We’ve been watching a significant change in the Portuguese news media, for the last few years. From national to local newspapers, radios and TV channels, everyone is building their presence online, with more or less aptitude or quality. Still, the effort is noticeable.
But this investment in new platforms of communication doesn’t mean the companies are following the latest trends, or leaving their somewhat conservative approach to the full possibilities of the web. The news websites in Portugal are mostly a repository for print content, since many don’t have exclusively online journalists, and the resources for online content are rather limited, especially as multimedia content is concerned, though slowly the tide is turning, mainly due to the efforts of major newspapers, that are trying to improve and take the step forward in online content.
This scenario, of slow and uneven development of new media content, is useful to explain why the interactivity between media and users is practically inexistent. Many still don’t grasp the concept of participative/citizen journalism and community, but companies and newsroom managements aren’t the only ones to blame, since there are other factors to consider:
– Portugal has a low newspaper reading index, and despite an increase in the last years, it is still one of the lowest in Europe;
– the Portuguese, as a people, usually aren’t civically engaged;
– journalists, as a class, are quite protective about their job;
– there is no specific training for professional journalists regarding community management, content moderation, outsourced content;
So, if news information still runs downriver, it’s because there’s not only a structural problem, but also a passive-aggressive attitude towards citizen journalism: passive on the citizen part, aggressive on the journalists’ that defend their status as news bearers with tooth and nail, even if most don’t take any effort to understand the new reality.
To vouch for these changes and current mindset, I created a small survey in which I was trying to understand the conditions and openness of online media to citizen contribution. It was divided in 4 parts: company characteristics, main types of content and sources, forms of user participation, and a short opinion on citizen journalism. This survey was sent to about 50 newspapers, TV and radios with online news features, sizing from national media groups to local companies. The response was baffling.
A quarter of the email addresses available for contact with the website or newsroom’s management were useless, and even after further attempts inviting the remaining ones that worked, only four companies replied and filled out the form. The results are, therefore, inconclusive. But this is a good example to show how receptive most newsrooms and companies are to outside stimulation, even if it wasn’t only for the fact that the ones that replied are amongst those who are working to develop their presence online, in a well thought, sustainable way, and embracing the new challenges posed by hyper-communication, while the vast majority is selling pig in a poke.
Anyway, these were the results: two newspapers – one national, the other local – one online news outlet and a TV channel answered to the survey. The local newspaper was the less resourceful, with no exclusively online journalists, against the online outlet who has over 30 workers. The local newspaper had a 30 to 50 thousand visits, against the over 330 thousand claimed by the TV channel’s online newsroom. All of them prioritized text over video, audio and photography, being video the less used format, except on the TV website, for obvious reasons. None of them used citizen or users as a source, sticking to the journalists’ investigation and agencies feed, although users’ images and videos were welcome. All of them are expecting to open their website to further user collaboration, and when asked about the future of citizen journalism, the best answer was “interactivity is one of the factors that increases the number of visits,(…) and the visibility and acknowledgement of the brand”. This line of thought is still a needle in the Portuguese news haystack.
The most recent reports on citizen journalism in the USA (State of the News Media 2008) show a decrease in user’s participation, though there are new websites and features popping up everyday, appealing to news readers to develop contents and create a tighter relationship with the online editions. In Portugal, all the news related to media websites development is announcing more multimedia and interactive features, for a broadband usage: more video, more comments, more space for users’ opinions and input. With very few notable exceptions, nothing is really changing; the main difference now is that the contributions accepted by media companies are now being sent over the internet, instead of regular mail, like it happened for decades.
Portuguese users are actively creating own media, like blogs and podcasts, and commenting on the news websites, or sending small videos and pictures is still enough for most of them. And on the day I’m writing this, Público presented a feature, that links a news article to the blogs that refer to it, which may mean that the future is not necessarily in the embedding of citizen content, but by promoting the exchange of contents between corporate and citizen media. But, apart from those small advances to integrate users in the building of the news landscape, there is nothing we may call as citizen journalism in Portugal.
The reasons to proclaim citizen journalism as a part of the future of news media may be honest or pure marketing, but the fact is that it doesn’t rely solely on the companies shoulders. The main promoters of this movement must be the citizens themselves, and they should be the leading force in changing the face of corporate news, recreating the agenda setting, humanizing and lending depth to news content. The media outlets just have to be ready to accept that.