Global Voices is a community gathering hundreds of bloggers and citizen journalists who want their stories to be heard around the world. Solana Larsen, managing editor of Global Voices, talks about the importance of citizen journalism today, obstacles it's facing and the role of citizens in improving the work journalists.
How did you become interested in citizen journalism and online media in general?
When I graduated journalism 10 years ago I also wanted to be international correspondent, but at some point along the way I became very interested in internet, I started exploring it, and I realized the future is on the internet. I became extremely excited about the idea of people who are from different countries telling stories to an international audience – how we can use the internet to essentially make the world smaller place.
Why did the internet become so important for media?
I think it is clear – the internet is where it’s all heading. It's the most convenient, it's what young people are using, it's what we have in our phones, in our pockets every day, it's what we use to engage socially with our families and friends, and therefore it's also becoming the most natural place for us to consume news. The sooner the news media recognize that, the sooner they will be able to survive, I think.
How do journalists need to change in order to “survive”?
One thing that is very important for them is not only to read, to consume online media, but also to create online media. To be engaged in these communities, to be an equal participant. That's something that is very hard for journalists to begin to do, because it means stepping down from a pedestal and joining people and excepting that they might have more information then you or that their opinions may be valuable.
How do journalists react to what citizens and bloggers do?
The first instinct of a lot of journalists was to work against it, to say no, this is new, I don't understand this, I don't like this – this is a challenge to what I'm doing, it's nonsense and a waste of time. I think journalists imagine that citizens go out and try to mimic them, but when you gather citizen journalists they don't discuss journalism at all, or journalists, or media. The way they think about what they're doing have nothing to do with journalism from their own perspective. People don't identify as journalists, they are just citizens who are trying to get the information out there.
Why did citizens feel the need to engage in that way?
The audience is telling journalists we are interested in information - if we don't think that you're giving us what we want and deserve, we will make our own alternatives. A lot of citizen journalism that you see all over the world, especially where there isn't much free speech, is citizens who feel they have to go out and report the things that media is not reporting. That is the main challenge to newspapers and journalists as I see it – journalists not doing a good job that citizens feel they should be doing.
Do you think that citizens could improve work of journalists?
I think journalism is, in a way, a less lonely job. You put yourself out there, you're going to take some risks, but you also have thousands of people who are supporting you if you're honest to something important. It's important moment for journalists to return to the core values of what makes journalism special and exciting. It's not to copy what everybody else is doing or to have more headlines about sex and the crazy things that attract people, it's to get down to deep core values of what journalism is supposed to be.
What has changed in a way people are thinking about journalists now?
Journalism used to be part of identity, something that you were, like a club, something that will get you in places and it meant that you had more information than somebody else, and you had certain amount of power. But now it's different. Part of the magic has been taken away from them. People understand how news is created now, they are asking so many questions and demanding higher standards, because they understand how to do it, they know that they can do it.
Global Voices is a network that gathers citizen journalists, how does this organization work?
We have a staff of about 30 people who are working mostly part time, and several hundred volunteers. We don't have any office, everything is virtual. Most of our money comes through philanthropy, donations of organizations that are supporting journalism or free speech issues.
How do you verify information that you get from different people?
It's difficult. Our key component is to work with people that we know and to get to know people that we work with. We initiate conversation with people, check what this person has written, who follows him on Twitter... There is also a “gut instinct”, you talk to this person, you listen and you see how it goes. Also, for each region we have an editor who checks everything that's written. So far we haven't had any bad cases of abuse or scandals.
Did your stories have any big impacts?
One very important thing that we have been doing all these years is taking local stories where citizens are trying to get the word out, but they are being blocked by governments and mainstream media, and help elevate the story to international attention. That is hugely powerful. In many cases we have been the first ones or sometimes the only ones to say: “Hey, are you listening what people are saying in this country?” Tunisia is a good example – we were reporting about protests, all of Tunisian bloggers were saying this is big, this could be the revolution, and not even Al Jazeera, not Reuters, nobody was reporting about it.
Can we really trust the things bloggers and citizens write?
Journalists only want to know how can you trust what's outhere, how can you know that they're not fooling you or lying to you and I always turn it around and say how can people trust what you write in your newspapers? A lot of times citizens actually are correcting what newspapers are doing.
You can't get stuck up on asking is it a good or bad thing that there is a lot of false information online, that's just the fact of how it goes. The thing you have to hope is as people become more active in creative media they will became smarter online media consumers. They will became smarter in reading stuff that's online and smarter in how they read your newspapers.