Journalism endures even though its forms change

The aim of participatory journalism is to involve the audience so that professional journalists and the audience work together on journalistic content. Photo: Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States (Minneapolis Critical Mass) Wkimedia Commons

The aim of participatory journalism is to involve the audience so that professional journalists and the audience work together on journalistic content. Photo: Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon, United States (Minneapolis Critical Mass) Wikimedia Commons

Hate speech is not the only journalistic content the audience can offer.

The internet offers a platform for people with all sorts of ideologies to participate, even those with views that are generally considered unacceptable. Unfortunately, some of these opportunities for audience participation are being lost because of hate speech.

“Participation via the internet has given racists an arena for mobilisation and organisation,” says Laura Ahva.

Ahva is a postdoctoral researcher at COMET, the Tampere Research Centre for Journalism, Media and Communication, at the University of Tampere in Finland.

As a direct result of hate speech, the weekend supplement of Helsingin Sanomat – Finland’s biggest selling national daily – and one of the national television channels recently stopped online comments on their stories. The comments sections will stay closed for the foreseeable future.

Basic journalistic skills have thus far not included moderating online comments, but now this skill is increasingly in demand.

“It is a new form of journalistic work, and the media houses are still having some difficulties with it,” says Ahva, who researches participatory journalism. She notes that online comments features have never worked perfectly.

“I have never been an avid reader of comments,” she adds.

“Sensible modes of participatory journalism require a collaborative attitude and a lot of work. It is not easy to combine material from everyday lives with professionally produced journalism in a fruitful way.”

The aim of participatory journalism is to involve the audience so that professional journalists and the audience work together on journalistic content.

Participatory journalism does not have a very strong foothold in Finland, and the initial optimism over its use was short-lived.

“There were hopes that audience participation would open the boundaries of journalism and that both the journalistic process and public debate would improve. Then people noticed that those things do not come that easy,” Ahva says.

Participatory journalism does not work if the assumption is merely that empty pages will be filled by unpaid content producers.

Alarm bells start ringing for Ahva whenever she hears that media houses have announced “a new platform” for user-generated content.

“It’s always my first thought that such a process will require another layer of journalistic work, quality control and resource management. Controlling a mobile group of participants is hard work and brings with it unexpected issues.”

Ahva’s research analyses three media outlets in which audience participation is a key ingredient. In addition to the alternative Finnish newspaper Voima, the study analyses the “hyperlocal” Södra Sidan from Sweden and the pan-European online magazine Cafébabel, which has voluntary teams working on stories across the continent. Ahva has interviewed journalists and contributors for her study and observed editorial work.

Voima, for example, has a large network of contributors who each have their own reasons for writing for the paper.

“Voima is thought to be a channel for alternative voices. The people who write for the paper are motivated by the social influence they exert.”

If amateur writers are involved, quality control and the copy-editing of community media require special work in the chief editorial office. News criteria, topics and perspectives must all be negotiated. If repeatedly put off, voluntary writers will stop offering their texts for publication.

“The writers think that participatory journalism creates a sense of community and they want to participate in the activities of the community formed by the paper. Launching a public debate is another motive.”

It is hoped that the trend of participatory journalism will invigorate the field and sometimes even reduce labour costs. As the circulation of newspapers has decreased, journalism has looked for new forms of funding, especially online. For example, Long Play – a quality online Finnish paper – markets the rights to read single articles. There are also crowd-sourcing endeavours in journalism, and some newspaper stories are protected by paywalls.

Ahva believes that none of the above-mentioned tactics alone can ever fully fund journalism.

“However, I can imagine that the new forms of funding will continue to add to the financing of journalism. These forms have potential and the internet makes it a thousand times easier to gather funding,” Ahva says.

“I do not think quality journalism will die. However, it may change location and volume.”

Which skills do graduating journalists need?

Laura Ahva instructs students of journalism at the University of Tampere and she has noticed that they, too, are fully aware of the challenges the field is currently facing. Nevertheless, they are also very enthusiastic about studying in the field of their dreams.

According to Ahva, the skills of selecting and filtering information are still at the core of journalistic know how, as is a command of the different forms of expression. The visual aspects of journalism also continue to be important.

This autumn, Ahva is teaching on a course that focuses on the future of journalism. No fortune-telling skills are needed; instead, the course takes a critical look at the new manifestations and models of journalism, such as mobile, data, long-form and participatory journalism. Students will find elements they can use throughout their future careers among these “new journalisms”.

“We analyse the new journalistic forms in order to find good elements that the students can use to further develop the field of journalism.”

Text: Tiina Lankinen

Last September, the School of Communication, Media and Theatre celebrated the 90th anniversary of journalism education in Finland.