Participatory journalism is a slippery creature. Everyone knows what audience participation means, but when does that translate into journalism?
Alas, there's no simple answer. In a segment on PBS's "NewsHour" last April that asked, "Is blogging journalism?" Joan Connell, an executive producer at MSNBC.com, suggested that independent bloggers aren?t journalists because no editor comes between the author and reader. "I would submit that (the newsroom) editing function really is the factor that makes it journalism," she said. (Bloggers disagreed.)
Yet in the same segment, reporter Terence Smith pointed to "opinion journalism Weblogs, like instapundit.com and andrewsullivan.com, that can and have made a difference in the public policy arena."
And last month syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman bemoaned the fact that Web sites were posting "news" withheld by the mainstream media about the identity of Kobe Bryant's accuser.
Part of the problem in the is-it-or-isn't-it-journalism debate arises from the relatively new idea of ordinary people publishing online -- some of them reporting news.
"For the first time, people at the edges of the network have the ability to create their own news entities," says Dan Gillmor, a San Jose Mercury News journalist who is writing a book about participatory journalism.
So what is participatory journalism?
When small independent online publications and collaborative news sites with an amateur staff perform original reporting on community affairs, few would contest that they're engaged in journalism.
When citizens contribute photos, video and news updates to mainstream news outlets, many would argue they're doing journalism.
But when bloggers comment on and link to news stories, is that journalism? Usually no -- but it depends. When the blogger adds personal commentary that relies on original research, or if it is done by someone considered an authority on the subject, some would consider it journalism.
When a blogger conducts a phone interview with a newsworthy subject and posts it to his Weblog -- or does some research to turn up the address, phone number and e-mail of an alleged rape victim, as a number of bloggers did in July -- some would consider those acts of journalism, too.
The same questions are raised when news organizations open up the channels of interactivity with their audiences. Voting in an online poll surely isn't journalism, but giving a first-hand report of one's travels in a foreign country may -- or may not be.
Whatever the yardstick one uses -- a strict definition that says journalism must involve original reporting and an editorial filter, or a broader one that considers travelogues, op-ed commentary and analysis journalism -- it's certain that audience participation in the news equation is on the upswing.
And it's likely that forms of audience participation will become more widespread once mobile devices such as video-enabled phones -- which allow you to transmit text, photos and video directly over the phone -- become commonplace.
Participatory journalism generally falls into these broad categories:
(1) Audience participation at mainstream news outlets.
? Staff Weblogs, such as those written by Gillmor, Projo's Sheila Lennon or The Dallas Morning News' editorial board. All incorporate reader comments in their blogs, either through e-mails or direct postings.
? Newsroom-sanctioned Weblogs written by outsiders, such as ABCnews.com's The Note giving presidential candidates their own blog.
? Discussion forums, such as The New York Times' reader forum on the Supreme Court.
? Articles written by readers. Many online newspapers in the United States and Europe ask high school students, parents and fans to contribute to reporting about their schools' football, wrestling and other sporting events.
? Photos, video and reports sent in by readers. The Dallas Morning News published readers' photos in its coverage of the space shuttle tragedy. BBC has a standing page that uses photos e-mailed in by readers around the globe. The Santa Fe New Mexican publishes photos submitted by readers. The Providence (R.I.) Journal created a slide show of 130 images sent by readers of a spring blizzard. Australia's ABC News Online published reader write-ups and photos of devastating brushfires in Canberra. A news station in Japan recently aired live coverage of a massive fatal accident from a citizen-reporter with a video-enabled cell phone. The witness also called in a report from the scene.
? Other reader contributions. Many sites, including the Hampton Roads (Va.) News Press, The New York Times on the Web and Tribune Interactive, ask readers to review everything from travel destinations to restaurants.
(2) Independent news and information Web sites.
These run the gamut from individual Weblogs (Soundbitten) to niche-news publications geared to community or city news (Gawker, Benicia News, OpinionPleasanton), consumer news (ThemeParkInsider, The Car Place, Consumer World), politics (Workingforchange.com, Drudge Report) or a niche topic (Biased BBC, Gizmodo). In some cases, publications rely on gifted amateurs or independent writers (only rarely on a paid staff) to provide original interviews, research and reporting. In other cases, the sites primarily generate editorial digests with varying degrees of commentary (Poynter.org's e-media tidbits and Romenesko). Some of these sites do journalism only fleetingly, while for others citizen reporting is their primary purpose.
(3) Full-fledged participatory news sites.
At such sites, citizen-reporters contribute a significant amount of material. South Korea's OhmyNews is the crown jewel of this breed. A similar citizen-reported news site called JanJan in Japan is modeling itself after OhmyNews. Indymedia offers first-person reporting of political news with a subjective slant.
(4) Collaborative and contributory media sites.
At sites such as Slashdot, Kuro5hin and Metafilter, which mesh the interface of Weblogs and discussion boards, users contribute editorial content (some of which would be appropriate for a newspaper or magazine) as well as links to news stories and ratings. Other community sites with mechanisms for self-publishing, self-ranking and self-organization include the collaborative newspaper RedPaper, Plastic.com and Everything2, which describes itself as "a very complex online community with a focus to write, publish and edit a quality database of information, art and humor. When you make an account here you join not only a team of dedicated writers but an entire micro-society and community with its own pop culture, politics, beauty and blunders." Many of the smaller sites in this category tend to quickly fall away. The Vines Network and ThemeStream, sites featured in The New York Times two years ago, have already disappeared.
(5) Other kinds of "thin media."
Examples include mailing lists (Dave Farber?s Interesting-People, Firehair's Internet Native News and Issues List), e-mail newsletters (ThirdAge?s Health Newsletter) and other digital media.
(6) Personal broadcasting sites.
These include both video broadcast sites such as Daytonabeach-live.com and audio sites like KenRadio.com, where operator Ken Rutkowski conducts news interviews and pulls together a daily tech news report from various media sources.
Other examples of participatory journalism seem to be cropping up all the time. And some of the categories listed above overlap with one another. Because this is an interactive medium, we'll end with some questions: What else would you include? How would you group these categories differently? Or, do you remain unconvinced that some of these forms qualify as journalism at all?