Citizen as journalist, or an extension of the technology? Photograph: rsambrook

Move over citizen journalism: here comes a much smarter future

The news media landscape will be shaped by how information is shared, not just how it is created

Soon after Germanwings flight 4U 9525 was reported to have crashed in the French Alps I searched for the airline’s name on Twitter. Unsurprisingly there was the usual outpouring of sympathy, shock and the odd sick comment. But something was missing.

In a remarkably short period of time the public has become used to being able to immediately see pictures and footage of breaking news events. So much so that when an accident or atrocity takes place and there are no immediate video or still images, it feels odd.

In the case of the Germanwings Airbus A320 the lack of live imagery was down to the remote location of the crash site — contrast it with a recent air accident in Taiwan. And it serves as a reminder of how what we expect of news has changed so quickly. Essentially, now, if something happens in a populated area, it will be documented, pictured and published within seconds.

So is this the almost-total triumph of what was, a decade ago, dubbed citizen journalism? From the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the concept dominated discussion in media schools and the bits of the more enlightened newsrooms that even considered the future.

Inky-fingered old hacks were out and iPhone-wielding hoodies were in. Journalism in the future wouldn’t even need journalists — not professional ones anyway. Everyone with the latest tech and a blog would be a journalist; recording events as they unfolded, pontificating on discoveries and developments, even seeing wrongs and trying to right them.

We may not hear the term “citizen journalism” so much now, but some will point to coverage of the big breaking news events of our time and say: there, it came and it conquered; it is the norm; we no longer call it citizen journalism, it is now just journalism.

Inky-fingered old hacks were out and
iPhone-wielding hoodies were in

Yet, we still have professional journalists — dramatically fewer in the realms of print and local media, but in some areas there are many more. The new media start-up job scene is mushrooming. The salaries once enjoyed on big metropolitan titles may not be on offer, but well-trained and honed journalistic ability is in demand. If the citizens were going to inherit the media world, shouldn’t the journalists have vanished?

But is it possible that citizen journalism was merely a mirage — an illusion created by a sudden technological surge that gave people tools, but not skills? I believe so. Far from becoming journalists, these new media operators were simply being citizens, albeit often talented, aware and quick-thinking ones.

How big stories happen

On April 1, 2009 an American investment fund manager was in London on business. It was also the day of massive G20 summit protests in the UK capital. The fund manager shot video footage as a member of the public called Ian Tomlinson was pushed to the ground by a police officer. Tomlinson later died. The footage was then passed to The Guardian and became a key part of a ground-breaking investigation by Paul Lewis into the police force’s role in the death and its handling of the aftermath.

Was the fund manager a journalist? Clearly not. Was he a core part of a brilliant example of investigative journalism? Of course. The example illustrates that getting the vital piece of footage or image is just part of the story, and often just the start of it.

In a sense, what has emerged is a deeper relationship between journalists and the public — a public now equipped to record, remark and challenge; a public that is an extension of the technology it owns. There is more information than ever, yet this needs to be checked, verified, contextualised and explained.

If we think of further big scoops of recent years they have, as in the past, been down to great work by journalists. Consider the British MPs expenses scandal or Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations — these involved in-depth and time-consuming research by teams of skilled professionals.

Collaboration calling

But what of comment and analysis? Surely this is an area where the blogger is now king, and the plodding columnist redundant? There are of course countless great examples of fine bloggers — many of whom straddle the worlds of established and emerging media.

In the time of Twitter, Tumbler, Blogger and Typepad, a view is just a click away — but that doesn’t make it an informed one. The established newspaper brands all carry more comment than ever. In print, space for informed editorial and comment has been cut, but online many titles have developed vast comment subsites.

Some of this is great entertainment. And at the higher end, some of it is informative. But taken as a whole, so much of what now populates the media (new and old) commentariat space is at best dull and trite, and at worst dangerous and misleading — a fog of noise.

Journalistic skills, and not just tools to record events,
can be spread, taught and encouraged

In a time of global challenges and more competing claims to represent “the truth”, it is actually vital that we do better. And here perhaps is the true, lasting and genuinely valuable legacy of the citizen journalism years. For journalistic skills, and not just tools to record events, can be spread, taught and encouraged.

One fine example of this is the London-based “communication rights” organisation Radar, which is training networks of reporters in some of the world’s most marginalised communities. Radar’s journalism is built around basic mobile phones, and it still refers to “citizen reporters”, yet what it is offering appears to be a much deeper proposition than a grab-some-footage free-for-all. It is about creating real journalists — an investment in talent that will seek truth and hold authority to account.

Smart journalism

Another new media start-up that aims to disseminate journalistic skills — as well as specialist knowledge — is The Conversation (disclosure: I’m its editor in the UK). The Conversation employs a growing team of professional journalists who collaborate with academics to produce informed comment, analysis and research-based content for general readers. Importantly, we seek to cover news as it happens.

That means creating content — often live news analysis and explainers — that is useful, timely, trustworthy and rooted in expertise. I’m thinking for instance, of the post-Soviet geographer, who files from conflict-gripped Ukraine, and the space scientist who wrote from Rosetta mission control.

The idea that citizens could simply replace all journalists thanks to mobile technology and social media was always preposterous. But people (whether they be eye-witnesses to breaking news or academic experts) using new technology to share their ideas and content and work with professional journalists can produce great work that has genuine value. The time of citizen journalism has passed, but smart journalism’s day is just dawning.