Such examples of small-scale, independent publishing are sometimes called "thin media" -- small operations focused on niche news, information and advice not normally found in mainstream media.

Niche news sites, Weblogs, discussion groups and mailing lists are all growing sources of thin media. Some do journalism, some just post commentary and link to stories done by mainstream media. Examples include the one-person publications Gawker, Gizmodo and IWantMedia, Jay Small's Sensible Internet Design newsletter, and the mailing lists run by Dave Farber and Declan McCullagh.

The New Directions for News report says of this phenomenon: "Everyone on the Internet is a potential expert on some subject -- from Pez dispensers to digital photography techniques to wormholes -- and these participatory forms are great places to find and share not only obscure or rare information, but commentary that might be too controversial for mainstream media."

One of those niche publishers is Sheila Spencer Stover of Bunn, N.C., whose Indian name is Firehair Shining Spirit. She runs the Internet Native News and Issues List, a mailing list with 400 members, mostly native Americans. (It has no Web site. Those interested in joining may e-mail her at [email protected].)

During the week of July 14, her mailing list picked up in intensity as members began contributing news and reporting on a raid conducted by Rhode Island State Police on the Narragansett Smoke Shop. The shop, frequented by Rhode Islanders to avoid the state's hefty cigarette tax, is on tribal land in Charlestown, R.I. -- land that the Narragansett regard as sovereign, given their status as a federally recognized tribe.

During the raid, state police officers pinned Indians to the ground while German shepherds nipped at their clothing. In the end, eight people were hospitalized and seven tribal members arrested. The smoke shop remains closed.

Firehair sent an e-mail to the governor of Rhode Island, copying it to her list members as well, citing federal laws that require authorities to deal with sovereign Indian tribes through the federal court system rather than through state or local law enforcement.

"The actions taken by the state police were illegal, but that didn't get a lot of press," she said in a phone interview. "If the people being attacked had been Asian or blacks or Hispanic, it would have been all over the news. But it was just Indians being assaulted on their own land, so here we are again."

A 67-year-old single mother (she has two adopted children of Mayan background), Firehair has fair skin, blue eyes and red hair. She is a member of the Delaware/Minisink Band and counts Narragansett Indians among her ancestors. Her mailing list buzzed with activity on the days following the altercation.

One member reported that Indians from 100 tribes around the nation were heading to Rhode Island to lend their support. Another reported that construction workers in Coventry, R.I., taped turkey feathers to their hard hats in a "crude but effective" show of support for the Indians. Others chimed in with legal commentary and offers of support for the Narragansetts.

Firehair began her mailing list seven years ago after being censored on a list run by the Seneca Indians. "I try to steer my list to what?s going on in Indian country," she says, adding that she allows free-ranging discussion and doesn't squash views she doesn?t share.

"Our members talk about prison rights, religious freedom, the selling of spirituality, the repatriation of bones, the stockpiling of native artifacts in museums stolen out of grave sites, building on sacred lands, the reclaiming of languages, elder health, Alaskan natives afflicted by gas-sniffing, suicide on reservations, issues with Indian trust monies, the Pipestone project in Montana, where they want to build a theme park on sacred land -- we exchange news about anything and everything," she says.

Firehair says she spends three to four hours a day on the computer managing her mailing list. "Indians across the continent really weren't aware of what was going on with other tribes until we began using the Internet to communicate with each other," she says. "I want everybody to have access to all the news. The dominant culture ignores the issues that are important to us.

"How often do you see news from Indian country covered in the media, in newspapers, or on 'Oprah'? And yet 50 percent of the Indian population lives in urban areas and in mixed communities. Our children need to be educated about our own history."

A turbulent ride ahead

RedPaper, a three-week-old enterprise that bills itself as a "collaborative newspaper," says it "gives everyone the ability to be a reporter, have your own column, post articles, name your story price, and sell your work to millions of potential readers around the world."

As an experimental marketplace for information, the site allows people to publish and sell their writing, ranging from muffin recipes and car maintenance tips to poetry and short fiction. Some enterprising citizen-reporters brought together court documents in the Kobe Bryant case and are offering them to readers at $2 per download.

Another brand of thin media involves initiatives with a limited life span.

The founders of Metafilter and Kuro5hin plan to launch an independent news site this fall to track the 2004 presidential campaign. Matt Haughey and Rusty Foster, the programmers behind those two collaborative media sites, will create a "smart mob-style site" to provide a place for independent reporting about next year's election.

The site, still in development, will consist of three elements, Haughey says: a section devoted to Weblog-style entries about daily campaign events; a second area for first-person campaign coverage, including digital photos, phonecam shots, audio and video clips and interview transcripts; and finally news stories building on the first two sections. Readers will be allowed to edit and rewrite stories.

All of this begs the question: Will forms of participatory journalism and traditional journalism complement each other, or collide head on? It may be a bit of both.

"It's difficult to figure out where all this is going to wind up," Gillmor says. "Journalism from the edges is taking us to a new place. The only thing certain is that we'll never return to the days when people are treated as passive vessels for content delivered by big media through one-way pipes -- no matter how disruptive these changes may be for traditional media.

"We're in for a fascinating ride."

Participatory Journalism: What Is It?
Participatory Journalism: Personal Broadcasting
Story Links
BBCNews:Photo essay feature
BBCNews:Photo gallery
Dan Gillmor
Dave Farber
Declan McCullagh
Firehair's e-mail address
Gillmor:Book outline
New Directions for News
OJR:Mobile publishing
OJR:Moblogs new era
OJR:Storming the suburbs
OJR:Video phone
Participatory Journalism: What Is It?
Participatory Journalism: What Is It?
Photo phones
Santa Fe New Mexican
Santa Fe New Mexican history project
SantaFe:Fire Log section
SantaFe:Photo section
Sensible Internet Design newsletter
The Dallas Morning News
Thin media

Dan Gillmor: "This is tomorrow's journalism, with professionals and gifted amateurs as partners." 


Firehair: "...we exchange news about anything and everything."