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March 29, 2010, 10 a.m.

Milton Wolf Seminar: Al Jazeera English as networked journalism

Is Al Jazeera English a Jeff Jarvis test case? Back in 2006, Jarvis coined a term called “networked journalism,” an approach to news that combines the work of both professional journalists and amateurs. Jarvis was looking for a better better way to describe collaborative work he had been calling citizen journalism:

“Networked journalism” takes into account the collaborative nature of journalism now: professionals and amateurs working together to get the real story, linking to each other across brands and old boundaries to share facts, questions, answers, ideas, perspectives. It recognizes the complex relationships that will make news. And it focuses on the process more than the product.

At the Milton Wolf Seminar in Vienna, one panel explored how the 24-hour news channel Al Jazeera English is experimenting with new media. The channel, which launched in 2006, airs in 100 countries, reaching between 130 and 180 million households. (Its reach in the United States is limited to Toledo and Burlington, Vt., though it does have studios in Washington, D.C.) One panelist, Shawn Powers, of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School, went so far as to describe Al Jazeera English as an experiment in networked journalism. The channel’s shows, its website and spinoff experimental sites tap into its audience to develop story ideas, gather data and deepen engagement. That collaboration between audience and professionals makes it an interesting networked journalism example.

“It’s culturally aligned with what drives new media today,” Powers said, “and we see that in the way its programs play out.”

Here’s an example: On Al Jazeera’s beta site, War on Gaza, users in region can submit events, from protests to incidents of violence, using SMS or Twitter. The site is powered using Ushahidi, a tool designed to crowdsource crisis situations. The submissions are tracked on a map with color-coded dots, which offer the user a new kind of geographic understanding of a conflict. Al Jazeera, which has reporters in parts of the Arab world other cable networks do not, can followup on events, mixing in the work of professionals with the wisdom of the crowd.

Richard Gizbert, host of one of the channel’s most popular shows The Listening Post and featured in the video above, presented the site, calling the work of the public almost indistinguishable from Al Jazeera itself.

“These guys are producers for us, they don’t even know it and we don’t pay them,” Gizbert said. Gizbert added that Al Jazeera does almost a better job of tapping into the reporting resources in the Arab world than it does providing content to those users on Al Jazeera.

Commenting on his own show, which focuses on media, Gizbert said he relies on his audience for input on what topics should be discussed. He draws from comments on the show’s Facebook page, tweets, and he even airs videos from viewers. “We use new media to do modern versions of letters to the editor,” Gizbert said.

Gizbert also warned of the pitfalls of new media and television. He described sitting in meetings with executives who see free tools as a great way to cut costs, without being clear on what these new tools actually do. The potential is there, and he said, but so are the pitfalls.

POSTED     March 29, 2010, 10 a.m.
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