Thursday, January 26, 2006

FuckedJournalism.com

I figured out where that quote about citizen journalism Web sites being "ghost towns" I mentioned yesterday came from: the Wikipedia entry on citizen journalism, which was citing a Pressthink review of Backfence. Looking through the entry, several reasons for the failure of CJ to gain much traction make themselves clear.

The first is that CJ as it is framed by that entry is far too much about the journalists, with little reference to the audience, as I said yesterday. The second is that hyperlocal journalism is never going to succeed at any scale beyond that of a local newspaper. Local journalism is some of the most underpaid, underappreciated and just plain soul-destroying work that a journo can be asked to do. Why do you think every local journalist wants that big break to work on the majors? It's because local journalism is a dead end. So why would anyone with the requisite skills want to devote their precious time to a hyperlocal CJ site? It's all very well half a dozen people arguing with the local mayor over a fight outside a nightclub, but that's not scalable. The problem with hyperlocal citizen journalism is that the contributors find out very quickly how goddamn boring and poorly recognised it is to work as a local news reporter, and if you're not even getting paid a journo's shitty wage, only the mentally disturbed will stick at it for long.

The third point, related to the second, is that there is a huge untapped market for issues-based citizen journalism. The most egregious omission in that Wikipedia piece, and for that matter all discussion of CJ, is what should be the movement's golden child, its only real success story: FuckedCompany.com. Why is it shunned by CJ proponents? FuckedCompany has all the hallmarks of a great CJ site: original reporting that you won't see anywhere else, empowerment of those who are marginalised by mainstream media to contribute their own perspective, and a vibrant and LARGE community based around its content. Founder Phillip Kaplan, who also founded AdBrite, identified a potential audience of disaffected dot com employees who had nothing much to do at their doomed jobs other than posting gossip on message boards with funny headlines like "Ruckus soon to become fuckus". Back during the first Internet boom the health of the various fly-by-nighter companies mattered to a lot of people, so what otherwise might have been a small potatoes board took on a defining role for the forgotten people of the bust. FatBabies served a similar purpose for the computer games industry.

Now, what should CJ take from the FC experience? That you can build a successful community around a group of disaffected people who can use the anonymity of the Internet to blow whistles and rake muck where it is needed. Forget the genteel upper-middle-class wankings of dot org dilettantes who really should be stowed away safely in a Fellowship at an irrelevant journalism school and kept away from regular society. Open up your CJ site to those "amateurs" who want to tear down the golden calves without fear of identity-based reprisal, because that's the only way you'll get to hear the truth. You'll hear a lot of bullshit too, but it will be worth it for the chance to see truths that would have appeared nowhere else.

Another lesson CJ sites can learn is about branding. FatBabies contributors were each given their own pseudonym, all of which were prefixed with the word "Fat" - an old-fashioned but powerful way to brand. Of course, the site's name and its front page graphics put readers in mind of their inner vision of their bosses as being immature and lazy (especially in comparison to the reader). Far from shrinking away from the potential for lawsuits, FuckedCompany calls it forums the Happy Fun Slander Corner, giving readers a sense of participating in something naughty and possibly illegal, if the site's name hadn't given that away already. I don't get a sense from the names or site designs of any of the current crop of CJ sites that they're doing anything at all subversive. NowPublic (before they went back to alpha) claimed to be what AP and Reuters should be. Don't be afraid to be bolshie, comrades! You're supposed to be creating something new, not fiddling with a tired old formula.

Of course, you have to choose your target carefully. I could think of a number of issues which would be ideal subjects of CJ sites:
  • Class actions - everyone makes jokes about mesothelioma ads, but thar's gold in them thar ills
  • Real estate fraud, used car fraud, travel fraud... in fact any kind of fraud, especially with big-ticket items
  • Police brutality and/or corruption - think of the ads for personal security products, not to mention Rage Against the Machine CDs...
  • Misleading job ads - kind of a pre-emptive FC, warning people off going to work for companies
  • Bad bosses - connected to the previous one, more dealing with harassment and bastardisation... this would be particularly lucrative if you can get that teenager demographic who work at fast food joints and the like, who want to know which major chain to avoid in their local area
  • Customer service and call centre tricks - an arms race of sorts, where you can go to this site and learn how to deal with the call centres of the various major companies based on experiences of others who have gone through the same painful process

So, are any of these citizen journalism heavyweights going to acknowledge that FuckedCompany.com was the real innovator and that they should abandon their love affair with old media to fully embrace the new? I see a lot of articles asking the question, but no one seems to know it has been answered already.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Chris Edwards said...

CJ as promoted by Dan Gilmor et al is broken. That is not just because it already exists under different names, but the people doing it for longest have already been excluded from the exclusive new club.

The one group of sites these people ignore are the IndyMedia network. I find it amazing that, not only does this network get ignored by the CJ promoters, it seems they get actively turned away. The politics have something to do with. IndyMedia would like to take all regular journalists and dump them in the sea (and not even a nice bit of the sea). The Gilmors seem to prefer an accommodation with Old Media, even though they decry it at every possible opportunity and don't seem to like this IndyMedia. Maybe IndyMedia's radical position is too threatening even for the CJers to acknowledge their existence. Curiously, the NUJ has come out in support of IndyMedia on regular occasions - the same union that caught all the flak for proposing a code of conduct for the use of CJ material by Big Media.

From a less radical perspective, there are already many consumer-oriented sites where people can describe their cr*p experiences of broadband, call centres or whatever. Try grumbletext.co.uk for an example.

I think the fundamental flaw in CJ is that, if it becomes too closely associated with activism, is that no-one will regard the material as journalism because it looks too one-sided. But that is a problem with the name, not the concept. Grass-roots activism is something the Web helps a great deal with - calling it CJ may do it a disservice rather than helping.

10:38 am, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I forgot to say is that I agree on the local reporting versus issues as firing people up. Even on the hyperlocal sites, it is clear that issues are what drive the reporting. They just happen to be (hyper)local issues.

I also failed to preview the last comment before hitting 'publish'. The second para should read:

The one group of sites these people ignore are the IndyMedia network. I find it amazing that, not only does this network get ignored by the CJ promoters, it seems they get actively turned away. The politics probably have something to do with it. IndyMedia would like to take all regular journalists and dump them in the sea (and not even a nice bit of the sea). The Gilmors seem to prefer an accommodation with Old Media, even though they decry it at every possible opportunity. Maybe IndyMedia's radical position is too threatening even for the CJers to acknowledge their existence. Curiously, the NUJ has come out in support of IndyMedia on regular occasions - the same union that caught all the flak for proposing a code of conduct for the use of CJ material by Big Media.

10:47 am, February 01, 2006  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

I agree with you Chris, especially on the tension between journalism and activism. It's not just a matter of semantics though - it could be said that the creation of CJ as a concept is an attempt by journalists to colonise grassroots online media, so there's something at stake there.

11:20 am, February 01, 2006  
Anonymous Chris Edwards said...

I think the activists are safe: there is not much that using the tag CJ will give them, except maybe the special interest slot in those local newspapers that go down the route of incorporating that content as first-person accounts. And if those slots get too obviously colonised by activists - or rather, the complaints about bias start flooding in - the newspapers will wind those slots up. But that won't matter much, because the Web is there to drum up interest in an issue.

6:46 am, February 02, 2006  

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