Thursday, February 23, 2006

SA's new citizen journ site gets its first scoop

Barely two weeks after its launch, South Africa's first citizen journalism portal is “exceeding expectations,” according to the website’s editor Juliette Saunders. Felix Bate reports.

Saunders said the public has been responding positively to the news portal, though she could not give the number of hits the website has been getting. But she said that there were already more that 1800 registered contributors, sending stories.
In this short space of time, the website has also managed a scoop by breaking the story of a helicopter crash in Cape Town, with an eyewitness account and pictures. is the brainchild of by Johnnic Communications, one of South Africa’s leading media houses, managed through its new media wing – Johncom Group Digital Media.

Saunders said the aim of the venture was to do something innovative and radically different in the new media space. This has been made possible by advances in information and communication technologies, which has enabled the growth of the phenomenon of citizen journalism, whereby anybody with the simplest of means and interest can report on events they witness.

This South African venture follows on the heels of the explosive success of a South Korean version (Ohmynews), that began back in 2000 and the growth in popularity of in France as the leading citizen journalism portal in Europe. Some stories from these sites are now listed by Yahoo News alongside news from other established news agencies.

With a team of experienced journalist that includes Peter Malherbe, Manu Padayachee and 20 others, Saunders says they aim to provide the public with a forum where their views and voices can be heard. “We would not try to talk to the public or push an agenda,” said Saunders, “We are trying to get the public talking in such a way that we are informed by the general public.”
She added that the content will be a mix of different kinds of news from different sources and perspectives, particularly what interests individuals and what grabs their attention, “we don’t want to copy any newspaper format, the choice of stories will be very open,” she said.

The editorial team will provide newsdesk support and coordination to all the contributors, mentoring them through their stories. Saunders noted that most of the stories they are getting lean heavily on opinion and general comments rather than facts. Thus the editorial team is there to guide the contributors and enable them to get newsworthy stories, she said.

“We try to inform and educate them especially on the dangers of plagiarism, and also give pointers on how to find good stories, how to write properly, and especially not to lift other people’s stories and claim they are theirs – as we have had two cases already.”

Apart from news, the website also features other sections like columns, a fun zone for poems and quirky bits, a reporter zone where users can learn the basics and ethics of journalism, and a community forum page. Registered contributors get paid between R25 and R35 for the stories, and more if their stories are picked up by other news agencies.
Though citizen journalism has been welcomed around the world as an alternative to mainstream news sources, it does not yet threaten the position of old media as the primary source of news. Though it is accepted that Ohmynews did play an influential role in the last Korean presidential election, it still has not displaced the old media in South Korea.

Since 9/11 and the London bombings, the phenomenon is growing as individuals with basic technologies are able to put out stories and pictures of events they witness even before news crews get to the scenes, and the public and mainstream media have taken note of the role they can play.

Saunders says she hopes grows to that level of influence and she sees its future as a “stand-alone virtual newspaper, providing news to the public”.

Note: My article on Heart Rate Monitors appears in today's

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