YouDecide2007: an Australian case study in citizen journalism
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- YouDecide2007: an Australian case study in citizen journalism
Interview with Terry Flew, Professor, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology
Youdecide2007227 was the first experiment in Australia with collaborative, citizen journalism website. It ran during the 2007 Australian Federal election campaign, from early September 2007 up to and shortly after the November 23, 2007 election date.
The site demonstrated how the participatory model of social media could help shape political engagement in Australia. It attracted a number of new commentators and the attention of mainstream media.
Youdecide2007 made a modest but significant contribution to the political debate leading up to and during the 2007 Australian Federal election. It allowed new voices to be heard during its three months of operation. It showcased a hyper-local, seat-by-seat model of journalism. Contributions from 50 electorates were received.
Although primarily a research project, Youdecide2007 allowed new voices to be heard during the election period, broke stories that were picked up by the mainstream media and demonstrated how a more participatory model of social media can inform political engagement in Australia.
The site was a research project involving researchers in the Creative Industries Faculty at the Queensland University of Technology with the industry partners including the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Cisco Systems Australia and New Zealand, online publishers The National Forum (publishers of On Line Opinion), and public affairs think-tank, the Brisbane Institute.
The Youdecide2007 website was designed to enable 'citizen journalism' coverage of the election by facilitating community interaction and hosting "user-generated content" in a user friendly manner. The site allowed registered users to upload multimedia content, which then passed through a lightweight editorial process before appearing on the website. The purpose of this functionality was to provide tools and resources that would enable and invite participation by any member of the public to create user-generated news.
The design and layout of the site was structured to allow aggregated electorate level viewing of content. Recent user comments were flagged on the front page to promote a sense of community and immediacy, as it is known that regular updates of content generate repeat visits to online sites.
Youdecide2007 attempted to recruit citizen journalists from every Australian electorate and the purpose of these in-field citizen journalists was to foster the development of locality-based content or "hyper-local news."
The site required those wishing to post or comment to register and assent to a Manual for Citizen Journalists.228 While the site was active, a core three person team managed the day-to-day operation. This team edited contributions, moderated comments, promoted the site, syndicated material across the networked news environment and moderated community interaction.
Prior to launch, the Youdecide2007 initiative was publicized through a Facebook page, which attracted 250 members, as well as a YouTube video.229 Youdecide2007 also sent out letters to political organisations and to journalism and media schools at Australian universities to raise awareness about the site. This "word-of-mouth" publicity was successful in attracting a significant user base for the site, particularly given the short timeframe during which the site was live.
Youdecide2007's impact can be understood in three ways-visitors to the site, contributors to the site and exposure to the site, for example, in mainstream media or political discussions.
While active, the site attracted around 2000 registered users. At its peak, the site attracted over 12 000 readers a week. According to industry ratings and monitoring of traffic counters throughout the election period, the site received more traffic than all major political parties' sites except the Australian Labor Party.
Youdecide2007 published 230 stories, which were a mixture of citizen and staff-generated material. Citizen journalists submitted print, video, audio and photographic materials to the site as part of contributing their stories. These stories came from 50 of Australia's 156 electorates.
Youdecide2007 received significant coverage in the mainstream media, with stories about the site in The Age, ABC Radio National, various local ABC radio stations, local newspapers and Fairfax's online properties.
Youdecide2007 broke stories that were picked up by the national press. The most notable story, 'crate-gate', received the highest number of hits (about 2000 overall) of any story posted on the site. It consisted of an interview with Peter Lindsay, the Member for Herbert (a North Queensland electorate based around Townsville), in which he said that 'mortgage stress' was primarily the result of young people lacking financial management skills and getting into debt too easily. Mr Lindsay said that when he was younger, if you could not afford furniture you would sit on a milk crate until you could. The story became known as 'crate-gate' and Lindsay's remarks were referred to by then Opposition leader Kevin Rudd in the House of Representatives.
Other stories that attracted over 400 hits included stories on the environment, nuclear power, 'porkbarreling' in marginal electorates, housing affordability, campaign strategies and African immigration. There were also audio interviews with various candidates and an 'open opinion thread' that invited registrants to comment on issues in their local electorate.
The project team involved in Youdecide2007 learned three key lessons from running the site.
Firstly, offline networks are important for recruitment and for building momentum. There was a geographic bias in registrations and contributions to the site. The largest number of site registrants was from Queensland (40 per cent) followed by New South Wales (20 per cent) and Victoria (13.3 per cent). And there were more contributions from Queensland than any other parts of the country. This may reflect the fact that the project team was based in Queensland.
Secondly, the principal activity on the site was posting stories, not discussions about the material posted. This was arguably typical for a site that was available over a short time frame around a specific, time-bound event such as an election. It suggests that a different model may be necessary to build greater deliberation around policy issues.
An important lesson of Youdecide2007 was that, even with a more deliberative and less news driven site, there is a vital role for site managers and core contributors to develop 'seed content', manage content and also promote community building on the site.
Thirdly, Youdecide2007 did not break with the mould in terms of participation. While overall levels of engagement with the site were significant, the bulk of contributions appear to have come from those already engaged with the Australian political process.
News organisations worldwide are facing a growing number of challenges. These include the impact of the economic downturn, the shift away from established news sources by younger people, the migration of classified advertising away from newspapers and the rise of online news sources and aggregators such as Google News. An important question for the future of journalism is how the process of breaking news and more time-intensive and resource-intensive forms of reporting, occur given these challenges.
Youdecide2007 provided one example of how citizen voices from areas outside of the immediate media focus may be highlighted and harnessed to generate public discussion. Similar opportunities exist in many other areas as well. While some citizen journalism sites draw energy from positioning themselves as immediately opposed to the 'spin' they perceive in commercial news organisations, citizen journalists have the potential to work hand-in-hand with professional journalists and thereby increase the depth and breadth of news coverage and public debate.
Another relevant and recent factor is the uptake of social media services such as the microblogging service Twitter. Twitter allows the flexible aggregation of real-time local reportage of current events. News Limited recently linked to the Twitter search page containing emerging news about blackouts in Sydney to report on a part of the story where very little reliable, confirmed information was available. The prospect of an aggregated, hyper-local citizen journalism powered by social media services such as Twitter may be of greater significance as major news organisations continue to experiment with using Twitter to 'crowdsource' information on developing news stories.Back to top
 Reuse or distribution of this case study must include the following attribution: Australia's Digital Economy: Future Directions © Terry Flew, Queensland University of Technology and Commonwealth of Australia, 2009, www.dbcde.gov.au/digital_economy/final_report