Grassroots Journalism in the Digital Age: Innovate or Perish!

Grassroots Journalism in the Digital Age - by Nalaka Gunawardene

Grassroots Journalism in the Digital Age – by Nalaka Gunawardene

I just spoke to a group of 75 provincial level provincial journalists in Sri Lanka who were drawn from around the island. They had completed a training course in investigative journalism conducted by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), with support from InterNews.

The certificate award ceremony was held at Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), Colombo, on 2 October 2015.

In this talk, I look at the larger news media industry in Sri Lanka to which provincial journalists supply ground level news, images and video materials. These are used on a discretionary basis by media companies mostly based in the capital Colombo (and some based in the northern provincial capital of Jaffna). Suppliers have no control over whether or how their material is processed. They work without employment benefits, are poorly paid, and also exposed to various pressures and coercion.

A tale of two industries: one that evolved, and the other that hasn't quite done so...

A tale of two industries: one that evolved, and the other that hasn’t quite done so…

I draw a rough analogy with the nearly 150-year old Ceylon Tea industry, which directly employs around 750,000 people, sustains an estimated 2 million (10% of the population) and in 2014 earned USD 1.67 billion through exports. For much of its history, the Ceylon tea producers were supplying high quality tea leaves in bulk form to London based tea distributors and marketers like Lipton.

Then, in the 1970s, a former tea taster called Merrill J Fernando established Dilmah brand – the first producer owned tea brand that did product innovation at source, and entered direct retail. He wanted to “change the exploitation of his country’s crop by big global traders” – Dilmah has today become one of the top 10 tea brands in the world.

The media industry also started during British colonial times, and in fact dates back to 1832. But I question why, after 180+ years, our media industry broadly follows the same production model: material sourced is centrally processed and distributed, without much adaptation to new digital media realities.

I draw a parallel between tea small holders – those growing on lands less than 10 acres (4 ha) who account for 60% of Sri Lanka’s annual tea production – and the provincial journalists. Both are supplies at the beginning of a chain. Neither has much or any say in how their material is processed and marketed.

Provincial Journalists - Ground level ‘eyes and ears’ of media industry, unsung & often unknown

Provincial Journalists – Ground level ‘eyes and ears’ of media industry, unsung & often unknown

As usual, I don’t have all the answers, but I ask some pertinent questions:

Where are the Merrill Fernandos of our media industry?

Who can disrupt these old models and innovate?

Can disruptive innovators emerge from among provincial journalists?

How can they leverage digital tools and web based platforms?

What if they start value-adding at source and direct distribution via the web?

But since they have families to feed, how to make an honest living doing that?

PPT on SLIDEShare:

http://www.slideshare.net/NalakaG/grassroots-journalism-in-the-digital-age-by-nalaka-gunawardene

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!