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Breaking News Boosts Spread of Citizen Journalism
The age of 'democratization of news' is here
Stephen Quinn (squinn)     Print Article 
Published 2006-06-01 15:28 (KST)   
Coverage of major news events around the world such as the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, the July 2005 London bombings and floods in southern U.S. have been catalysts for the spread of "citizen" journalism.

Reporter Julia Day described coverage of the London bombings as "democratisation of the media". The public became photographers and reporters: "Claustrophobic videos shot in smoke-filled, bombed-out London underground carriages, photographs of the blasted number 30 bus and horrific scenes of body-strewn roads were among the most powerful images to emerge.

"All were shot by members of the public, and some of them became the iconic pictures of the day," she wrote in the media pages of The Guardian.

John Ryley, executive editor of Sky News in London, said mobile phones that could record video and still images permitted this "democratization of news." His studio received video, emailed by mobile phone, of the bombed underground line between King's Cross and Russell Square stations at 12:40 p.m. and had it on air by 1 p.m.

The BBC's reaction to the London bombings was to establish a "user-generated content" desk. By mid July 2005 the UGC team was receiving 10,000 emails, text messages and video contributions a day. The UGC team subsequently expanded to eight journalists, with staff from each of the main bulletins.

The BBC has also been experimenting with video blogs, or v-logs. It gave 40 of its reporters and producers cell phones that could record and send video. Philips Software, a division of Royal Philips Electronics, reconfigured the Nokia 3650 cell phone so that picture resolution was broadcast quality.

The phones were able to record several minutes of video, instead of the seconds available on consumer models. Head of newsgathering Adrian Van Klaveren said the phones were not intended to replace traditional television cameras but to augment them.

The rise of "participatory" journalism has occurred at the expense of traditional media audiences. The Pew Center in the United States reported in June 2005 that 8 million Americans had created blogs, and 32 million read blogs. To put the latter figure into context, that's two thirds of the 50 million people who read a daily newspaper each week day.

Tom Curley, CEO of the world's biggest news organisation, Associated Press, believes journalists need to learn to free their content from "expensive containers we call the newspaper or broadcast bulletin." It meant, Curley said, a change from the "news as lecture to the news as conversation."

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates has forecast that by 2008 the Internet would attract almost US$31 billion a year of advertising revenue -- equal to what the world's newspapers generated in 2005.

Internet advertising in the United States jumped 38 percent to a record $3.9 billion in the first quarter of this year as more marketers moved to the Web, the
Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers reported in June 2006.

That same month, The Guardian reported that Internet advertising revenue would overtake advertising in national newspapers in the U.K. by the end of this year. The Internet will account for 13.3 percent of the $23 billion advertising market in 2006, the paper said.

The spread of citizen journalism becomes more significant in the context of declining newspaper circulations and free-to-air TV audiences against population growth. In the half century to 2004, the combined Monday-to-Friday circulation of all American newspapers gained 0.2 percent, while the population almost doubled.

Over the same half century in Australia, the population in the six state capitals more than doubled but average weekday circulation dropped by almost a third. In the past decade, per capita consumption of Australian newspapers has dropped 20 percent for Monday-to-Friday editions, and 18 percent on Saturdays. Free-to-air viewing of television news has declined 20 percent since 1965, with a quarter of the fall occurring since 2001.

Coverage of the London bombings in July produced a huge change in the way news unfolds. Now people turn to the Internet for breaking news. We are seeing the end of the broadcast-led breaking news cycle that became common with live television crosses in the 1970s. News has become a 24-hour continuous process, as audiences consume more news from more and more sources.

The Internet's great strength remains its ability to attract people, especially during the business day, for short news grabs. Noted Mike Game, chief operating officer of Fairfax Digital: "In many ways it is displacing more traditional media like radio news services."

In response to these changes, major American dailies such as The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times introduced groups of re-write journalists on "continuous" or "extended" news desks. These publish breaking news online as soon as possible after stories become available, and function similarly to the re-write desks common on afternoon newspapers until the 1960s.

Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for continuous news at The Washington Post, said a team of three editors and two writers solicited and edited breaking news from reporters in the field -- "especially during peak web traffic hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m." -- and also wrote their own stories. The goal was to increase the flow of original staff files to the web to distinguish the paper's coverage from that of other publications.

Research groups such as the Carnegie Foundation and the Pew Center have noted that the 18-24 and 25-34 demographics tend to get most of their news from the Internet, and rely less on traditional sources such as newspapers.

In a major research report released late in 2004 the Carnegie Foundation reported that 39 percent of men aged 18-34 got their news from the Internet compared with 5 percent who read newspapers. Women in the same age group preferred local television news (42 percent), compared with 7 percent who read newspapers.

News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch cited the Carnegie figures in a landmark speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington on April 13, 2005 which gained significant attention among publishers.

Murdoch said a revolution was occurring in the way young people accessed news. "They don't want to rely on the morning paper for their up-to-date information. Instead, they want their news on demand, when it works for them. They want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it."

For all demographics, fragmentation is the result of more and more people seeking information and news from niche markets. John Lavine, chair of the journalism department at Northwestern University in Chicago, described fragmentation as "the single most important trend across all media platforms" in the United States. Bob Liodice, chief executive of the U.S. Association of National Advertisers, said fragmentation had occurred so much that "mass media don't exist any more."

As media audiences fragment, busy people (or people who perceive they have limited time) tend to grab their news when and where it is convenient.

In a generation the Internet has usurped broadcast's role and re-structured -- perhaps even permanently reshaped -- the news cycle, and also produced new forms of media.

It's a little surprising that it has taken some media companies such a long time to appreciate the benefits of these donations. In some respects, talkback radio has been making money from audience-contributed content for a generation. The biggest questions, as with any advance in technology, usually relate to legal issues. Talkback radio deals with some of the issues through the use of delayed transmission.

But technological changes run ahead of legislation. Some key questions need to be answered when considering audience-generated content in the digital world. Who owns the copyright of contributed material? Who is liable if the material contains defamation? How can we assess the accuracy of supplied information? These are vital questions worthy of future research.

Indeed, this article probably contains more questions than it does answers. If nothing else, those questions will suggest subjects for further stories.
Stephen Quinn is associate professor of journalism at Deakin University in Australia. Click here for his Web site.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Stephen Quinn

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