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Participation and Voice in Citizen Journalism and Transmedia Documentary

We're now in the final session of the first day at the CCi conference, which I'll try to chair and blog at the same time - we'll see how it goes. My colleague Terry Flew is the first presenter, and he begins by outlining the three layers of impact of new media technologies as artefacts or devices (technologies); communication activities and practices using these technologies; and the social arrangements, institutions, and organisational forms which develop around the use and management of such technologies. Journalism has so far responded to the Internet as a new technology mainly in the first sense, no so much in the two latter senses. This also takes place at a time of perceived crisis in journalism, and in the face of the emergence of citizen journalism in responding to that crisis.

There was a kind of high modernism in (American) journalism, which saw the journalist as hero (cf. the Watergate affair) and responded to the commercial nature of news itself by developing a more independent persona, calling for a journalism that was in stronger dialogue with the wider public - the 'public journalism' movement - which rests on a perception of journalism as a powerful profession that is now being questions. Dan Gillmor sees journalism as moving from lecture to conversation; Bowman & Willis see citizens as playing a more active role; Chris Atton sees an inversion of the hierarchy of access which poses the question of who (journalists or others) is the expert.

Terry now points to our Youdecide2007 project during the 2007 Australian federal election as a project which addresses some of these questions and harnesses the potential of the participatory Web. The site was a case study in practice-led research in this field, and chose an event-based (rather than issue-based) approach by focussing on the election; as a practical initiative, this also allowed us to experiment with practical initiatives such as a strongly hyperlocal approach and a collaboration with mainstream media (in the form of project partner SBS). The site was publicised through Facebook, YouTube, letters to journalism and media schools at Australian universities, and other means, attracted some 2000 users and generated coverage for some 56 electorates (plus the Senate election race).

It did promote a degree of greater citizen participation in the political process (to the extent that it was able to within its timeframe of operation), especially by Queensland-based participants (largely probably because the site was based in Queensland); unfortunately, it did not receive contributions from key seats like Bennelong (John Howard) or Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull). A subsequent project, Qlddecides for the Queensland local government elections, generated even stronger local public involvement in spite of its shorter running time.

The site was not necessarily able to deliver on an aim to generate more deliberative engagement in political issues; it remained largely news-driven and site managers were needed to generate seed content (so crowdsourcing by itself did not work). This may be a result of the relatively short lead-up time, however. It may not have been able to broaden participation beyond established 'political junkies', either; the most viewed materials were those that conformed to relatively conventional news production values. Also, the election context itself encouraged partisanship rather than reflection. Terry also suggests that the great unasked question in relation to this topic is how citizen journalism relates to citizenship itself, and that this needs to be further investigated.

The next speaker is Trish FitzSimons from Griffith University. Her interest is in cross-media documentary, and she raises the issue of voice as a proxy for a discussion of human creativity (which is able to transcend the boundaries of media platforms). There is a tension in journalism between the voice of professional journalism (linked to objectivity and impartiality) and the voice of user-generated content; the same is true in documentary-making. For Bill Nichols, voice is "something narrower than style: that which conveys to us a sense of a text's social point of view". Nichols's definition challenges filmmakers to exercise that voice, to avoid hiding behind their subjects and instead establish a hierarchy of voices, and this is a challenge that endures today.

What is required, Trish suggests, is a conception of voice as a process, a typology of different types of interaction between filmmakers, subjects, actors, istitutions, and other stakeholders (such as ontological voice, institutional voice, dialogic voice, ventriloquic voice, and choric voice). The idea of choric voice is related to the role of the chorus in Greek theatre, and (in the context of transmedia documentaries involving a strong Web 2.0 presence) this choric voice takes on a new and extended role.

Trish points to some examples for such transmedia documentaries - An Inconvenient Truth, for example, combines the film, Website, online study guide, blogs, and other elements, and the online components act as a kind of choric counterpart to the authorial voice of Gore and Guggenheim as the film's major creators. Similarly, at the heart of journalism is a kind of lie that voice can be shared; ultimately, journalists tend to hold on to their authorial voice and push citizen journalists and others into the choric role. Similar, After Maeve (dedicated to a young Noosa girl who was run over and killed) allowed the emergence of such choric voices online, in response to the documentary itself. Finally, the ABC programme The Oasis about homeless youth in Australia also operated in this way, and again enabled the expression of choric elements.

This means that choric voice therefore becomes part of a typology of vocal interrelations, and is useful for thinking about documentary process (rather than merely product). Any particular text may have a range of different vocal relations, and broadly, this is a positive cultural development, along with related developments such as citizen journalism. For filmmakers, however, this is a mixed blessing, as funding structures and other frameworks do not necessarily recognise the significant labour involved in teasing out and managing such choric voices.

Another of my Youdecide2007 (and Gatewatching) colleagues, Jason Wilson, is the last speaker for the session, and will reflect especially on his role as editor of the Youdecide and Qlddecides projects. Both were projects operating under an aggergated, hyperlocal, crowdsourced model involving small teams of staff coordinating citizen reporting on the electoral contests in their own electorates. This was also a test of the audience base for citizen journalism and of relationships between citizen and mainstream media; for Jason in particular, however, a key question was also what the work of facilitating citizen journalism projects would entail, and how it would differ from traditional journalistic practices.

This focusses especially on the limitations of the crowd, and combines their work with the editorial and production expertise of professional journalists. As Howe has suggested, part of the heavy lifting in almost any produsage project is done by a few select individuals who do the thankless tasks behind the scenes; Mark Cooper similarly notes that there is a significant need to train content creators if (quality and legal) standards comparable to mainstream journalism are to be achieved. Mark Deuze has described journalism as "a networked practice of producing, editing, forwarding, sharing, and debating public information"; Toby Miller has introduced the idea of the 'preditor': "new media employees who perform both production and editorial roles" rather than focussing simply on "the production of new and original cultural works".

For Jason, the four overlapping dimensions of such networked journalism are content work, community work, networking, and tech work; each of these need to be addressed to make a site like Youdecide possible. Content work, for example, involves editing user contributions to address legal and quality requirements as well as creating original news content to guarantee content flows, provide models of good practice, and draw users to a site (thus balancing the needs of both contributors and mere readers); networking involves making links with existing news channels, news organisations, and colleagues in the field, and pushing out and pulling in content in the wider networked news environment (i.e., not seeing mainstream news media as the enemy to be avoided, but to utilise them to publicise one's own news site).

Community work may be the most important aspect: providing users with training, site-specific information, and mediation, and providing both structural and personal solutions for users' needs. Part of this also means to cultivate 'super-contributors' - to reward the most active and most invested users. Tech work is relatively self-explanatory, and involves both on-site and off-site elements as well as meta-tech work including site use metrics and analysis. Overall, then, these forms of work combine traditional as well as new forms of journalistic work, and this has implications both for organisations working in this participatory field and for journalism educators. They imply more collegial and community-oriented, less competitive journalistic practices.

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