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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?