Today’s newspapers telling yesterday’s stories: Calum Crowe on Citizen Journalism

iPhone newsAs I begin to write this article, I do so with no preconceived knowledge of not only who you are, but also where you’re from, what age you are or what you happen to do for a living.  But the very fact that you are reading these words allows me to more or less assume two things about you.

Firstly, given that you are using the internet, you are probably quite fluent in the use of social media – whether you realise it or not.  Free yourself, if you will, from the somewhat blinkered generalisation that social media essentially boils down to just Facebook and Twitter.  To view social media in this fashion is to deprive yourself of its foremost asset; that is, a truly infinite forum for public debate.

And secondly that you would probably hesitate to call yourself a journalist.  But why, may I ask?

The internet and social media have collectively reduced the hegemony that traditional journalists used to enjoy over the rest of society.  The platform that they now give us to be news producers in our own right is truly limitless.

Yet it seems to be common practice for the majority of people to use social media to post photos of last night’s dinner, or to detail their latest sexual exploits in 140 characters (or less!).

I say this because I myself was one of these people until only a few months ago.  It wasn’t until I completed a Digital Journalism module here at the University of Stirling that I fully appreciated the opportunities that social media can offer.

The importance of the module for me was twofold.

First of all, it really hit home with me just how much that social media and blogging allows us – yes, you and me – to be news producers in our own right.  Don’t like what you’re reading in the news? Then why not write your own take on it, tell the story how you see it.

Perhaps you might even go beyond this.  Do you happen to know of a really important story or issue which no national or local newspaper seems to have taken an interest in? Then write about it. It really is as simple as that. Social media effectively gives you the opportunity to shape the news agenda – albeit on varying scales.

This is what citizen journalism and social media can do.  Far from being decried as the bête noire of journalism (as many traditionalists will have you believe), it can give journalism more relevance and a more solid grounding in the public interest.  After all, citizen journalism is free from any sort of editorial or commercial restraints; it is free to tell the stories that really matter – not simply the stories that align with the politics of the establishment that you happen to work for.

The second realisation I made during the Digital Journalism module was, in a word, debate. Debate, debate, debate!  The forum of social media allowed my blogging efforts to engage with an audience that completely transcended that of any newspaper.  The internet helps to facilitate a more reciprocal relationship between the journalist and the audience and this is something which, in my own humble opinion, can only be healthy for both parties.

It is important to note, however, that newspaper journalism and online journalism are, I believe, mutually exclusive stylistically.  I believe that this is perhaps where a lot of the scepticism from traditional journalists emanates from; a very definite reluctance to change their writing style and general ingrained habits.  Think of it yourself – the content you read online is – almost without exception – written and laid out in a very different way from that of a newspaper, is it not?

Journalists, if they are to successfully make the jump to online reporting, need to adapt their skills accordingly.  They must make their content lend itself well to the online environment.  Paragraphs must be shorter. Language should be more relaxed.

So what does all of this actually mean for the journalists of yesteryear?  Those often toffee-nosed graduates of Fleet Street. Well, not all that much actually.  Social media and blogging – invaluable assets of the modern journalist’s armoury though they are – will never replace quality journalism in its truest form.  Yes, bite-sized news, blogging and social media may all be great commodities in their own right, but next week I will explain how long-form journalism should always have a place in our news media.