Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?

Can this common ground expand?
Can this common ground expand?

Is there common ground between the mainstream media (MSM) and citizen journalists (CJ) that can be tapped to better serve the public interest?

This is a central question that I explored in some depth during my recent presentation to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

MSM have gone from denial to dismissal to apprehension about this murky, distributed phenomenon called citizen journalists. But, as I asked, must MSM and CJ always compete? Must they consider each other mutually exclusive? I don’t think so.

Consider these facts: CJs are not an organised, unionised mass of people. They are a scattered, loosely connected group that is a community of practice across geographical borders and time zones. They rarely agree on anything among themselves. CJs are not out to topple MSM.

Once we get those points clarified, we can move beyond chest-thumping egotism. We can then address the fundamental values of why MSMs and CJs are both doing what they do: for the free flow of information, ideas and opinions.

Indeed, we should see how MSM and CJs can join hands more to serve the public interest. CJs today are not just frustrated poets and writers who never found a public outlet in the past. Today’s plethora of CJs include scientific experts, professionals, retirees with loads of experience and tech-savvy geeks among many others. This is a vast resource that MSM can tap into — especially in these days of leaner budgets and fewer staff.

Must everything be All-or-Nothing? No!
Must everything be All-or-Nothing? No!
And why not? Many issues these days are just too complex, technical or nuanced for even the most committed full-time, paid journalists to tackle all on their own. The information is often too vast to wade through in time for deadlines. And things are changing faster too. In such situations, can MSM work collaboratively with CJs, sharing the work load, risk and eventually, the credit?

In fact, MSM have historically relied on citizens to provide part of the content – whether they are letters to the editor, or funniest home videos, or news tips from the public that reporters then pursue. Today’s CJs can take this ‘crowd-sourcing’ to a new level.

I recently came across an interesting example of crowd-sourcing in investigative journalism – a component of journalism that is particularly demanding. Over several weeks in April – May 2009, The Telegraph in the UK disclosed the scandal over many exaggerated or false expense claims made by British Members of Parliament. This left the British public furious, and brought worldwide ridicule on the Mother of all Parliaments.

The story still unfolds. Now, The Guardian has involved readers to dig through the several truckloads of MPs’ expense documents to spot claims that merit further investigation because they seem…a tad suspicious. This is more than what a small team of paid journalists can do on their own: a total of 458,832 pages of documents need be manually checked. So far, 23,262 readers had signed up by 2 August 2009. Many hands make light work for The Guardian, whose editors will then decide which claims are to be further probed and queried.

Mobile: the most subversive ICT of all?
Mobile: the most subversive ICT of all?
Can we expect to see more of such collaborations in time to come? I certainly hope so. Under siege as they are, MSM should be the first one to make the move to search for this common ground – after all, they have everything to gain and little to lose. We can all think of tedious record-scanning, number-crunching tasks that are needed to unearth and/or understand complex stories of our times.

Of course, for such collaborations to work well, the rules of engagement between MSM and CJs need to be clear, transparent and based on mutual trust. That requires some work, but when it works well, everybody stands to gain.

In late 2005, I researched and worked with Sir Arthur C Clarke to write an essay on the rise of citizen journalists, which first appeared in the Indian news weekly Outlook on 17 October 2005. I’m quite proud of how we ended the essay: “There is more than just a generation gap that separates the mainstream media from the increasingly influential online media…Yet one thing is clear: the age of passive media consumption is fast drawing to an end. There will be no turning back on the road from Citizen Kane to citizen journalist.”

Emerging new models of collaboration in media and journalism indicate that this evolutionary road need not be a one-way street. So nearly four years on, I now raise the question that I first put to the media tycoons of Colombo the other day: Can Citizen Kane and Citizen Journalist join hands in the public interest?

I very much hope the answer is a resounding: Yes, We Can!

Hurtling towards Information Society at the speed of light – with nobody in charge?

Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine
Who can crack this web 2.0 challenge? Image courtesy i4d magazine
As the 19th Century was drawing to a close, the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (later immortalised in Citizen Kane) cabled a leading astronomer of the day: ‘Is there life on Mars? Please cable one thousand words’.

The scientist replied: ”Nobody knows” – written 500 times.

This would be my answer today, if a modern-day media tycoon were to ask me a different, yet equally compelling question: where are we headed with the bewildering developments in information and communication technologies, in which the mainstream media are a part?

And that would be the easiest 1,000 words I’d have written. But being me, I laboured a lot more in addressing that question in my talk to an assembled group of media tycoons and senior journalists in Colombo earlier this week, at the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009.

If I was too reflective on media futures, I can probably blame it on the venue: the Galle Face Hotel, Colombo’s oldest and grandest, where only a dozen years ago Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote the final chapters of his novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey. A bust of Sir Arthur still stands in the hotel’s lobby.

So, with the Indian Ocean lashing gently on the rocky beach only a few feet away, and under the slightly bemused gaze of Sir Arthur, I took my audience on a quick and rough tour of the near future — the one no one about which nobody is an expert!

Here are some excerpts:

Two waves that started separately have combined to radically change how people generate, access, store and share information: the rolling out of broadband internet, and the phenomenal spread of mobile phones.

The headline figures are impressive. For the first time in history, we now have the technological means to quickly reach out to most of humanity:
More than 4.1 billion mobile phones were in use by end 2008, a majority of them in the developing world.
Nearly a quarter of the world population (over 1.5 billion people) has access to the web, at varying levels of bandwidth.
• Thousands of radio and TV channels saturate the airwaves – these still are the primary source of news and information for billions.

Many of us don’t realise that even the basic mobile phone in use today packs more processing power than did the entire Apollo 11 spaceship that took astronauts to the Moon 40 years ago.

Where this growth in processing power and proliferation of devices might lead us, we can only guess — no one really knows. This can be both exhilarating for some — and very disconcerting for entities that were previously in control of the free flow of information, such as governments, academics – and dare I say it – the mainstream media!

Is that your final answer? Surely not...?
Is that your final answer? Surely not...?
They may not accept this, individual governments, and their collective known as the United Nations, don’t have full control over what is going on. But the ‘information genie’ is now firmly out of the bottle, and evolving by the day that it’s impossible to put it back inside. This is both fascinating and frightening.

If it offers any comfort, even big corporations like Microsoft, Apple or Google are all learning by doing. Everything seems to be permanently in experimental — or beta — mode…

What would emerge from the current chaos? The best brains on the planet are trying to come up with plausible answers.

There is talk about the ‘post-media age’. In the broadcast circles that I move in, they now acknowledge, quietly, that the post-broadcasting age is already dawning.

Is what we hear the death cry of the Old Order…or birth pangs of a new Information Society? Or perhaps both?

And how inclusive is that information society? As Asia Media Report 2009 reminds us, not everyone is invited to the party. Large sections of Asian society are left out.

But don’t expect such people to remain excluded for too long. Armed with mobile phones and other ICT tools, they are going to crash the party, whether we like it or not.

Encounters with Mediasaurus: Telling media tycoons what is missing in their media!

I have just been very lucky. I addressed a select gathering of media owners, publishers, editors and senior journalists — almost all of them working in the mainstream print or broadcast media in Sri Lanka — and virtually called them dinosaurs, and compared their industry to the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.

The nice people they all were, they actually let me get away with it! The occasion was the Sri Lanka launch of Asia Media Report 2009, held at the now-renovated Galle Face Hotel in Colombo.

Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...
Shining a light at a spot rarely probed...
Coordinated, produced and published by the Asia Media Forum with the assistance of Actionaid, the report is a quick survey of the state of media in 20 Asian countries, written mostly by working journalists and broadcasters. It focuses on how the media throughout Asia reports on marginalised people and communities in their respective societies, from the very poorest countries to the richest.

‘Missing in the Media’ is the theme of Asia Media Report 2009, and I used this as the point of departure for my talk, illustrated with many cartoons some of which have appeared on this blog. I fully agreed with the editor and contributors of the report – six of whom I know – that there are many elements missing or lacking in Asia’s mainstream media today. But instead of adding to that list, I asked a more fundamental question: at a time when the mass media as we know it is under threat of mass extinction, how do we save and nurture at least a few good things that we hold dear?

In that process, I had to do some plain speaking and tell my audience that they cannot continue business as usual and expect to remain relevant, or even solvent for too long. I referred to the famous mediasaurus essay by Michael Crichton, and traced what happened since its appearance in 1993. I also compared the media’s arrogance to that of the Titanic‘s builders, who believed the ship was unsinkable.

I will be sharing highlights of my talk in the coming days through one or more blogposts. For now, I’m still grateful that my remarks were received with good grace and cordiality. (For more, read post on ICT revolution, and post on greater collaboration between mainstream media and citizen journalism.)

I don’t do this kind of big picture talk too often, and mind my own business most of the time (which is a hands full these days). In fact, the last two occasions I spoke my mind to assorted worthies of the Sri Lankan media, the reaction was much harsher.

The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks
The Coming Ka-Boom? L to R: Vijitha Yapa and Sharmini Boyle seem to be amused as Nalaka Gunawardene speaks
First was when I talked about the press freedom in the digital age to large gathering of Sri Lankan journalists and editors was the World Press Freedom Day Colombo observance in 2001. When I referred to the potential of new communications technologies – especially the (then still emergent) Internet and mobile phones – for safeguarding media freedoms, I was practically shouted down by a section of the audience. They felt I was talking about ‘western trends’ and ‘concerns too far removed from their bread-and-butter issues and survival issues’. Yet, the past few years have amply proved that if anything, I was too conservative in what I anticipated as technology’s role in promoting media freedom.

The second occasion was in mid 2004, when I was asked to speak at a Colombo meeting to mark the launch of a scholarly volume (in Sinhala) looking back at the first 25 years of television broadcasting in Sri Lanka. I was one of two dozen contributors, from diverse backgrounds of culture, science and journalism, who were brought together by the Catholic Media Centre of Sri Lanka which has a (secular) media monitoring programme. Having expressed my reflective views in the book chapter, in my speech I discussed my aspirations for the next 25 years — hoping there would be greater innovation and experimentation in an industry that seemed to be running short of both. This irked a certain local pioneer of television, who spoke after me and spent half of his given time attacking me personally and ideologically. Talk about pioneer’s syndrome. That definitely was a mediasaurus breathing fire, and I don’t want to meet one of these beasts on a dark night…

On both occasions, the event organisers apologised to me for the hostile reactions, but I was cool. By now, I’m used to reactions of all kinds in the public sphere. Given this history, yesterday’s encounter was far more reassuring that there still are good people even in an industry that is under siege in more ways than one.

I’m so fortunate to be welcomed by both media practitioners and media researchers across Asia. I’m no longer a card-carrying member of either group (if I ever was!), but I have great fun hobnobbing with both, occasionally telling them some home truths. This is what Irish journalist-cum-academic Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘having a foot in both graves’!