Wednesday, September 21, 2005


The digital media challenge from the periphery

By Milverton Wallace

A new date has been indelibly imprinted on the global memory: 7 July 2005, the day of the first suicide bombings in London.

As with 9/11, people might in future ask each other: "Where were you when you first heard the news on 07/07?" Unlike 9/11, they might also ask: "Which blogs did you read to keep up with the news?" or "Did you see the pictures on Flickr?"

In September 2001, America and the world were informed by newsgroups, mailing lists, bulleting boards, web sites and plain old email, and eyewitnesses shooting amateur video footage. For the first few days after the events, the mainstream media were sidelined and trumped by amateur reporters. It was a major warning to the former media monopolies about the power and reach of the Internet.

On 7 July 2005 in London, they were again caught unawares. TV news programmes and newspaper web sites were reduced to grabbing the images from Flickr and appealing to bloggers to submit pictures to them. On the newsstands, the daily newspapers never looked more outdated and irrelevant. While the Web was buzzing with images and live reports of the events, their front pages trumpeted London’s success in winning the bidding for the 2012 Olympic games the day before.

Even if it was an overstatement to describe the reporting of the July events in London as a revolution in communication, as many mainstream media commentators did, it certainly was a bold announcement that the reporting of major events would never again be the exclusive preserve of the mainstream media. The amateur reporter had made an entrance and would be a permanent guest at the table where the first draft of history is written.

What was the difference between 9/1 New York and 07/07 London? Back then the army of New York citizens who supplied eyewitness reports and pics to the press and who went online to email friends and relations with news about family members, did not see themselves as citizen reporters. They were just ordinary folk caught up in an extraordinary situation who were simply doing their civic duty.

Not so our bloggers, mobloggers and videobloggers of 07/07 in London. Four years on from 9/11, people are conscious of themselves not only as newsmakers but as news reporters and producers. Within minutes of the first blast, commuters were shooting still and video images of the carnage inside the underground trains and posting them on weblogs, complete with copyright notices, as soon as they reached the safety of the streets above ground. The ccpyrights in the images were asserted under the Creative Commons licensing regime. Shortly after the second London bombings on 21 July, a new agency was created specifically to market citizen reports and pics to the world’s media.

What had changed between 2001 and 2005? On that infamous September day in New York, eyewitnesses were happy to hand over their images and first-hand accounts to the traditional news outlets. They had little choice: in 2001 there were fewer than 100,000 blogs and the vast majority were owned by computer geeks. Since then, a combination of technological innovations--easy-to-use blog creation software; cheap web storage; free web photo archives; and affordable mobile camera phones have resulted in a rapid rise in the number of blogs . By the time of the London bombings, Technorati, a leading blog search engine, was tracking over 16 million webblogs, a 160 fold increase since 2001. According to David Sifry, founder of Technotrati, 30,000-40,000 blogs are being created every day and the blogoshere is doubling every five months.

But why was the press caught so unprepared? Afterall, the movement for citizen participation in public newsgathering and reporting has been underway for some time. The November 2004 US presidential election was a wake-up call for the mainstream media, with the Dean campaign demonstrating in a dramatic way the power of social software to turn ordinary citizens into political activists and conservative bloggers probably tipping the balance by mobilising the Republican vote. The second wake-up call was the Asian tsunami of December 2004, when the traditional media had no assets on the ground and the region’s bloggers and videoblogger stepped up to lead the global reporting of the disaster.

It is understandable that the old media find it hard to embrace the new realities of decentralised newsgathering: they have big investments in plant, machinery, distribution channels and monopoly advertising revenues to protect, all of which require centralised control of newsgathering and distribution. (But note that Rupert Murdoch, the biggest media mogul, has recently signalled his recognition that social media is a major threat to News Corps’ global media empire. (See his now famous speech at

The independent media has no such baggage. They can and should convert their readers and viewers from being mere sources to collaborators, not only because they generally know more about most things than professional journalists, but are more likely to be at the scene of events and possess the local knowledge most reporters cannot hope to have.

Start by deciding the level of engagement you want to establish with them. This ranges from inviting readers to comment on stories to fully integrating citizen reporting into your publication. See Steve Outing’s "The 11 layers of citizen journalism " ( for a useful guide to the potential and pitfalls of the different levels of interaction.

Second, set up panels of citizen contributors drawn from different social strata, occupational groups and professional sectors. These will be your eyes and ears, a way to mobilise the diverse perspectives and local knowledge of your readers/viewers so you’re on top of stories before they become news. There are numerous open source tools to help to manage such networks. (see, for example,

Third, institute a programme to familiarise collaborators with the professional practices and standards of the journalism profession (See There’s nothing extraordinary about being a journalist; the principles we hold dear—trust, duty, freedom—are also cherished by the majority of the people we write for.

All of this does not mean that it’s possible , or even desirable, to turn every citizen into journalists. Nevertheless, it is prudent to educate people about the codes of the profession, including the ethical and legal issues, so that they do a better job of truthfully seeking and reporting the facts. Some citizen journalism operations, e.g., Dan Gillmor’s Bayosphere, ask collaborators to sign a "Citizen Journalist Pledge" (see and many bloggers and citizen reporters have signed up to honour tags (see in an effort to establish a framework of trustworthiness in this new frontier.

The independent media must carefully build the infrastructure and the culture of this new practice, because what we have here is not simply a new lifestyle based on the latest digital gadgets. The new form of journalism is a challenge to the prevailing monopoly of knowledge (which is also a monopoly of power) exercised by the mainstream media.

The old order is changing, and it is fitting that this challenge is coming from the periphery—from the former audience who are no longer willing to be mere consumers, and from the new digital media that is destined to replace the old. You can either embrace it or be engulfed by it.

© copyright Milverton Wallace August 2005
Nice summation of current citizen journalism theory -- I look forward to reading more.
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