Participatory Journalism: an interview with Alfred Hermida

Lisa Lynch chats with Participatory Journalism co-author and UBC associate professor Alfred Hermida about citizen involvement in the news, comment policies, and newsroom innovation.

Lisa Lynch chats with Participatory Journalism co-author and UBC associate professor Alfred Hermida about citizen involvement in the news, comment policies, and newsroom innovation.

Participatory Journalism, a new book charting journalist’s attitudes towards user participation in online newspapers, began as a small research project funded by a Finnish foundation.  The final result is a ten-country study of what the authors label “participatory journalism,” a term they suggest “comes closest to capturing both the processes and effects of ordinary citizen’s contributions to gathering, selecting, publishing, distributing, commenting on and publicly discussing the news that is contained within an institutional media product.” Researching Journalism page editor Lisa Lynch spoke to Alfred Hermida, a BBC veteran and digital media pioneer who is now Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia, about how the book’s eight authors assembled their research and what emerged over the course of the study.

LL: Can you describe the collaborative process behind Participatory Journalism?

AH: We approached the project less as an edited collection and more as a collaborative book.  First, we assembled an international group of researchers in ten Western liberal democracies that were distinct culturally —like Israel and Canada — and had differences in terms of market size. Then we did the research in our home countries using the same set of semi-structured interview questions. We then decided who would take each of the topic areas suggested by those questions.  Finally, each of us sent country-specific data to the authors writing about topics, breaking it down thematically. In my case, I’m looking at the mechanisms of participation, so I asked the other researchers, “in your data, what is the most relevant material to this area? You know your country data best than anybody else.”

In the end Jane Singer and I essentially became the overall editors for the volume: each of us would do a first edit of the chapters and then we would swap them over, and once we’d finished editing these chapters were sent to the primary author for them to read it over, to make sure that we hadn’t accidentally changed the meaning of certain sections, or overlooked something important. Jane then gave the whole work one more final edit to ensure for consistency in voice.

LL: What, for you, emerged as the most surprising aspect of the research?

AH: Since a lot of the work that’s been done into looking at how journalists view participation is very country specific, our motivation here was do comparative work: given that journalists tend to look at the world in similar ways, do they think about participation similarly?

In the end, we were surprised how consistent the views were given the number of newspapers that we looked at and the range of countries that we looked at. Whether you talked to a journalist in Belgium, or a journalist in Spain, or a journalist in Israel, a journalist in Canada, or a journalist in Croatia, there was consistency of use, and consistency of practices, in terms of how journalists and editors viewed the role of the audience.  They know that things are changing, they know the media space is becoming more open, becoming a shared media space. But they’re not quite sure how to share that space, and often to established ways of thinking about it, established norms and practices.

LL: Is this because journalists are still threatened with the spectre of the citizen journalist usurping the media space?

AH: There’s long been this idea of the mythical citizen journalist, but it hasn’t turned into a reality. I think what’s happened instead is that we’ve seen that citizens can indeed perform acts of journalism, but in fact they’re doing a fragment of the actual work a journalist does. They might be taking a picture, they might be reporting on something happening in front of them, they might be sharing a link, they might be editing an entry in Wikipedia. But the idea that you’re going to have a mass public who are going to do what journalists do hasn’t really transpired except in very specific circumstances. For example, last year with the G-20 meeting in Toronto, CBC had a G-20 blog where they got in touch with people living in the area to write about their experiences while downtown Toronto was pretty much in lockdown. It’s not as if those people wanted to become journalists, but in that particular circumstance they are doing journalism. So this fear that we’re going to be replaced by this army of non-professionals who are going to work for nothing hasn’t really panned out.

LL: You label those who might want to play the role of journalists “active participants” in the journalistic processes.  But you suggest that it’s rather the case that participatory journalism practiced by the newspapers you study prefers “active recipients,” people who engage with professionally produced news in fresh ways, rather than producing the news themselves.

AH: Active recipients are expected to be active when news happens: they are expected to take a photo, to send a tweet; they are expected to take a video, to provide that eyewitness reaction. They are also active once the journalist has processed that information and prepared it the package at the other end and delivered it. And then, they’re active in terms of how they receive it through, say, distribution, by tweeting a link, sharing a link on Facebook; but also active in discussing it, responding to what the journalist has written. So the audience isn’t solely passively receiving information.  But they still are in that receptor mode that lessens their involvement in the actual journalistic process.  We can see exceptions — for example, The Guardian in its travel section allows people to post their stories.  But such exceptions tended to occur in lifestyle journalism, not in hard news. For journalists, news is their jurisdiction: if want to discuss your travel plans at The Guardian or USA Today, that’s fine, that can be an open space, but don’t challenge journalist’s role of deciding what is news.

LL: To me, one of the most striking findings from the book is that converged newsrooms tend to be more conservative about the idea of participation.  That goes against the common sense assumption that exposing print journalists to online production will create a new synergy in the newsroom.

AH: Well, what I think what happens is, when you try to bring together newsrooms, the print newsroom is established, has political capital, has power.  And then you have the scrappy, young upstarts, that don’t have the same degree of political capital.  When these newsrooms are integrated — for example at the Washington Post, even at the BBC — the conversation has been more about how to integrate web with existing practices, rather than about ‘well this might have served us very well in the last thirty years, but how do we change this rapidly to accommodate the web?’ Clayton M. Christensen has written extensively about how innovation within large companies with established practices is hard: innovation is doing things that you haven’t done before, but if you want to do things in a new way, you might compete with your existing products. When you have a separate online operation that almost has the start-up mentality, they have a lot of more freedom because they’re not thinking ‘how do we protect our core product?’ They’re just thinking ‘what do we do in this space?’ So you can draw on the innovation literature to understand how newsroom integrations happened, including how that might have affected participation and participatory approaches.

LL: According to Participatory Journalism, much of the innovation in Canadian newsrooms  — at least where participation is concerned — has been recent.  And it has been guided strongly by a business rationale.

AH: Over the course of our research, what became apparent is that part of the adoption of participatory tools had very much to do with the nature of the media markets. So in the more competitive markets, more audience participation was evident. That wasn’t so much because editors had an evangelical conversion to participatory media: rather, if The Daily Telegraph has a very active community of online users and you are The Guardian, you have to compete in that space and vice versa. Similarly in Israel, we saw very competitive markets, lots of audience participation. Whereas in Canada you don’t really have the same level of competition: we have a very concentrated media space with a few big media conglomerates. So the drive to innovate or experiment is less driven by competition and far more by ‘how can we make money out of this, how does this tie into a bottom line?’ In other words, Canadian media outlets have been able to take a step back and apply more of a business rationale.

LL: And yet, it seems like lately Canada has seen itself as competing with a global market, and that affects how they adopt participatory strategies.

AH: What is interesting with the Canadian situation, I think there’s been a realization that your competition isn’t just a Canadian publication now. If you are the Globe and Mail your competition is not just CBC or the National Post or Global; it’s the New York Times, it’s The Guardian, it’s the BBC. I think that’s really become apparent in the newsrooms in the past two to three years, that particularly in the online space, the competition is truly international. And certainly part of that is because you’ve seen The Guardian for example or the BBC, becoming much more aggressive in developing a North American presence, particularly a U.S. presence.

LL: One example you give is that the Globe and Mail foregrounds user comments more than other papers in Canada, even internationally. Is that a response to pressure from an international market?

AH: I think it’s a combination of various factors. I think one of them is certainly the way the Globe and Mail sees its role within Canada as a national leader in sparking debate in raising issues, in trying to get a conversation going in Canada on key issues. So, from a philosophical perspective it makes perfect sense for the Globe, to adopt commenting as a way of trying to promote that: to take that conversation that it hopes it’s happening in coffee shops, at home, in offices and move it online. 

At the same time, it’s important to note that comments are not a challenging form of participation.  They don’t force journalists to question what it is they do and how they do it, because their job remains unchanged.  They decide what the news is, they decide who to speak to, they decide what voices to include, how to structure it, how to publish it. Only then does the audience get to talk about their work. That doesn’t mean that comments aren’t important, because they open up the media space. But they don’t challenge the hegemony of the journalists in deciding what is news.    

LL: There is a legal dimension to this as well…

AH: This is a case in which the technology, cultural practices, and social practices have outstripped the legal framework. If you said 20 years ago to the public ‘you know, you’re going to be sharing links to news stories and commenting on news stories and telling your friends about them,’ or ‘you’re going to be taking photos of that train crash or that fire, and sending them to Global and to CTV, they would have responded ‘why would I ever want to do that?’ What we’ve had is some technical and cultural changes, but the legal system still applies to a 20th century model of media, where essentially the media producers were journalists. The traditional definition of a journalist is somebody who works for a newspaper, i.e. somebody who works for somebody who owns the means of production. And we have a legal system that’s based on looking at who owns the means of production, and that they are liable for what they produce and disseminate on the media. Thus, in a lot of places it’s unclear if media outlets are liable for comments on their websites. Some newspapers responded with, ‘we’re not liable if we don’t edit, but if we edit them then we’re liable because we are…we’re not just becoming a channel, we’re actually involved in the content.’ Other newspapers have outsourced the moderation, as a way of distancing the journalistic operation from the participatory aspect. So what you have is newsrooms trying to negotiate a legal environment where there is a great deal of uncertainty, there’s no clarity, legal clarity on the rules, and there’s very little case precedent in terms of potential liability. And that uncertainty causes a certain degree of caution and conservatism, because you’re not quite sure where those legal boundaries are.

Participatory Journalism: Guarding Open Gates In Online Newspapers (Jane B. Singer, Alfred Hermida, David Domingo, Ari Heinonen, Steve Paulussen, Thorsten Quandt, Zvi Reich and Marina Vujnovic) was published in 2011 by Wiley-Blackwell. For more information, see