Six reasons Guardian Witness will sink or swim

Today the Guardian launches a new participative journalism platform, Guardian Witness.

Like CNN’s iReport, or pure-play citizen journalism outfits like Citizenside, Guardian Witness allows news readers to become contributors and participate in the making of the news. It’s already getting lots of reactions online. So – will it work?

1. Experience

The Guardian has form in this department. This is something they’ve been doing for some time, as their Digital Development Editor Joanna Geary pointed out. From MPs’ expenses to the London riots of 2011, they’ve engaged citizens as investigators and collaborators for years. The culture of open journalism at the Guardian goes way back past the launch of initiatives like Comment is Free. (“Guardian Readers” even got a byeline in the case of MPs’ expenses story – a well-deserved accolade.)

It’s exciting to see an established operator like the Guardian take this step. Since the Guardian has been doing collaborative journalism for years, Guardian Witness isn’t really about the Guardian entering a new space. Rather, this is about the Guardian trying to take advantage of their readers’ latent reporting and content-creation capacity through a formalized tool. In this case, it’s a mobile-heavy offering, with Android and iOS apps for mobile creation.

2. Funding

This move is also very interesting from a business perspective. Guardian Witness is sponsored by EE, one of the UK’s big mobile service operators. Since I started working in digital PR last year, I’ve gained a whole new perspective on how companies and news operators can work together to mutual benefit. I don’t think anyone has found the answer yet – I don’t even think that there is one, singular answer – but it’s clear from the press release that EE sees this as a good fit with their corporate image as other 4G providers start to enter the marketplace. Here’s Spencer McHugh, EE’s Director of Brand:

“Smartphones have changed the way in which news is covered and shared around the world as ground-breaking mobile technology breaks down the barriers between journalists and the public. As the first providers of superfast 4G in Britain, EE is uniquely placed to support this transformation in the way news is reported, consumed and shared. This revolutionary new platform from the Guardian recognises these developments, enabling users to film or photograph something and share it with the Guardian’s editorial team in a matter of seconds, and EE is delighted to support the Guardian’s approach to open journalism.”

3. Incentives

Looks like the Guardian is starting out with setting assignments for users – a great means of engagement. The first assignments are simple (and have been criticized for this), but I think that’s necessary at the start. As the platform develops, they’ll have to be careful about incentives. Copyright remains with the original content creator, but contributors’ work may be syndicated or licensed on. In the case of a major story (especially celebrity gossip stuff) the video or photos might be worth a lot. Who gets the cash, and in what proportion? This will take some working out.

4. Integration

Shiny social meda apps and excellent code are the new thing, but they can be easily derailed by something as old as humanity: politics. If this isn’t integrated into the Guardian’s way of working – if it isn’t worked right into the newsroom and editorial process – it won’t reach its full potential. Joanna Geary has given tantalizing hints that this won’t happen, saying “I think the big thing is the integration into the production and journalistic process. This isn’t a bolt on.” I’m keen to hear more on that.

5. Community

Perhaps the Guardian’s biggest advantage as it launches Guardian Witness is the strength of its existing community. Newspapers in the UK (whatever the word ‘newspaper’ means these days) aren’t just news conduits. They’re identities. A Sun reader is different from an FT reader is different from a Guardian Reader, as immortalized in Yes Minister.  The Guardian has been a major player in online news for years. They’re known for innovating and including users in many ways. People will want to participate because they believe in what the Guardian stands for and because it helps them identify as a Guardian reader . . . well, a Guardian person-formerly-known-as-a-reader, to mangle Jay Rosen’s phrase.  In this light, the current lack of social plug-ins such as the ability to like, comment, or otherwise interact with existing content is quite a handicap. But I’m betting that this release is all about minimum viable product, and we can undoubtedly expect incremental upgrades as the platform matures.

6. But . . . Community

Many people will post images, video and reports after they’ve witnessed a news event. The images flooding out of Boston after yesterday’s atrocity are just the latest shocking example. But will people choose to post on this platform? There are powerful incentives for them to post directly to their Facebook and Twitter profiles, where their own personal communities are already waiting for them. This has been pointed out by a few commentators already. This is a significant challenge, and ultimately it boils down to incentives as well. Most people don’t post or share news to get paid – they do it to appear connected and in-the-know among their peers.  I’d argue that Guardian Witness will be successful to the extent to which it can enables people to share news through the platform, while also making them look good to their Facebook and Twitter communitites. It’s a tall ask, but if anyone can handle it, I think the team behind this one can.

This is a fascinating initiative and I’ll be watching with great interest as it develops. How do you think Guardian Witness will do?

12 thoughts on “Six reasons Guardian Witness will sink or swim

  1. As one of the founders of Newsflare, a business that offers a similar service to Guardian Witness, I concur with the majority of your points above. However, I feel that you have glossed over one of the most crucial – incentives. That the Guardian don’t appear to be paying for the content they receive from the public will mean that they really will have to compete with YouTube and Twitter who have much greater market reach. More and more people are aware that their content has a value and whilst I am sure that most do not want to profit from other people’s misfortune, none-the-less they do want to be treated fairly. The Guardian publishing people’s content without paying for it is one thing, however, selling that content on to other news organisations would be quite another.

  2. You raise a good point Jon, but I’m not sure payment is really the way into it. I used to be Editor-in-Chief at Citizenside and we had the same issues as Guardian Witness will have to face. It is my experience that most people share news photos and video online because they simply want the news to get out – not for any desire for payment. In other words, sharing content is part of their everyday self-identifying behaviour online. The exception is sites like Demotix, who explicitly pitch to the pros and semi-pros. These people have an interest in their content being scarce and rights tightly controlled – their rent payments depend on it. But for ordinary ‘citizen journalists’ it’s usually a one-off happening. This is the main question the Guardian will have to answer: how do you convince one-off contributors to become regular uploaders?

    1. I think that timing certainly added to Citizenside’s challenges (low smartphone penetration, the early evolution of social media). Also at Newsflare we combine a member proposition with a UGC video news gathering operation – the combination works well for our clients and the more prolific members are certainly the more talented, however, many smartphone users also appreciate the prospect of a suitable financial reward. In my view, regular contributors (beyond the pros and semi-pros who do it for a living) will be those who are passionate about the topic about which they contribute content, but who perhaps need ‘editorial enhancement’ to be heard, whereas on Twitter they would be largely missed. Once big on Twitter, why do they need Guardian Witness?

      1. Well, that’s the reeal question, isn’t it? A site like Guardian Witness – or Newsflare, or Citizenside – needs to give their users some sort of additional value beyond what they’d get if they posted to Twitter. Since free open platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook already satisfy a user’s simple desire to be heard, to be seen to be knowleadgeable about the news, what can a discrete Citizen Journalism platform offer?

      2. I totally agree, that is the question. Newsflare’s point of view: We’ll help a user get their name in lights with not just one news outlet, but multiple and we’ll make sure that the user (or perhaps a charity of their choosing) enjoys a fair financial reward. Exciting times for news media however it nets out!

  3. Nice little analysis you’ve done here Philip, I do agree that their major hurdle is probably is going to be editorial adoption. 2 quick additions:

    1) Help them learn: If the Guardian were to provide users with some coaching on how to improve their technique, say by having one of their talented staff photographers do a tutorial every once in a while, that might be just the added value Guardian Witness members could congregate around.

    2) Let them Like: Without the ability to give positive feedback to other members, there’s not much of a value proposition for those who don’t succede in getting their pictures published and awarded that 15 mins of fame. At least with a feedback mechanism like comments or likes, as you mention Philip, users could get some reward from sharing by getting love from the community.

  4. Two good points. Social integration would seem to be essential as a way of encouraging long-term growth. But I understand that these and other refinements/additions are in the works. Very interesting.

    At the base of it though, they’re still going to have to answer the question: a potential user with content wanting to post it online. What’s the advantage of posting on Guardian Witness?

  5. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting
    my own blog and was wondering what all is required to
    get set up? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
    I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% sure.
    Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated.


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