Trends: Citizen journalism, or how to get your readers to do more of your reporting

Some see it as cheap or free labour lowering the standards of journalism; others as a vital tool to reengage a disengaged audience, levelling the playing field in the process.

Citizen journalism may have been a bit off the mainstream radar in Norway's online media town in 2007. Or perhaps other news sites were just watching and waiting to see how ABC Nyheter, who became the first Norwegian commercial news site to nurture citizen journalism as part of its site , fared. Perhaps they were even silently cooking together their own plans.

Opinion or news?
ABC Nyheter's citizen section turned into a lively hub with many diverse voices and perspectives, some covering parts of the world or stories completely off the radar of mainstream media, such as elections in Albania or Chile. But overall, the site found that most of the articles submitted in the citizen journalism section was opinion rather than reporting, and even when given the option to file submissions either as a 'citizen article' or 'opinion piece', people chose the former while submitting the latter. As a result of this, ABC Nyheter is currently looking at new forms of editorial control and incentives they hope will deliver more actual 'citizen reporting' in addition to 'citizen opinion'.

A local notice board?
At the back end of 2007, Edda Media, Mecom's Norwegian branch, soft-launched its 'citizen journalism project', or 'the readers' newspaper' as the company often refers to it. It may even be misleading to apply the term 'citizen journalism' to this portal, meant to feature as a subsite to local and regional news sites, where readers are encouraged to share pictures and stories from the local area with other readers.

So far, keeping in mind that very little has been done on the marketing side, these portals have mostly attracted birthday greetings, pictures and notices from local event organisers. This prompted one of Journalisten's readers (I believe we were the first national news site to write about this project) to question if this was not more of a local notice board than a journalistic project, and, as such, just another clever way for a media company to make do with fewer journalists.

I posed this question to the online editor of Fredrikstads Blad, one of the newspapers trying out this solution, but he vehemently denied this and said this was just "one of many services on our site, meant to be a supplement, an additional service for our readers, not a substitute for journalism," and that he felt it added value to the news site overall.

Reader testing
The concept was launched while still in a beta-version, and to my knowledge it's still in beta, to get reader feedback while perfecting the portal. Among the early testers of the portal and its functionalities were regional newspapers Budstikka (where Edda is a minority shareholder), Drammens Tidende and Fredrikstads Blad, but the plan is to roll this out to all Edda newspapers eventually (Edda Media is mainly comprised of regional and local newspapers).

In the future, when all the testing is finished, the newspapers taking part in the pilot project hope their readers will upload reports from local sports events, interviews in text or video with local champions etc, that can also be used in the news section of the news sites, either as stand-alone features, or as part of a news story.

Origo, is a similar concept, which I've seen used by one or two newspapers associated with regional and local newspaper chain A-pressen, but I must admit I don't know a lot about this portal.

iNorden is another child of 2007. It's a completely non-commercial citizen journalism project, mostly written by bloggers, aiming to become pan-Nordic. Read more about the venture here.

For more background on the companies I mention in this post, check out this overview.

Trends: The strange tales of consolidation...

....the unlikely bedfellows you get when online traffic is the new mammon, and national media organisations want to be your new (hyper)local news provider.

Ideology no obstacle
This brave new media world of ours creates the strangest bedfellows, a recent example being the sales negotiations between Mecom's Norwegian arm, Edda Media, and Dagsavisen. The very fact that this left-leaning newspaper with strong ties to the Labour Union – whose editorial writers have labelled Mecom-boss David Montgomery a predatory capitalist – was even considering a takeover approach from Mecom raised many eyebrows.

Trying to find the similarities between David Montgomery and George Soros
But Dagavisen was in need of a rich benefactor, and seemed more than willing to consider that Montgomey might be their knight in shining armour, their George Soros if you like, while Edda Media, made up of local and regional papers, is in need of a national online traffic engine, and don't seem to have been able to get anywhere with Dagbladet, a more obvious candidate for that role (Dagsavisen is a bit like The Independent if you imagine it as a regional newspaper catering for Greater London, in which case we might, to be generous, call it 'a regional newspaper with national penetration').

Big is beneficial, small is sad
Now, in the end these negotiations were abandoned, but Carsten Bleness, Dagsavisen's editor-in-chief, put it all into context in this thought provoking op-ed (in Norwegian), where he said he thought the real cause for concern in today's media landscape was not Mecom, but the fact that so few see growth opportunities for independent newspapers, adding: "I'm not so sure Mecom and Edda Media constitute the biggest threat to media diversity [in this country]. While the debate rages about Montgomery's entry on the Norwegian area, Schibsted continues to strengthen its very dominant position."

The backdrop is this merger Schibsted is trying to forge between its broadsheet-turned-tabloid-format, Aftenposten, and three of Norway's biggest regional papers. It would create great synergies online in terms of traffic and content sharing, and many fear it will give Schibsted a stranglehold on the nation's advertisement markets by offering advertisers the best national and regional exposure (the merger is still awaiting regulatory approval). It would also exacerbate Schibsted's dominant position as an online news provider: the company already owns Norway's most-, fourth most- and ninth most visited websites (VG, Finn, Aftenposten), which is why the country's prime minister has proposed a law to limit media ownership online.

When online traffic is God
Now, you may fault me for focusing so much on ownership when writing about online journalism, but let's face it: the ownership structure and advertisement revenues make up the framework that enables news organisations to invest in journalism and innovation.

And traffic, it seems, is the key for successful online ventures – you may think smart advertisers would jump at the opportunities the web offers to target niche audiences, but there's not a lot of evidence of that happening in this county yet (part of the explanation is probably that a narrow niche in the UK or US may still make up 200,000+ readers, in a small country like Norway, with its 4,6m inhabitants, that niche may be more akin to 200 or 2000 readers).

What happens when everyone wants a piece of the local market?
In the current environment, you get challenging scenarios such as the one an editor of a small independent local newspaper described to me for this article: "When many national newspapers now are working hard to make regional editions of their news sites, small independent newspapers will have to fight harder for advertisement revenue. In most local districts it's not the local newspaper who has most online readers, but VG or Dagbladet [the country's two biggest tabloids]. This also means that small newspapers will face a major challenge in trying to convert their newsrooms to multimedia [to compete with nationals players]"

Trying to challenge strength of national players like has also created other unlikely bedfellows, such as A-pressen and TV2 (admittedly the Labour Union owns about half of each news organisation, but the ideologies of the two - the former a left-leaning local and regional newspaper group, the latter the country's first commercial TV channel, are quite at odds). In either case, their new 'partnership', mostly centred around sharing local, regional and national content and the 'hyperlocal' search engine, (whereyoulive), which promises advertisers the ability to target ads down to specific postcodes, seems like yet another effort to get a piece of the 'lucrative' local markets.

David vs. Goliath
The obvious parallel here is BBC's much debated plans to roll out a range of 'hyperlocal sites': it's great for news organisations to be able to give added value to their readers/viewers/listeners by offering hyperlocal content, but, simply put, small independent titles fear they're being put at disadvantage when competing with big guys with deep pockets.

For many of the small news organisations it seems like a classic David vs Goliath scenario, and their fears are exacerbated by what I guess you could call 'uneven distribution of multimedia skills': it's easier both to attract journalists with multimedia skills, and to provide training in multimedia, if you're a big, well-to-do newspaper, or part of a well-heeled chain of newspapers.

Room for small independent start-ups to make more than a dime?
Now, of course, I'm not saying that independent online start-ups have no chance, one would think that they do with today's technology, but there's no sign of someone using this to its full advantage in Norway as of yet. You may also feel that these fears I describe here are overstated, or that these desperate marriages are ill-founded: I'm just trying to describe the current fears and hopes, but I'd love to hear you perspectives on this in the comment section....

Current trends in Norwegian online journalism

Last year the talk of Norway's online media town centred on consolidation, Web TV and hyperlocal coverage, all issues likely to be on the agenda in 2008 as well. Other issues we might be discussing more are citizen journalism, the quality aspect and the social web:

The strange tales of consolidation: unlikely bedfellows, mammon and why everyone now wants to become hyperlocal

Citizen journalism: how to get your readers to do part of your reporting

The quality discussion

The social web

Web TV, digital switch-over and mobile phone journalism

Now, you have to bear with me a bit here: the links will go live one by one (I'll publish them as separate posts and link them all up in this post), as I get the time to pull all the bits and pieces together...

For more context on the media organisations I write about here, check my post on Online Journalism in Norway for the Online Journalism Atlas.

The state of online journalism and other media in 2007 and beyond

While writing this post on online journalism in Norway for Paul Bradshaw's Online Journalism Atlas, it occurred to me that everything is in such a flux at the moment, that if I were to write about the current trends in Norway's online journalism, everything might have to be changed the next year, so I ended up writing a general map of the structure of the online media landscape.

However, Norway's online media industry is quite mature: the trends we're currently seeing here are very relevant to what's happening in other countries, perhaps even more interesting than the atlas itself, so I've also put together a few posts on the current trends in Norway's online journalism landscape. January 2007 marked the end of Scandinavian media year that was so tumultuous that I felt a need to isolate myself for a few days and just take some time to sum it up (which I did in the category called 'highlights 2006').

I haven't had time to do this quite the same way this year, so my posts on trends in online journalism will be my main way of summing up the past year this year, but I will make it part of a slightly broader category called 'headlines 2007'.

Norwegian media reprimanded for failing to give people the right to reply

Failing to offer people the right to reply when serious allegations are levelled against them, is something Norwegian media is faulted for again and again. In four of the six last years, this was the type of complaint where Norway's Press Complaints Commission (PFU) most frequently held in favour of the claimant – 2007 was no exception.

During the year now behind us, PFU considered 294 (of 314) complaints and made a statement in 164 of the cases. In 75 of the cases, PFU ruled that the code of ethics (which all Norwegian journalists and editors are required to be familiar with) had been violated – in 20 of these, the defendant was reprimanded for having failed to offer the claimant 'the right to simultaneous reply as regards factual information'. Per Edgar Kokkvold, PFU's general secretary, suggested that the fear of not being the first news outlet to carry the news, that the media organisation didn't dare to wait, was the main reason for this trespass.

Since I currently spend most of my professional life in the online world, I'm a big fan of breaking the story if people don't respond within a reasonable time frame, and then rather writing a separate story and interlinking the two if the person in question does get back to you later. But feel free to comment if you have other suggestions, here's what the code of ethics says:

4.14. Those who have been subjected to strong accusations shall, if possible, have the opportunity to simultaneous reply as regards factual information. Debates, criticism and dissemination of news must not be hampered by parties being unwilling to make comments or take part in the debate.