Tag Archives: IJF14

What exactly is DIY journalism?

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Photo: Donald Lee Pardue via Flickr

Last week, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, I spoke in a panel discussion called “Freelance: by choice or by necessity?“, together with some colleagues of different background and experience. There were a war correspondent, a tech journalist from Berlin and an investigative journalist based in Cairo.

We mainly talked about being a freelancer (you don’t *work* as a freelancer, you are one). Aside from discussing the appalling condition of the job market in Italy, we spent some thoughts on what makes a good, marketable freelancer in Italy and abroad.

I often mention the idea of ‘Do It Yourself journalism’, generally known as the ability to manage the whole process of news production from pitching a story to editing a video or taking pictures.

So I think it’s good to tell a bit more about what I mean by DIY in journalism, which is in fact something different from its conventional definition.

When I started my career and my new life as a multimedia reporter in the UK, I knew very little about multimedia, I wasn’t very organised and I handled multitasking quite badly. To say the least. Over time I improved my skills, I became more confident with my English and learnt how to produce a multimedia news package independently. I now have a few pieces of equipment as well, a reflex camera with a couple of lenses, a zoom recorder, tripod.

I have always liked to think I am a DIY journalist, but I’ve never really thought about what is exactly that identifies me as such.

So one obvious answer could be that if you have a very good equipment and know how to use it, you are probably in a good position to be a self sufficient producer. Does that mean that a DIY journalist is some sort of techy geek with a lot of money to spend upfront? Certainly not.

I believe that all the fuss around the multimedia, multitasking and multi skilled modern journalist can be boiled down to one simple idea. The DIY journalist needs to be a good storyteller. But since the dominion of the words in journalism has come to an end more than a few years ago, the storytelling we need to master is a non-linear one.

A beautiful feature still is and probably will remain an appealing way to tell stories, but as an example look at the feature How Malaria Defeats our Drugs by Ed Yong. It’s a great piece of writing, enriched by some non linear elements (photos, extras) that somehow break the flow and open new patterns for the users to build their own story.

A non-linear narrative is like a web, dotted with junctions generating multiple paths. It is not a path you have to follow from A to B and from B to C, but a story that you build yourself navigating the content. It’s much more similar to how human interaction works in real life than any other form of storytelling.

Ed Yong’s feature is just one example, but you will find traces of non linear narratives basically everywhere. Social media handles are pivotal points within non linear plots, but even the juxtaposition of images and text triggers a different experience from the sum of visual and written part.

A journalist who understands how to combine a variety of materials to create a narrative that opens up multiple user experiences doesn’t need expensive equipment. I daresay he(she) doesn’t even need outstanding writing skills. A good storytelling stands alone.

On the African media revolution

So, I decided to take a break.

I needed a holiday and since I gave up my big travel to Cape Town I opted for a short trip to Perugia, in Italy, to attend of my favourite events, the International Journalism Festival.
For those who have never heard of it, the event takes place in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and features a variety of very interesting panel discussions around journalism and the future of the industry. This year I was pleasantly surprised to discover a number of sessions addressing the issue of media and innovation in the Global South.

The talk I attended was called The Future of African Media, and hosted five experts and media entrepreneurs who use innovative strategies and simple technologies in Africa.

In my job, I read tons of stories on global development and I think that by now I have a decent grasp of the economic landscape of the continent, at least in its main features. For example, I know that Africa’s economy is growing fast and its population is exceptionally young. A very fertile environment for innovation, especially in technology.

But yesterday I learnt how this somehow theoretical idea is actually a solid reality and it can also teach something to the rich North.

For example, check Code for Africa, an innovative journalism project that would stand out even in the high tech environment of many Western countries. The idea is to stop using journalism, data and technology to educate citizens about stuff they are supposed to care about, and start listening to their needs instead.

So the Code for Africa collective produces “news tools” such as data visualisations, mobile apps and data sets manually scraped and uploaded onto the internet. These are not only beautiful and playful, but also truly useful. People aren’t supposed to be interested for the sake of it, but will use the information as a service to improve their everyday life.

There is a tool that helps people register for the elections and vote and another one to keep track of medicines’ prices. Journalists who want to take part are taught how to scrape and use data and how to code, so they eventually will be able to build their own tools to display and add value to their investigation.

I imagine that when it comes to Africa it may be easy to identify practical needs of people, as in many countries there are economic and political problems that make it difficult to deal with simple things. But the idea could work in the Global North as well, it’s really just a matter of identifying what services are lacking in a certain community. And this makes the initiatives naturally very marketable.

If you want to know more about Code for Africa and other similar initiatives, you can check my audio interview to Justin Arenstein, which will be published on SciDev.Net shortly