Some notes from this week’s discussion at the cabinet forum debate and dinner. It was an event with unusual format and, by way of explanation, the agreed rules around covering it are that all debates can be blogged, tweeted etc. without individual quotes being attributed to individual people.
Newspaper reps including myself and The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger able to sit around the same table as bloggers such as Jeff Jarvis via skype, hyperlocal activists including co-chair William Perrin, industry analysts, civil servants, broadcasters, commentators, people with experience of the local news landscape both in the UK and US.
I make no apology that what I’ve noted here are things of specific interest to me, and are in no way an attempt to provide the definitive low-down of the event.
• What do we call these people? I’ve blogged on this issue before and it keeps being raised at the sort of events I attend. Because someone wants to engage with a news investigation, write a blog or post about a community event doesn’t necessarily mean they want to be a ‘citizen journalist’. Some do of course, but many are simply using the wonderful tools at their disposal as a means to another end – better community, organise an event, change the world or whatever. Do they even need a specific pigeon-hole to fit into? Can they just be people? Engaged citizens? Is the publication part of their output really the most important element in what they do?
• How do large institutions, such as the government or a major broadcaster, ensure these hyperlocal voices are heard? At present there’s no association, guild, group, etc. to represent their widely differing interests. Should there be one, and if there was, how could it be constituted to be truly representative and inclusive? What a challenge that would be, but without it, some of the proposals in this area such as IFNCs risk becoming a non-inclusive consolidation of giants.
• Who should be treated as a journalist? Relates again to the first point but, for those people who do want to be treated as journalists, how do they get access to sources of information? This issue has already seen some plainly daft responses such as councils providing different tables in the same council chamber etc. I always go back to my first Penguin Book of Journalism here which carries wise words for the reporter starting out reminding them that they have all the rights and responsibilities of a citizen. No more, no less. Access is an area where any journalist with legal/public administration training could assist by helping challenge the petty bureaucracies in town halls. But that raises the point again – does training make a ‘proper’ journalist if so what’s the qualification? Or is it experience – if so which institutions count and how long does it have to be to qualify? Or is it an NUJ card?- so are we back to the closed shop? Does it require being employed by a publication registered as a newspaper? Well that’s plainly not sustainable. As journalists we’re not exactly being very transparent with this are we?
• Who will report from the council chambers and courts if local newspapers close or retract so much that staff are unable to fulfil this function? And there lies the BIG question. What will be the long-term impact on democracy? Will councils use that situation as justification for uncritical publications extolling the virtues of their services? People at the forum and generally, in my experience, seem to agree this sort of reporting is a Good Thing. But what’s it going to take to ensure that continues – just how Good a Thing is it? Subsidy? Tax-breaks? Platform agnostic service provision to all as outlined by PA at the Digital Editors’ Network later in the day? This is such a huge issue for the minister to wrestle with……any thoughts, contributions welcome.