At the Blogboat 1.0 event in Gent (9th November 2008), the attendants were asked to write a discussion paper about the future of (citizen) journalism.  Starting point was this question:

“Technology evolves fast, faster then most ‘traditional media providers’. There are reasons to believe their fear for online and mobile technology is linked with ignorance, which leads in discussions about content and reliability. In what way technological developments will influence the way we deal with news and information. Will they empower us more, will new constraints appear and will the old once be sorted in time? Is there a possible role for guides/filters and who would these filters be (newspapers, well known bloggers … ? And in line with the later, is there a possible role for guides/curators guiding non-expert users through the information in an open way build on trust and reputation?”

This was my contribution:

Citizen journalism and how context can become king

In this little personal view on the future of citizen journalism, I firstly want to make clear that a professional journalist[1] filters his news in the same way as a citizen journalist.

Professional journalists, whether now or 20 years ago, filtered their news by collecting information, deciding which bit might be interesting for their public and subsequently fill their news show or paper with that content. They nowadays have a more complex job, among others because of the myriad extra sources (blog posts, tweets, reactions, podcasts,…), but the process of collecting, choosing and publishing hasn’t changed.

According to me, citizen journalists follow the same process. They notice an interesting piece of information (whether in blog posts of fellow citizen journalists, in the newspaper or on the street,…), decide to (not) share it with their public and publish it. Citizen journalists working in a group (HasseltLokaal, Gentblogt) have criteria for new participants, just like traditional media do. They have their rules, traditions and scope. And like that, they are filtering and building a framework, just like newspapers or television stations. For citizen journalists working solely, the public decides whether the filter the blogger decided upon is good enough or not. If the news doesn’t meet the reader’s expectations, they don’t come back.

Moreover, I believe that news ‘consumers’ don’t really make or care about the difference between a professional journalist and a citizen journalist (anymore). According to me, the subject people bring news about and the reputation they have is important. At least, those are my filters nowadays.

Here is the catch: There are no longer large budgets needed to share information with the world, just 3 minutes of one’s time to start a free blog on the internet. And people take that chance, every day. Which gives a news seeker a gigantic amount of news sources -filters- so that the big question is: how to find and organize them?

On the internet, search engines like Google help to find news about the subject a person is interested in. Once found, people have tools at their disposal to collect and organize it. Like social bookmark platforms or feedreaders. Looking at myself, I make my choices depending on two foundations: which subject does the person provide news about and what’s his or her reputation.

Now and again I add new websites I stumbled upon, or I stop following one because it doesn’t catch my attention anymore. When making my choices, it doesn’t matter whether a topic comes from a professional or a citizen journalist. The big discussion about the trustworthiness of citizen journalism is not relevant according to me. When a journalist is not trustworthy, whether a pro or not, his reputation will (eventually) catch up on him.

Looking at the future, I believe there will be a very important extra filter: context.

First of all, I don’t consult news on my mobile phone very much. And that counts for most people nowadays, for a lot of reasons.[2] However, I believe that mobile will become a very important news channel.
Therefore I need a more elaborate filter: One that takes into account the context I am in, namely location, time, activity and profile. Not only the subject of the news or the reputation of its ‘maker’ matters at that moment. I’ll try to give some examples:

· When it’s a normal work day, at which I sit behind my computer, I want to consult my news via my feedreader.

· When I’m off for a weekend with friends, only very urgent or important news reaches me, via my mobile phone. My laptop stays at home.

· When I’m at a conference about mobile 2.0 I want to have all the recent news concerning the topic and the conference at my disposal.

· When I’m on a shopping trip with a friend, I want the latest fashion news and the most recent new shops in town. And I want it only from shops or trends I might be interested in.

In the beginning, I suppose this contextual filter won’t be automated: I will have to give in myself which brands I like and that I’m a weekend off. But technology will eventually make sure that my news (what I’m interested in at a particular time in a particular place) reaches me exactly when and how I want it. The GPS in my phone tells where I am, my credit card tells which shops I like (so that I only get news about news about those kind of shops), my agenda tells what congress I am at,…

Reputation management is an important factor in my eyes. I don’t want all the news about mobile 2.0 or mobile brands, I want the most interesting pieces – to me. I can now choose which blogs and websites I want in my feed, but in the end I also want that my feed automatically contains those stories. And I guess that can only be achieved by rating a news item that reaches you. When it’s clear who your friends and contacts are and which preferences you share with them, their ratings can also help in making sure you get the right news. Moreover, like that you know that your friends and contacts probably get the same news like you do. Which is always nice when you meet them or discuss a topic with them.

What with the big surprise?

I as a matter of fact would love a contextual filter that automatically knows and adapts to my context. Even though there is one tricky thing: what with the big surprise? When I read newspapers or watch television, I am often caught by news that would not immediately be in my list of favorite topics. For some reason, the news item takes me by surprise and I love it. My contextual filter should provide that as well. Maybe one day, some new technology will be able to read my brain and know when I’m in for a little new thing.
And since I am dreaming about the future now, I also think that consulting news won’t be something I always do on my phone or laptop. When I’m in a café, the news will be projected on my table. On my shopping trip, I will be told through a microphone in the fitting-room that there’s a new shop just one block away with one of my favourite brands. The future of (citizen) journalism will be all about context and about the best channel at the right moment, right ;-)?

[1] When talking about professional journalists, I think about people getting paid to publish news. People working for newspapers, television, radio. I realise there is a whole scala of grey in between ‘professional’ and ‘citizen’ journalist, but this discussion doesn’t fit within the scope of this paper.

[2] For instance: people have a mobile phone that doesn’t suport internet, mobile data fees are still very expensive, people don’t know how to use mobile internet,…