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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 April 2006, 09:17 GMT 10:17 UK
Why we are all reporters now

By Dan Gillmor

Tom DeLay
DeLay has been accused of laundering corporate contributions
In the autumn of 2004, Republicans in the US House of Representatives voted to neuter a rule that had required members holding leadership positions to step down if indicted.

The ballot, held in secret, was aimed at helping Tom DeLay, a Texas representative and majority leader who was indicted last year.

By then, however, the Republicans had overturned their rule change, and Mr DeLay was obliged to leave his leadership post. This week, he said he was resigning from the House outright.

The Republicans' change of heart was not, in my view, entirely motivated by concern for public integrity.

A relentless focus on their original rule change, spurred by a prominent journalistic weblog, surely had something to do with the shift.

Joshua Micah Marshall, creator of a blog called Talking Points Memo, asked his readers who lived in districts represented by Republicans to call their representatives' offices and ask how they voted on what had become known as the "DeLay rule."

Then Mr Marshall and another blogger reported the tally. They kept up the pressure on the House Republicans, who must have wondered why people cared about their action.

Power of the crowd

The process, asking readers to help report the story, fit into a category I have been calling "distributed journalism." Mr Marshall was one of the first to see the potential.

Citizen journalism and professional journalism are not mutually exclusive concepts

If they are smart, journalists at major media organisations will recognise that their readers can be major contributors to tomorrow's journalism.

The idea isn't entirely new, of course. Traditional journalism organisations have used photographs from freelancers for decades and, more recently, have been soliciting pictures and videos from their audiences.

Typically such images have come from breaking news events where a passer-by with a camera captured the scene, most famously in the immediate aftermath of last July's London bombings.

The moves to involve citizens in journalism come amid a perverse backlash against citizen journalism by some in the traditional, professional media.

The latest attack appeared last week on the CBS News Public Eye blog, where one of America's most prominent journalism organisations discusses how the news is made.

A journalism professor and New York Times education columnist Samuel Freedman blasted citizen journalists as, among other things, mere producers of raw material rather than finished product, and opinion-givers in an echo chamber of like-minded amateurs.

Enormous opportunity

Citizen journalism and professional journalism are not mutually exclusive concepts.

We're actually heading toward an ecosystem that will support a variety of journalistic endeavours. As author and blogger Doc Searls has said, the logic we should adopt is "and", rather than "or."

Reader photo to the London bombings
Striking images of the 7 July bombings were taken by amateurs
When professional journalists ask their audiences for pictures, they are taking a useful step.

They can, and should, go considerably deeper, however, by giving audiences the tools to participate more fully in the emergent global conversation of which journalism is a vital part.

Local publishers and broadcasters should be aiming to help their communities engage in that conversation, via blogs, podcasts, discussion boards and all of the other conversational tools.

They can also emulate the Talking Points Memo method. Find a topic where thousands of people can ask a single question and report the answer back to a central person or database. The results become journalism.

Traditional journalism organisations could easily do such things. Not every investigative journalism project needs to be conducted in secret.

For example, the rebuilding of America's Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is far too big a story for any professional media company to cover in a thorough way.

They should be asking the citizens of the affected communities for help, but as far as I can tell they aren't even making the attempt, and are thereby missing an enormous opportunity.

Win-win situation

Professional journalists should also be helping citizen journalists, with education and training.

Most people don't care to be journalists, but many of us can and will occasionally commit an act of journalism, and it would be useful for people to understand some of the principles that have served the professionals, and their audiences, so well for so long.

Citizen journalism won't replace the professionals, at least I hope not. We need the best of what the pros do.

Let me say that I'm not addressing the business issues here that are undermining the pros' business models. That's a separate but important topic, which I'll be addressing in an upcoming column.

But we are going to have to all recognise that the old systems are expanding. We are learning new ways to gather, sift and recombine what we know and learn together.

We can all win in that game.

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media, a book about technology and the development of grassroots journalism. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media.

Dan is writing a series of columns for the BBC News website. He will also respond to readers' questions and comments in the week beginning 17 April, in a change to the previously announced schedule.

Do you agree with his views?

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