Guest post: John Kelly

John Kelly is an American journalist currently living in Oxford – and on a mission:

I’m studying citizen journalism, a buzzword which basically applies to anyone who isn’t like me doing what it is that I do.

You can read his blog here []. Below, he kindly reflects on his progress for the Frontline Club:

I have an odd personality trait: I am both enchanted by and repulsed by whomever I happen to be talking with at any particular moment. I suspect this is not uncommon among journalists. It allows us to be simultaneously receptive AND skeptical, to be open to a source or a story while also protecting us from getting bitten in the ass. Nowhere have I experienced these feelings more strongly than while pondering so-called citizen journalism.
When I talk to a mainstream journalist who rails that citizen journalism is killing our business and who proposes a Canute-like opposition to user-generated content, I feel as if the mainstream press should go the way of the whale-oil lamp. But then when I hear a techno-evangelising blogger proclaim that the press is an aloof, venal dinosaur deserving of destruction and that the wisdom of the crowds will solve the world’s problems, I reach for my claymore. Perhaps I need medication.
I am not a futurist able to confidently make bold predictions about what’s going to happen, or even should happen, next. I’m just a hack who would like to have a job for the next 20 years, who is proud of the work that journalists do and the service we provide, but who has always suspected that we’ve often thought of our readers/viewers/listeners as superfluous, if not downright irritating. We can no longer afford that attitude.
Here are a few things–many of them obvious–that I’ve decided after pondering citizen journalism and new media:
New media–digital cameras, easy-to-use camcorders, blogging software, broadband connections–has made it possible for amateurs to put their journalism or pseudo-journalism in front of millions of people. That genie is not going back in the bottle.
We may rail against dishonest, sensationalistic or just plain bad citizen journalists, but proper journalists have screwed up plenty in the last few years. Some of us made stuff up (step forward, Jayson Blair). Most of us blew the Iraq story.
The vast majority of citizens don’t want to be journalists. Citizen journalism isn’t killing journalism. Bloggers need the mainstream media more than anyone.
We should see readers as more than merely customers. What citizens want, I think, is a journalism that is less opaque, that’s delivered in a variety of ways, and that allows them some level of involvement and interactivity.
What precisely that level of involvement is will be different for each reader, and for each news outfit. It makes sense for the BBC to have a huge UGC hub–two dozen people when I visited. They can afford it (for now anyway). It sends the message that a large, seemingly faceless news organization is interested in its users’ views. It occasionally turns up useful material–a memorable video, a compelling photo. And it allows the BBC to compile the world’s greatest list of sources. Every incoming “Have Your Say” e-mail is categorised and filed so that a BBC journalist looking for, say, a West African single mother affected by food shortages can find one.
To me, that underscores how we should be approaching this: What makes sense journalistically? If we have a story that can be “crowdsourced”–a complex, confusing topic that can be broken down and understood with the help of dozens of voluntary eyeballs–why wouldn’t we explore that? If a hyperlocal web site covers a neighbourhood much better than our overworked reporter can, why wouldn’t we send readers to it, or welcome it under our wing? If we think readers would appreciate posting comments after our stories, why wouldn’t we swallow our dismay at the occasionally (okay, frequently) nasty tone?
I have a hunch that we’ll look back in a few years and chuckle at the “UGC wars.” We’ll wonder how any of us could have believed that there should have been an impenetrable wall between journalists and readers. We’ll label our content clearly so readers can understand who produced what–and how. We will specify ways readers can help us do our job–while remaining in the driver’s seat. We’ll accept that reading blogs and the earnest if unpolished websites of amateurs are just part of a journalist’s regular reporting.
I think we should do these things so that our product is more appealing and more useful. If that’s good for democracy (one of the claims that citizen journalism’s boosters make), great. But I’m less interested in empowering citizens than in informing them. And my desire to inform them is only tangentially related to my hope that they will be civically active. I just want them to buy my paper or frequent its online advertisers or do whatever in future will guarantee some flow of funds into my checking account.
I don’t think any of this will be easy. Business is bad for reasons entirely unrelated to UGC. But journalists have to approach new media and citizen journalism as we would any story: with an open mind and a cocked eyebrow. We shouldn’t be afraid of rolling up our sleeves and seeing what works.

Thanks John – a most balanced and sensible helicopter view.