8. Writing and distributing our stories

In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” …Eric Hoffer


Our motivation

BEFORE WE PUT FINGER to keyboard it might pay to sit quietly and think about our motivation in wanting to become citizen journalists. Talking to friends or other citizen journalists can help in this.

That done, it’s thinking time again as we work out the topics we know enough about, or can learn enough about, to offer useful insight into.

We also consider the type of journalism we would do: are we primarily writers? photographers? videographers? podcasters?

I became aware of the value of combining a couple of these while on a course in photojournalism when the instructor, a professional photojournalist, said I was fortunate in being able to combine writing and photography. That was verified when doing freelance writing later when I found a story accompanied by a selection of photographs increased its saleability.

Writing and stills photography are the most common starting places in becoming a citizen journalist. They are worth spending time on because they will bring us clarity and direction to what it is we want to do.

So, some questions

  1. What do we want to accomplish through our blogging?
  2. What do we know enough about to be able to write about it in an authoritative manner?
  3. What could we learn about so that we could become a credible writer on the topic and, perhaps, blog about our learning journey?
  4. Do we need to do a little study to develop our writing skills? Where would we find help in this?
  5. Do we have a digital camera or a mobile phone with a good camera so that we can make photographs to supplement our writing?
  6. Do we need to learn a little about photography and photographic processing?
  7. Do we have the motivation to blog regularly?
  8. Do we have enough stories on a topic to sustain our writing? (list at least 10 stories you could write about to start, to assess whether there is a sufficient volume of material)
  9. How do we make a start? What is the most important thing we can do now to become a blogger?

Choosing a format

Citizen journalists work in a range of online publishing formats:

  • writing — text-based reporting
  • photography — the publishing of stills images; these are accompanied by captions that context the image and give it meaning; photographs often accompany text-based journalism and illustrate something in the text; they might be stand-alone, single-picture stories captioned with a few paragraphs to explain them, or might be grouped as a presentation of related photographs in a photo essay
  • podcasting — producing and publishing audio stories as sound files; this is akin to radio documentary production and also includes commentary; fiction and instructional writers also make use of podcasting
  • videography — the use of video cameras and editing software to tell a story.

Any number of these formats can be combined in a single story. An audio file embedded in a text story might be a recording of an interview with one of the protagonists, for example. Combining different formats is known as ‘multimedia’.

Social media sites like Facebook link people to our website. We post short descriptions and links to new stories or to past stories relevant to new discussions.

Our social media should not be all about us. It works best when it serves the people interested enough to friend or link to us. This can be done by posting links to the work of others and reposting (it is good form to acknowledge the original source), by commenting on others’ social media postings, by asking questions of our readers to seek their experience and opinions, by running polls to find out what readers think of something and by finding and making available interesting resources to our readers.

In becoming citizen journalists we find and use the social media and software platforms where our target readership gathers. We assess our time availability for producing content.

Distribution media

How do citizen journalists distribute their work and attract readers?

The main distribution channels for our work are likely to include:

  • websites — that provide a repository for our work or that of the organisation we write/photograph for; here, stories and visual content is retained over the long term and can be found through search engines and by reposting links to it; for photographers, websites offering a photo gallery function for their work takes them to a specialist audience
  • social media connects readers to our website, provides channels for reposting links to the work of others and for commenting on posts
  • email distribution lists — one-to-many group emails; email newsletters that link to website content are a popular format.

The availability of email newsletter software has given email new life. Crafting a visually attractive email newsletter with links to stories on a website allows organisations to keep members and interested people informed.

Citizen journalists can do this too, to keep readers up to date with their work and to retain their readership. Other than email newsletters distributed to members of an organisation to keep them informed about the organisation’s work and which are included with membership, email newsletters are opt-in media that visitors to our website or social media voluntarily offer their email address to receive. They should always include an ‘unsubscribe’ button.

The comments window below social media posts offer a venue for conversations exploring issues and ideas. Rather the comments being made on websites below the stories, it is on social media that conversations frequently take place when website content is distributed by social media.

Unlike the old media of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV which are one-to-many channels, online media offers many-to-many channels, providing a greater diversity of opinion, expertise and voices. It also gives voice to those overlooked by mainstream media.

Software enabled

The development of new website software has enabled citizen journalism. The Mosiac browser, the early graphic user interface, came in 1993. Netscape followed, then Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari, then open source products like Mozilla’s Firefox and on to secure onion browsers like Tor.

Accompanying these was an evolving set of website authoring tools like Adobe GoLive and Dreamweaver. Wordpress and others are more recent arrivals. The simplest of these, like the free Wordpress websites, offer an easy way for new citizen journalists to learn about using a website (no coding knowledge needed).

Many stay with the free websites as they find that they offer all the functionality they need. Avid writers and photographers might find that they eventually reach the capacity of the free websites and need to move to a paid offering. Bloggers might purchase a Wordpress theme for their website because of the added functionality and support that paid themes offer.

Early website authoring and design software created one-to-many websites in which there was no way for readers to comment on articles. This is known as the read-only web, Web 1.0. New software that allowed commenting and sometimes co-production, such as wikis, created the read-write web, Web 2.0.

The value of the network

Social media uses the model of the network to distribute the material on our website and short pieces and photography we place only on social media.
Stories are picked up and linked to by readers and are in turn again picked up and distributed. This is how networks work — by passing on information.

In network terms, newspapers were a centralised network with the publisher at centre, the newsagents that sold the newspapers as hubs (nodes with many connections) and readers as the individual nodes. Other than the letter to the editor that might or might not be published, there was no reciprocity in this network, no way of commenting on a story. This was one-to-many communication, a centralised network of information distribution.

Now that newspapers have moved online, their comments sections accompanying stories bring them some of the characteristics of the interactive network (though some conversations become bitter and abusive), yet readers seldom have the opportunity to produce copy for publishing as stories. That remains the province of the professional journalist remunerated by the newspaper.

Blogging and social networks bring the opportunity for anyone sufficiently motivated to become a writer or to publish their photo or video stories. Once published there is no knowing where our stories and photographs will end up, however we can be sure that errors will be noticed and commented on and that our information will be challenged. That is why following some of the practices in the following sections if this book will help retain our credibility as a blogger.

No matter how demonstratively true our facts, no matter how much evidence we provide or link to, there are people who will nevertheless disbelieve what we write. Nothing we do will convince them because they are under the control of their chosen ideology, religious belief or other mindset that shuts out logical and rational conversation.

Finding our audience

Today’s internet is a crowded place and it requires searching to find our readership or viewers.

This has to go beyond tagging our work with meaningful, descriptive and findable words and learning a little about search engine optimisation. It requires actively going out and searching for potential audiences. This is an ongoing process.

When we know what and where we will publish, we are ready to make a start.