Saturday, May 2, 2009

U, The Editor?

Citizen journalism in India (Written for Yojana April '09, Govt. of India sponsored publication)

Priti Patnaik
New York

For Argumentative Indians seizing citizen journalism initiatives and expressing themselves through platforms like blogging, is but natural. In a country of more than 1 billion, this deluge of opinion and angst will sooner than later flood the new social media bursting forth through nearly 50 million internet users.

Eager to exploit the rapidly lowering cost of publishing technology on the web has created opportunities for citizen journalism. While there is tremendous responsibility on people to “become” journalists since they need to be fearless, most citizen journalists are coming in on their own terms – as they are. Citizen journalism can take on forms including the relatively old blogging, uploading photos on sites like Flickr, or shooting videos and putting it on YouTube and now micro-blogging or twittering.

Like other readers in the world, Indians are getting increasingly distrustful of mainstream media and taking active interest in the way they want to consume and process information and news. At least those fortunate enough to be on the right side of the digital divide are becoming conscious about who is telling them what and rejecting what they do not want. Some are even setting the agenda as it were. There is an attempt to bring greater accountability to the various forces in a democracy by raising pertinent questions, or bring attention to issues sidelined in the mainstream media. Some of the popular blogs include India Uncut, Vantage Point, Indian Writing, and the Blank Noise Project among scores of others.

With professionals of all hues blogging about their area of expertise, possibly unmatched by reporters, journalists could well become information curators. Besides, with governments getting more transparent in their operations and seeking to interact directly with citizens, the conduit that media was, will effectively change. If news junkies can aggregate news at a much cheaper cost than a brick and mortar newspaper company, it does stand to threaten the future of newspapers. The entire supply chain of information is changing and news businesses cannot escape this all-encompassing change. The question is what readers want. Do people really want to trust a team of people capable enough to collect and present information intelligently in news pages?

In his book, We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People for the People by Dan Gillmor, examines this notion of a citizen journalist, how the internet impacts both and governments and the traditional press at it were. The fact that the passive reader or the audience now is playing an active part in news production will alter forever the dynamics of news consumption.

The digital divide is in effect a boon for newspaper companies in India at least in the medium term. While millions of man-hours of journalist experience are valuable for any community, but if the community itself decides to determine what is important, things stand to change. The entire power equation is changing. The architecture of participation as it were, will change more than traditional players will like. It is always easier to talk about democracy than about the democratization of journalism or the media!

Though hesitantly at first, mainstream news organizations have begun to think about engaging with their readers more keenly. They realize that gone are the days when they could be blatant about their biases and allegiances. Everything becomes magnified in this new age of relentlessly being “connected”. After all you can easily twitter the editor or the reporter of the publication if you disagree.

Citizen journalism has changed forever the way justice is dispensed in a country where lawlessness is rampant. At least those crimes etched in short-lived public memory will find it difficult to subvert popular imagination and justice as it were. The way protests are registered, documented and gather steam – is all a part of this by now not so new phenomenon.

Many feel that the on-going elections will see aware and conscious voting driven by loud conversations on the internet. While the Mumbai terror attack is still fresh for young and old Indians alike, those engaged on the internet with each other and their quasi-political groups will align themselves with their affiliations accordingly. Although it is bit of a joke that political leaders are finally taking efforts to engage with this no-nonsense brigade of the net savvy voter, I am not sure if they are celebrating this aspect of the demographic dividend. After all there are reports about falling number internet users due to closure of many internet cafes who have come under pressure from the police in the aftermath of terror attacks.

Last few years have shown, how bloggers could be in some cases more accurate and less biased than some of the mainstream news organizations even as crises were unfolding. Especially mapping relief measures in riot affected, flooded, earthquake, tsunami hit regions – typically capturing a moving image of a crisis, providing helplines to victims, bloggers have been commended for their role. However, it is not clear if bloggers enjoy the same degree of immunity as a mainstream journalist. Will giants like Google take the side of authorities and governments, surrender bloggers to endless litigation? The precedents do not portend too well.

Apart from the web, the ubiquitous mobile phone will go a long way in both mobilizing voters and drumming up dissent. Text messages flowed thick and fast during crisis and natural disasters, and have come to be reckoned as an authentic live stream of news and information more informal than the blogosphere. Handset manufacturers and software developers are coming together to design phones and application for low income earners.

Along with simplicity of the applications, the user interface is being designed in a way to empower the people to leverage it for payment systems, healthcare, agriculture pricing and of course organizing protest marches, campaigns and demonstrations.

Social media watchers believe that going forward corporates will use these tools to improve customer service. Netizens will exploit exclusive social networks.

To be sure, there are pitfalls of this participatory media - for even as people are drawn together, they may be drifting away and excluding those not in their ideological spectrum. There is the other risk of going hyperlocal. While there could be merits of a website for the community, by the community and of the community – it may be harmful in the long term if citizen journalists exclude external developments altogether.

The death of the newspaper in the far away shores of the U.S., is if anything an alarm bell, for the relatively stable Indian newspaper industry. With increase in broadband connections and hyper active minds of those now in school, sooner than later newspapers will be forced to explore a new revenue model for their websites and not mere extensions of their print editions. Indian newspapers will not take a century to disappear unlike their Western counterparts, the process can be shorter.

Consider this – how short lived even the best strategies can be, given the rate of change:

That people like information flows which are dynamic and not packaged and static anymore, is best exemplified by Microsoft’s plans to shut its Encarta Encyclopedia. The CD-ROM version of the encyclopedia that killed the Britannica Encyclopedia series, has now succumbed to pressure from free reference sites such as the Wikipedia.

With 75,000 active contributors for Wikipedia, Microsoft can far from compete. Encarta was given away to promote sale of computers and peripherals. With a marginal manufacturing cost of less than $2, the Encarta CD-ROMs wiped out the decades old Britannica. And now, in less than 5 years, Wiki model has made Encarta the innovator’s new dilemma.

In the West, some of the websites that run on user-generated news plan to offer subscription services to mainstream news organizations. This will impact the way news is gathered and distributed by traditional media companies including newspapers and television channels that hitherto have not relied on user-generated content. At the same time, many innovators in this space bemoan the fact that there is natural resistance in people to overcome this barrier to be identified as a journalist and take a while to get over this inertia. Media innovators are of the view that news companies want to engage and interact with users of information, and hope to cut costs by relying on user-generated information, for any digital community is energized by interaction.

This is recognized by advertisers as well. Indications are that advertising costs for user generated content will better or at least as good as what mainstream media commands. After all, the level of engagement for an advertiser on a user-generated platform is quite high.

Whether it is bloggers reacting to authorities cracking down on the freedom of expression of the online community, or bloggers inflaming passions on either sides of the LoC, social media is a new animal. Neither inhabitors of this world, nor those wanting to enter it, can quite put a finger on how this will evolve. As one technology activitist put it, the genie is out of the bottle. There is little regulators and governments can do. This is something even media companies should contend with.

Labor Day

Expectedly May Day protests in Europe gathered steam and clashed with police. The story was similar country after country. Read here for reports from Paris, Istanbul and Germany.

"Capitalism Is Crisis and War -- For the Social Revolution" and "Burn, Capitalism, Burn”, were some of the mottos of popular protests in Germany. It has been reported that Paris saw as many 300 demonstrations, largest since second world war. Early this year, protestors brought down governments in Iceland, Hungary, and Latvia. Thousands of protestors marched in Athens.

“Labor is changing; for the first time in perhaps decades, we are in agreement at the core,” said Francois Chereque, secretary general of France’s biggest union, Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail, in an RTL radio interview today. “There is a strong unity among the unions.”

The Journal says “Political extremists tend to thrive in economic misery, a troubling prospect as general elections are scheduled this year in Germany, Norway, Bulgaria and Lithuania.”

Read a brilliant piece on "the transatlantic argument about the right response to the global recession...." By Phlip Stephens in the FT

Tail-piece: Hitler was first to introduce May 1 as a public holiday in Germany. The movement to advance workers' rights was appropriated by the Nazis and the former Soviet.

Labor day protests were a constant theme in many Indian movies but began to disappear in the ‘90s. It was almost as if workers did not exist any more.

Differential Protest

Banning sex to foster a political solution? Kenyan women hope it will work. “Commodifying sex” to resolve the country’s problems may work. The Kenyan PM’s wife has extended support to called by Women's Development Organisation coalition. During the period of the boycott, commercial sex workers who have been asked to join the strike will be compensated for the week, women’s groups have said.

This has been sparked by the feud between Mwai Kibaki, the president, and Raila Odinga, the prime minister. After last year’s elections as many as 3,000 women were raped, according to one estimate by Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, which is known as FIDA. Reportedly, rape is the biggest human rights abuse in the country. Feuding politicians almost pushed the country into a civil war resulting in the death of over 1500 people last year. Further, nearly 10 million people are facing starvation.

Read a comment here on why one feminist feels this is an antiquated take on female heterosexuality, but concludes that this is bold and heroic.

I feel such a protest may work in parochial societies where women are seldom given the freedom of choice. Sadly, they have nothing to lose. Feminists have criticized this unusual protest. Clearly, women are not mere providers of sex, but it may just prove to be a tool in the the larger context of one spurring action against sexual violence, and two - negotiating a greater degree of freedom. Or simply, just another way of registering dissent.