Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reuters et al in Africa


This could be a test of how professional and amateur journalism can cohabitate. It may provide some intriguing insights on how the public perceives the difference between "pro" and "am" content -- if it does -- and which of the two readers tend to prefer in times of crisis vs. calm.
Reuters has considerable assets in Africa, a woefully underreported continent with a disproportionate share of suffering and underdevelopment, and is quite capable of parachuting in anything it needs to should the need arise.

So its new Africa website, with a fairly balanced mix of news from trusted sources and information and opinion from external blogs, is an interesting experiment in going not only where it has not before but didn't necessarily have to. Rather than just take an overdue opportunity to play to an obvious strength, Reuters seems to be treating this as living laboratory of the pro-am philosophy, putting its money where its mouth is.

Africa is difficult (read: expensive) to report from. It is hard for most Western MSM to justify the expense of keeping boots on the ground there given the general (lack of) interest in the West in African general news, even when terrible things are routinely happening to innocent people, which seems to be pretty much all the time.

Among the news food groups television still has an unusual power to focus collective attention. But not much from Africa finds its way onto the evening network news programs or even cable's we-never-close channels. Unless perhaps Brad and Angelina or maybe even Madonna have something to say.

Already doing a great job in this space was the BBC, whose Africa section is deep and wide and varied and rich in multimedia. Now Reuters has waded in, unleashing its considerable news pool from Africa. And it is doing it with a differentiator, by including Global Voices blogs. What it lacks in organization it attempts to make up for in diversity and a pro-am approach that could raise topics before the MSM, including Reuters, picks up on it.

A pet lament of Reuters Editor in Chief David Schlesinger-- I think he would say it is an observation -- is that "You can’t force people to read something they just don’t care about." But Reuters serves many markets, many internal to Africa and about half having nothing to do with the United States. It is on solid economic footing with permanent presences throughout the continent and does not need to justify its existence as purely US news outlets would.

So Reuters is giving excellent billing to non-traditional reporting even though traditional content won't be in short supply. It isn't filling what would otherwise be a half-empty glass; Reuters seems to be saying that while its considerable reporting assets would have been the last words a few years ago, the advent of citizen journalism means that is no longer true.

It isn't doing less, it is just that what it does is no longer enough anymore.

This could be a test of how professional and amateur journalism can cohabitate. It may provide some intriguing insights on how the public perceives the difference between "pro" and "am" content -- if it does -- and which of the two readers tend to prefer in times of crisis vs. calm.

This is risky business. Places like Reuters, with generations of institutional knowledge, a long history of respected professionalism and a reputation it aggressively defends, are exactly the right kind of venues for this kind of experiment in journalism to be played out. I, for one, wouldn't trust the newbies or amateurs on this one.

1 comment:

David Schlesinger said...

I do obsess about the relationship between push and pull in journalism.

Journalists have an obligation and often a compulsion to tell the world about what we consider important. But that means little unless the world is listening!

It's fine if there's an audience that is either already interested in a subject or is willing to be engaged.

It's much more difficult if there isn't.

Page design, graphics, referring links, blog entries pointing to the serendipitous story, word of mouth, waiting for the zeitgeist...

Push and pull have to work together, whether on a blog site or on a news site.