I like David Wilcox’s definition of the social reporter. It sounds friendlier than the two rather ugly words citizen journalist, although that name might be too far developed (in good ways) to change now.
It defines very nicely the work I’ve been doing over the last 18 months. It wasn’t until I had to take stock for a funding application that I realised that my team would have had around 35,000 exchanges on the streets of Northern Stoke in a year. None of us were working in the area before, so that is 35,000 connections that would not have happened otherwise. I always felt that the conversations were as important as the newspaper, both reinforcing networks and provoking action. We supported networks and new projects, we passed on information and we countered rumours if we were able to.
Before call-centre journalism became normal, journalists were community-based (at least in the realms of power) and conversation-based. How would journalists operate if it went back to that, with the addition of technology? Less of the smash-and-grab vox pop to get some bland quotes from different ‘sides’ and perhaps a recognition that the reporter, as the person who is speaking to both those in power and those without, can support a dialogue between them instead of exacerbating a conflict.
Perhaps they would give a bit more thought to the other bits of information people tend to tell you as you’re gathering a story (that is if you give them enough time). Someone got a broken fence? Why not give them the number of someone to report it to instead of filing it away until all the fences in the street have been broken by a serial vandal, the point at which it might actually become a story in the eyes of your news editor. If some people have specific questions that they want asked, let them know about the freedom of information act. Find small, quick ways (Twitter) to report small things that might be of interest to other people and encourage the people you meet to use email and Twitter to let you know anything they want to, you don’t know what might lead to a story.
I know this approach doesn’t necessarily lead to the productivity that the current mainstream media is looking for. But the way things are going, more journalists are going to struggle to find work anyway. Perhaps while we are looking for other ways of making a living, we can use our skills and instinct to report for the good of our communities?
On the other hand, I remain sure that the only way to stem the decline of the newspaper industry is for the big powers to stop centralising everything and put the same investment into community-based reporters whose remit would be to produce rich, stimulating content that is vital to its audience. All the investment in technology will be for nothing if you lose the connection with people altogether - an important point, I think, for both the media and government.