The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Taking CJ to the ‘hood’

What happens when citizen journalism collides with traditional journalism?

Bentley bookcaseLike any collision, you could expect a few injuries – at least damaged egos. But so far neither type of journalism has been fatal to the other. What is of concern, however, is that the bumper of the CJ Prius doesn’t mesh well with that of the Traditional News SUV.

Here at the Missouri School of Journalism, our citizen journalism efforts are narrowly focused on its relationship with traditional journalism. We are the world’s oldest journalism school and have served that profession for a century. My charter from Dean Mills was to find some way to keep trained journalists in the user-contributing future media picture.

Our first research planning meetings were marked by loud arguments over whether it was even possible, whether we would ruin journalism or whether it would make any difference at all. The first consensus was unexpected: Citizen journalism approached by a traditional organization must have a revenue stream.

The blogs, discussion boards and news groups that spawned citizen journalism had little profit motive. We quickly realized that the burden of paying a staff significantly changed a medium.

Continue reading

April 24, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate

jpkthumb.jpgSix weeks ago, the first MyMissourian site died an ignominious death at the hands of rogue spammers (which is the Web equivalent of choking on a hot dog.)

Needless to say, as with any total Web site annihilation, there was a fair amount of teeth-gnashing, fingernail biting and general angst from the staff. I think I even saw Jeremy weep one manly tear of grief.

But, with the gracious help of the tech boys in the back room, we downloaded some content to fill the newshole of the print version of MyMissourian, refilled the grave of the Mambo version of MyMissourian and let her Rest In Peace.

Clyde, ever the master of HTML tables, rigged a quick placeholder to fill the URL and we waited a few days for the boys in the back to recode the site into WordPress. Now, six weeks later, it’s like it never happened. We have a new home, with more functionality with barely a beat missed. Indeed, if I weren’t so lazy, I could have written this post a month ago. The fluid changeover was almost imperceptible — so easy, in fact, I had to stop and reflect to realize what had just taken place.

Imagine if we were a print-only publication and our presses or whole building even had burned down? What would we have done, then? The teethgnashing and nailbiting would have been far more dramatic, to say the least. And, with the present financial state of the newspaper industry, it’s doubtful there would be such a swift rebirth, if a rebirth at all.

Sure, replacing a Web site is easier than replacing multi-million dollar presses, but that’s not the point here. Iterating is the point. That’s a word I first heard uttered in a Web setting by the Star Warsian Roelof Botha.

Botha is one of the “big-wigs” at Sequoia Capital and has made money as a venture capitalist on projects like PayPal and YouTube. His name gets bantered around with the likes of Michael Mortiz and Elon Musk. I once worked at a Web site in Santa Monica, mahalo.com, in which Sequoia Capital was a principal investor. Botha came to the office one day to give us a pep talk, not about the vulnerabilities of the Death Star, but about what would happen once mahalo.com went live. Continue reading

April 15, 2008 Posted by | Joe Kokenge | 1 Comment

Something is brewing in journalism

I am up to my digital derriere in a project to write a “definitive” paper on cititizen journalism. The problem with “definitive” is that, well, it’s not very definitive. My mind has raced back and forth over the various aspects of this phenomenon that have either pleasantly surprised me, met my expectations or sideswiped both me and the journalism world.

clyde-tea.jpgLast week I had the good fortune to get the journalist’s traditional source of inspiration: A new and very short deadline. The Donald W. Reynolds Institute at Mizzou asked me to knock out a quick look at citizen journalism for its Web site. Isn’t it amazing how much better you can write with an editor breathing down your throat?

So here it is, right out of the microwave: A nice cuppa CJ:

It’s difficult to imagine two words that have caused more anxiety among news media professionals than “citizen journalism.” There have been endless arguments over what the term means, who it includes and whether it will kill or save the American new industry.

For the past four years, a team at the Missouri School of Journalism has studied citizen journalism from the closest of quarters. Although we were all traditional journalists and all professional skeptics, we followed the “do it to learn” philosophy of the world’s oldest journalism school and launched MyMissourian.com on Oct. 1, 2004. Aimed at the community around the University of Missouri rather than the school itself, MyMissourian features content written by non-journalists but lightly edited by the staff. We then insert a selection of the content in the free-circulation Saturday print edition of the Columbia Missourian.

Four years later, I’m very comfortable with both the citizen journalism concept and the phrase, but I’m still frustrated that my colleagues have such difficulty with it.
Citizen journalism is no more a replacement for traditional journalism than teabags are a replacement for water. Both can stand alone comfortably, but when combined they produce something quite wonderful.

The “citizen” in the term is a continual irritant to news people, who complain that it implies they are excluded from citizenship. Wrong definition of citizen. The better analogy is “citizen soldiers” — the militia and National Guard that serve our country “part time.” As my chief warrant officer father explained, Guard members want to help shoulder the responsibility of defending the nation – they just don’t want make a career of it.

Similarly, citizen journalists don’t want newsroom jobs – they just have something to say. And often they want to say it because those of us on the professional side are too busy with the big stories to see the little items that mean so much to people. It’s unlikely citizen journalists will ever effectively cover Congress, but they sure get their neighbors’ attention with tales of pets, kids and community activities.

Our research continues to show that citizen journalism expands the range of topics available in the mass media as it expands the range of voices. And the team – now known as the Cyberbrains – is confident that the recipe for the future of news is to drop that citizen journalism teabag right into that boiling pot of newsroom water. The resulting brew, as Thomas Lipton said, is more than good. It’s “brisk.”

April 8, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | 1 Comment

Light my fire

A bunch of fellows with calloused hands, tattooed arms and ability I envy recently taught me an important lesson about the new era of journalism.

Clyde the welderFor the past four years, I’ve talked, research and cajoled my colleagues in an effort to get them over their fear and loathing of citizen journalism. But when I look back at it, my efforts were pointed primarily at the loathing part of the equation. My assumption was that once they overcame their biases about news-like content from untrained non-journalists, the fear would vanish also.

What a mistake. I learned that in spades by donning a heavy leather apron, pulling on a Darth Vader-ish mask and trying to burn up the world.
My son Garrett, who is soon to graduate from engineering school, has a knack for picking the right presents. Even as a little one shopping Dad’s money, he could point to just the right piece of jewelry or clothing to light up Mom’s eyes.

Last Christmas he surprised me beyond words. His gift to me was a four-week class in welding at the Columbia Area Career Center – our local vocational training facility.

Keep in mind that the qualities I’m often known for are a lack of coordination, the dexterity of rhino and a touch of impatience. OK, more than a touch. But I also subscribe to the mantra of doing what you fear most – at least once. I know computers, I know writing and I can even hammer nails. But sparks, flames and glowing metal were out of my league.

But there I sat in a room full of guys with hot-rod T-shirts and gimme caps as a gravel-voiced instructor showed us how to turn on an oxy-acetylene torch without blowing up the building. I’m sure I looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Somewhere near the end of that introductory demonstration, I realized my panic was the same as I had seen on the faces of dozens of students, friends and fellow journalists when I tried to explain the wonders of online citizen journalism.

It’s not the loathing, dummy. It’s the fear.

My failing as an evangelist for citizen journalism is the paucity of reassurance I offered to those who see their jobs, their passion, their worlds at risk by the new twist on the word that defines their lives. I’m a change junkie, so “new and improved” makes me happy.

Unless I’m faced with something as alien as a welding torch.

I eventually took my own advice, checked that there were plenty of fire extinguishers around and just did it. By the end of the four weeks, I could shower the floor with sparks, adjust a torch flame to a needle point and fuse two chunks of steel together into something that was more-or less-recognizable.

Just like me, citizen journalism won’t burn down the world. It may singe a few hairs and it will undoubtedly produce journalism only “more-or less-recognizable,” but the concept, need and utility of news will survive. Just as I learned that using a cutting torch employs some of the same skills I learned with an X-acto Knife, we need to enjoy finding how our traditional journalism skills apply to citizen journalism.

Now if we could just find an excuse to wear one of those helmets …

April 3, 2008 Posted by | Clyde Bentley | Leave a comment