Will citizen journalism shake up SA media?

“Today I might be reporting about a crime that happened across the street, and tomorrow about a car accident. I’ll report about everything that is newsworthy,” says Dolpy Rakgoale (27), a security officer working in downtown Johannesburg.

Hold on a second—a security officer who reports on everyday news? What he will be doing is called “citizen journalism”, and everyone can take part in it.

Rakgoale’s dream of becoming a famous reporter might come true with a new platform for citizen journalism in South Africa: Reporter.co.za. Ordinary people with internet access can publish their own story and get paid for it. It is “news for the people, by the people”, as the website puts it.

“I have been waiting for such a thing to happen since I was young. I always wanted to be a reporter,” explains Rakgoale. “I like investigating things, and an investigative story will one day make me famous.”

The Johncom Digital-owned Reporter.co.za will publish its first stories on January 9. By January 6, more than 800 people were already subscribed and sending pictures and stories to the 20-strong newsroom staff working on the site part-time.

“The newsroom with 20 journalists, who are all skilled in different areas, will mentor and assist the ‘reporter’, before we publish it [a news report] on the website. The public will tell us what the news is,” explains Juliette Saunders, editor of Reporter.co.za.

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia says that in this form of journalism, called citizen journalism, “citizens of the world can play an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and disseminating news and information. This form of ‘we media’ provides independent and wide-ranging information. It gives the people that are excluded or misrepresented by the news the chance of making [themselves] heard.” 

Citizen journalism also relies on people who are not trained journalists but provide their own footage of events, taken with their camera or camera phone on the scene of an incident that is newsworthy. The BBC Online has eyewitness pictures, taken with cellphones, of the London bombings in July last year and the 2004 tsunami in Asia.

For Saunders, citizen journalism is about opening up access to the media and breaking down barriers.

“On Reporter.co.za, people can do what they want, so it is a form of citizen journalism. We don’t have any control over the product. And if people start sending in stories about what happened on their street corner, that would be fabulous.

“If you have a passionate interest in baseball, but there is not one newspaper that wants to publish your story, we are the platform. I am not afraid that no one will read those stories because people won’t write stories to bore other people.”

Saunders says Reporter.co.za will cater for any story written by anyone, as long as the facts are correct. To maintain the credibility of the site, facts will be checked by the 20 newsroom journalists who assist the “reporters” with their stories.

“We are looking for facts rather than opinions. And fact checking will all depend on the circumstances; of course we do a quality-control check. We are strict about accuracy. Dealing with this will be one of the most exciting sides of the project,” says Saunders.

People who have one of their stories or pictures published on Reporter.co.za will receive money for it, starting from R25.

“If the story is usable for one of Johncom’s newspapers,” says Saunders, “the maker gets the chance to receive big money!”

With citizen journalism, the gap between journalists and the public becomes smaller. Professor Peter Verweij, lecturer in new media at the School of Journalism in The Netherlands, told the Mail & Guardian Online: “Through the citizen reporter, the public realise again that they are part of the news: the ‘we-media’ is ‘our news’. This is important because it enhances the debate in public sphere, which is vital for democracy.”

Citizen journalism also has its downside and remains a highly discussed item in the blogosphere. Critic Vincent Maher, head of the new media lab at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, published a paper called Citizen Journalism Is Dead.

He noted that “citizen journalism is potentially devoid of any form of ethical accountability other than the legislative environment in which the individual operates. So, on the level of routine practice, there is very little control, especially in terms of accuracy.”

His paper was criticised in blogs, a platform where anyone can publish whatever they want for free, which led to him publishing a rewritten paper, titled Towards a Critical Media Studies Approach to the Blogosphere.

Verweij says: “There are some rules in this new ballgame: objectivity, independency and transparency about your work and work methods are important conditions.”

While the debate about citizen journalism continues, blogs keep gaining popularity all over the world. The number of blogs registered with Technorati, a search engine that keeps track of blogs subscribed to this service, is now 24,5-million.

Other examples of citizen journalism online are Wikinews, which is part of the Wikipedia encyclopedia. Now Public and the English version of the Korean OhmyNews website are some of the others.

The “tipping point” for traditional media to recognise the importance of citizen journalism takes on different forms. In Britain, it was the London bombings and in The Netherlands the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2 2004. In both cases, ordinary people with camera phones were the first to take pictures of the event. Newspaper photographers arrived minutes later and could only snap pictures of the aftermath.

South Africa has not reached such a tipping point yet. But, says Verweij: “In the new South Africa, the ‘we-media’ are an enormous opportunity. It could give a voice to numerous people living in townships and make their news part of the public debate too. The new website Reporter.co.za is therefore an important initiative. It is an incentive to journalism and democracy in South Africa.”

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