To mark the relaunch of the Editors Weblog, the World Editors Forum is running a special series entitled "Doing More with Less." The series highlights major trends that editors-in-chief are using to steer their newsrooms through the difficult economic climate. The eighth in the series takes a look at France24's The Observers, which provides professionally-edited citizen journalism.
The Observers is a France24 venture launched in December 2007, which combines citizen journalism with professional editing. Only three full time staff work on the project, yet it operates two versions of its website (one in English, one in French), has just started a weekly radio show and is about to start a weekly television slot. The Editors Weblog spoke to Julien Pain, Founder and Editor of the site, about its work.
How it works: zooming in and zooming out
The Observers is a collaborative website, with "professional content and an international scope," stressed Pain. The site displays a series of documents - either photos or videos - taken by amateurs from around the world. According to Pain, "you won't see a photo taken by a professional journalist on the site." Editors, based in Paris, then provide some background information on each document and 'observers' from the country it discusses will comment. The idea is to zoom in on a small anecdote and then zoom out, placing it within a wider context. The stories picked to follow might be connected to well-known breaking news items, or might be about something which is relatively unknown to readers. Occasionally an extraordinary item will come to light, such as a short video sent in by a policeman in Gaza, which shows the entrance to an alleged tunnel linking the Gaza Strip to Egypt.
Who are the Observers?
As well as the three full time staff in Paris, about a dozen freelancers have been taken on as 'regional editors,' and they are paid for their time but only work when required. Most of the documents used come from the 700 'observers' around the world who essentially act as trusted contacts. The idea is to receive information from people who are on the scene of whatever story is being told. They are used as local sources, Pain explained, "we don't try to make them into reporters. We use their expertise and local knowledge." He always looks for truly local contacts, "I am not going to get somebody in Beijing to comment on something that happened 3000km away in the Sichuan province," he insisted. When possible, Pain always tries to get people native to the country to 'observe,' rather than French or English people living abroad, as they obviously tend to have a better knowledge of the local language and culture. Anybody who goes to the Observers site can register as a "friend" and is free to comment or contact the site, and those 'friends' who provide useful information over a course of time will be invited to become Observers. Pain hopes that the already substantial network will grow further.
Observers are not reporters: "We use their expertise and local knowledge"
Blog-style site breaks down barriers
The site takes advantage of the best aspects of a blog, but maintains professional direction. The site has the informal tone of a blog; it aims to be "smooth and easy to read," commentated Pain. He believes that "blogs have broken down the barrier between journalists and readers. Now on a blog, you can talk to your readers." The Observers hopes to be part of a dialogue, allowing comments on all stories and responding to reader reactions. "We are always very clear about what we do know, and what we don't," Pain clarified: for instance if the date of a photo is known but the exact location has not been proved, and this is where readers' knowledge could come in useful. He added that readers are asked "to provide information and links to update the story," and he occasionally specifically asks if people can check or verify content. "The story doesn't stop when it's published," Pain explained, and editors will frequently go back and add or change things.
Essential professional editing
What differentiates the Observers from other similar citizen journalism projects linked to traditional media outlets, such as CNN's iReport, is that although much content is produced by amateurs, everything is professionally checked and edited. Fact checking is a time consuming process, Pain explained, but crucial to maintain the validity of the site. "Amateur content is far more valuable if edited by professional journalists," he believes, as when faced with the vast amount of citizen produced content available on the web, it is difficult to know what is reliable. The Observers is confident that is can be a trusted source, and the confirmation process often involves checking facts with more than one contact. Pain also explained that he would feel very uncomfortable about associating unverified information with The Observers' parent brand, France24.
"Amateur content is far more valuable if edited by professional journalists"
The Observers has just started a weekly 15 minute radio show in partnership with Radio France Internationale. The idea is to take a document and analyse it, with an expert on the subject matter, and then Pain explains how the Observers obtained it. A television slot on France24 is expected to follow shortly; it will be along similar lines, but just five minutes long. The same content will be used for all three platforms - online, radio and television - but will be presented in different ways. Pain also hopes to start an Arabic version of the site soon, and possibly increase staff numbers.
Pain was clear that the Observers' work does not intend to replace professional journalism, rather it hopes to provide an alternative voice in the news media world, where so often, almost identical stories will be published countless times. The site is likely to fascinate anybody interested in international news, and the model is extremely innovative, with an impressive output considering its tiny number of full time staff. The Observers has found a way to validate citizen journalism and turn amateur content into something more valuable, and this could well be a model used more frequently in the future as news outlets struggle with limited resources.