Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Getting to know a citizen journalist’s universe


Steve Garfield always thought his fate was already decided for him. After receiving his bachelors degree in business administration, the logical next step was going into the administration business. But Garfield had other ideas for himself.

His real passion had always been media, so during his college years at University of Massachusetts Amherst he was a DJ on his own radio show. Later he did some public access television production and hosting. When the time came to get a job with a real salary, he worked as a computer programmer and salesman for many years. But one day while working as a web consultant, he got a camera, a Macintosh, Final Cut Pro software, and started producing video in house and uploading it to the web. And that was the moment when his life began to change.

Labeling Garfield’s job is not easy. He defines himself as a video blogger, media producer, speaker, teacher and citizen journalist. On his website people can learn how to video blog, and link to Garfield’s videos, photographs, blogs, online radio shows and lecture videos. Through Twitter, he shares videos about his daily routine activities with other users. When he goes to the grocery store, he records what he’s buying. Why would anyone care about what Garfield is buying in the grocery store? It’s hard to believe, but there are 6000 people who follow him and who get this kind of information several times a day, every day.

He knows how to take full advantage of available technology and knows how to use it to promote his product: himself. And he says this skill made him accomplish many things, like becoming an instructor at Boston University teaching new media tools to journalism students.

Garfield's interview
To see more photos, click here

Adam Gaffin, executive editor of Network World Online and creator of the site Universal Hub, knows Garfield’s work very well. They worked together several years ago in the creation of Universal Hub. Currently he links regularly to Garfield’s videos. “He’s very well known as a web video person. He has come up with a lot of interesting stuff. For example he figured out how to use the software Qik for live blogging. The people who had built this company didn’t know that you could do that, and he figured out that having essentially two channels, we could do some live conferencing on it. He’s very technically oriented, but at the same time very down to earth,” says Gaffin.

Garfield also found in technology a way of doing something few people have the opportunity otherwise: becoming a reporter and the star of his own shows. But Garfield is not the only one doing this.

He is just one of the millions of people around the world who, like him, became “reporters” with just the access to a camera and internet: citizen journalists. Even though these citizen journalists have been around for several years, it has only been in recent years that their work has been in the spotlight. Their apparent continuous growth not only raises the issue of whether bloggers and ordinary citizens should be classified as journalists, but many legal and ethical issues as well. So how does Garfield’s work fit in this context?


For Garfield, citizen journalism should not be a controversial issue anymore. He believes it has a positive impact in the society, and he has some personal experiences to prove his points.

Citizen journalism can expose the bare reality. Garfield says having as many citizen observers and witnesses of events will make information more transparent and trustable. “I did a lot of coverage of Obama when he came to New England and so did other people," he said. "By having dozens citizens taking photos, shooting video and writing blog entries about it, there is so much more to read about what happened in that event that you could really get a true picture without the media filter of what happened. By reading so many different sources, the truth will raise to the top.”

Obama in NH 10/16/08 from stevegarfield on Vimeo.

Citizen journalism reveals local uncovered stories. The first time he took video of a fire in his neighborhood and e-mailed it to his neighbors, Garfield realized the important role citizen journalism plays in communities. He says his neighbors were really appreciative for the service he did. “I realized that even when I tell stories that are only important to just a few, local people, they are still important.” And these stories don’t usually get coverage from mainstream media. Dan Gillmor, director and founder of Center for Citizen Media, agrees with him. “Mainstream media should recognize that people in the communities know things that they don’t, and that they could be part of a broader conversation,” Gillmor says.

To watch Garfield's video of the fire, click here

Citizen journalism gets things done. When mainstream media cover a particular topic, it is common that the problem being exposed in the story gets a rapid solution or response by the people affected by the story. There are problems that affect a community, that are not “relevant” enough for mainstream media to cover, and that is when citizen journalism can make the difference. When Garfield found out that a lot of people had their absentee ballot returned because they did not have enough postage in it, he made a video saying that the election department did not provide the adequate information about it. He did not imagine the response he got. “The election department called me on the phone and they said ‘thanks for doing that, we are going to put the cost on the website’ and for the final election they were going to put a little slip of paper in every ballot that tells people it costs 59 cents. So I affected change by doing that whole thing, which made me feel really good.”

Massachusetts Absentee Ballot Envelope
Steve showing a Massachusetts Absentee Ballot Envelope


Despite the good experiences he had as citizen journalist, Garfield says it is still very difficult for citizen journalists to have a place in the media, neither as sources of news for traditional media outlets, nor as being considered members of the media by other organizations.

“The challenge for us, are entrenched organizations allowing citizens journalists who aren’t affiliated with a traditional media outlet to come in and film something,” says Garfield. He says Chuck Olsen’s recent experience confirms these difficulties. Olsen is a videoblogger and the cofounder of TheUpTake site. “There is a recount going on in Minnesota and the incumbent doesn’t allow Chuck to go into the press conference, but all the traditional media gets to go. They don’t say what distinguishes citizen journalists from traditional media, they are picking what press gets to go in, and so that is a challenge for us.”

Citizen journalists are obviously contributing in many ways to keep communities all around the world informed. So why do they still face these kind of obstacles?

A frequent argument is that citizen journalists are just not journalists. Should they be allowed to go into press conferences? “No, they should not” says Andrew Keen, author of “The Cult of the Amateur” a book that argues, among other things, that the Web 2.0. delivers useless information. “They call themselves citizen journalists, but they are not journalists. In the same way that someone that throws a lot of food into a pot is not a cook. They are just people who happen to have a camera. This is a profession that requires a particular kind of training, intelligence and skills.”

This is still one indisputable difference; journalists in mainstream media are professionals and make a living from journalism, while citizen journalists still have to rely on another income, since their work is more a contribution they do than a source of income. And Garfield is not the exception. Among many other paid jobs, he works for John Tobin, a Boston city councilor, running his website and taking his photos and video. Another controversy arises at this point. For ethical reasons, traditional journalists would not take money from a politician, even if they were not covering him or her directly.

So, does having other sources of income reflect on the ethics of citizen journalism? Tish Grier, a professional blogger and social media consultant, doesn’t think so. “Makes me think, does the person disclose what he/she does for a living on the citizen journalist’s site or in a LinkedIn/Facebook profile?" asks Grier. "Does the community know this person? Sometimes communities know people, and know their views, while the outside world doesn’t. So, when citizen journalist’s site is read by locals, they are fully aware of the citizen journalist’s potential bias, as they may well know a newspaper reporter’s potential bias.”


While the debate between traditional journalists, citizen journalists and the public opinion goes on, citizen journalism continues to spread and it is slowly becoming an important source for mainstream media. The most recent proof: the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the coverage made by citizen journalism.

The controversy doesn’t stop Garfield’s projects either. His plans for the future are more than ambitious; he wants to get involved with Hollywood to produce some behind the scenes packages of shows that he loves. And his work as citizen journalist is not put aside, he expects to keep participating in citizen journalism projects. “I hope that I can work on both the local, national and worldwide level to encourage existing media outlets to see the value of work with viewers.”

Adam Gaffin also believes that Garfield’s future is full of possibilities, especially in the current context print media is facing. “Steve is something of a pathfinder, showing how to use relatively simple tools to do some amazing storytelling," says Gaffin by e-mail. "I think you'll see more of that in mainstream media partly because they are looking for less expensive ways to tell stories (death spirals and all that), partly because people like Steve are turning out some stuff that's every bit as good as, if not better than, what full-time reporters can do.”

Here is the the video of "A day in Steve Garfield's life" by Belen Bogado

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Useful advice from Adam Gaffin

Adam Gaffin gave us useful advice on how to face the challenges that await us as journalists that have to deal with a new context in the media industry.

And who better than him to talk about it. He’s a professional traditional journalist and at the same time an entrepreneurial multimedia journalist, which sounds complicated but basically just means that he figured out a way to keep up with new technological tools and incorporated them to his work.

Besides still working as a traditional journalist and occasionally as a citizen journalist, he’s the creator of the website Universal Hub, a unique project in Boston. It is hard to believe that, if it wasn’t for Gaffinn’s blog , there would be no other way to find out what people in Boston are writing about. It acts as a database of Boston blogs. And the success of Universal Hub is proven by the 3500 people that visit the blog every weekday.

Most stories one finds in Universal Hub depends mainly on Adam’s criterion, since he acts as an editor choosing the stories from different blogs that attract him for his personal interest. Through Universal Hub many bloggers get traffic and make contacts that otherwise they probably would not get.

It is also a social network and a local news source, one of the strengths of citizen journalism and online blogging considering that traditional media don’t cover these stories that matter to communities. Gaffin gives an example of it “I was going to a meeting and cars were not moving. I figured something happened, I got off my car and found out two kids shot each other. The next day there was no coverage of that event in the mainstream media”.

But Gaffin also speaks about the difficulties of online journalism and blogging. He says in past years traditional media’s journalists did not know nor care about advertising in their newspapers. That changed now, especially for independent online journalists that start a project like Universal Hub. He speaks about the importance of being a sales person. It is not enough to have a good product, one also has to figure out what is the niche market for the product, what or who will be the product’s competition, get a good team of people that works for the project and of course figure out a way to pay them and yourself.

So once again we find out it is not easy out there. Personally I love challenges and I believe this is for sure one of the toughest moments for the journalism profession. The key as Gaffin says is to “be prepared for a lot of hard work”. Thanks for the advice Adam, I’ll definitely take it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get any worse.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What do you think about Twitter? I'll tell you what I think about it...

Obviously, Mumbai terrorist attacks were twitter’s moment. The mainstream media and all the world is aware of the fact that the most of the fastest updates, information and footage was delivered through twitter users. So let’s see what else twitter has to offer.

The first time I heard about twitter was during Steve Garfield's lecture as a guest speaker in our class, but it’s after this terrible incident that it really got my attention.

I have to say that going through Twitter did not reveal anything special to me. The most revealing thing was that I really didn’t find anything interesting or innovative about it even though everybody is talking about it.

I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I still cannot figure out what is so remarkable about it. I don’t think it is a new tool, it has a similar function as RSS feeds and maybe it has some elements of a social network, but there are dozens of great social networks available.

Although, going back to the Mumbai incident, I admit that is a proof that there has to be something attractive about it: there must be a reason why so much information and footage was spread through it, data that some mainstream media had to rely on. But I don’t see the difference on using twitter to spread information, than many other similar technological tools, such as Flickr, or newspapers’ websites which send text messages of breaking news to your cell phone, or any other media. My point is, I repeat, I don’t see anything really innovative about it. I believe it is just a new tool, which became an online trend as many technological tools that in the past had a similar effect but then lost it.

What I notice going through Boston Globe’s and New York Times twitter feeds, confirms that all I need is my Google reader to get the exact same information: the headlines of the day. Although I have to admit, they are obviously not doing a good job about it and they could take more advantage of it. I guess twitter is supposed to be used more as a two way conversation, than just getting the headlines. Steve Garfield’s twitter feed is much more interesting than the Globe’s, which does not speak very well of them, considering they are major media organizations.

And once again when debating about the use of citizen journalism, the same controversial issue comes up: who is posting this information and why should I believe them? Won’t it take me more time to actually verify if this is true than just reading the Washington Post website’s updates? I think that is a point to keep thinking about.

For now, I guess I’ll stick with my RSS feeds, thank you for the offering.