Anyone who came to last night’s forum on participatory journalism looking to be told definitively how blogging, commenting, social media and engagement have changed the craft of journalism surely left disappointed. While the panelists agreed that engaging with audiences is both beneficial and absolutely essential in a new media landscape, there were differences of opinion among them when it came to what that means and how to use it.

Anyone who came to last night’s forum on participatory journalism looking to be told definitively how blogging, commenting, social media and engagement have changed the craft of journalism surely left disappointed. While the panelists agreed that engaging with audiences is both beneficial and absolutely essential in a new media landscape, there were differences of opinion among them when it came to what that means for journalism. 

The forum, put on by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, was moderated by OpenFile CEO Wilf Dinnick, who guided the discussion and allowed each of the panelists to showcase their organizations’ involvement with participatory journalism and engagement.

To sum up each of them:

Dan Dunsky, executive producer of TVO’s The Agenda: On social media/engagement in general: “Organizations who put their head in the sand and ignore this phenomenon likely won’t be around for too long.” Now that essentially anybody can be a journalist, it’s created a shift in content delivery that nobody’s really figured out how to monetize yet. “Where once we were a TV program, now we’re a media platform.” Gives Your Agenda (which has been only moderately successful so far, he says) as an example of an attempt at engagement. Football metaphor: air game (television show) and ground game (social media/engagement). Need both to be successful—challenge is finding the right way to combine the two.

Rachel Nixon, director of digital media, CBC: On the idea that the news organizations are the gatekeepers of journalism: “I’m not sure there’s even a gate anymore.” Cites CBC’s use of live blogs and their successes, such as that at the NDP convention. Says very little that happens at CBC these days without consideration for audience engagement. Content from citizens and users that is already out there can be curated and given a home on liveblogs or Storify stories.  

Andrew Lundy, director, Globalnews.ca: Global News’ strength is more local – especially out west. In the east, their presence isn’t as strong. So, they entered a partnership with OpenFile Halifax, which Lundy notes has a strong following, for coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking.  Lundy said that many of the stories found would not have been possible without a participatory approach. It resulted in one of the first times a GlobalNews.ca story made it to broadcast. Also introduced Global Groundforce—which, as modeled after CNN’s iReport, will allow users to upload video, photos, and include a user ranking strategy, in an attempt to foster communities.

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Jennifer MacMillan, communities editor, The Globe and Mail: MacMillan noted a few successes in The Globe’s attempts at participation, including a story on B.C. Elections that broke from a user comment, call-outs on theglobeandmail.ca that turned into front-page stories and newspaper throws that directed readers to places online to discuss the story or issue.

Dinnick moved the conversation to issues of verification, community and brand awareness (as in, how do you work in participatory journalism without denigrating your brand?).

As for the role for “traditional” journalism, one audience question brought up Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher’s Robocalls scoop. That story, he said, is exactly the type you would think would have “bubbled up” in social media – but instead, it was broke in the most conventional way possible, with two talented journalists digging at a story and their sources. Dunsky agreed that while it is easy to say that it is the type of story that “should have” bubbled, when it comes to participatory journalism–and journalism in general–we can't say what "should" matter. MacMillan argued that using a participatory approach after the fact, the way The Globe did allowed them to develop their own database of Robocalls sources. 

As for the issue of whether news organizations are gatekeepers, though Nixon said she didn’t think there were any gates anymore, it didn’t seem so clear-cut across the board. While the barriers to entry for bloggers and tweeters are admittedly low, and that the voices of these groups are beneficial to the conversation, there is most definitely still a role for journalists (the Toronto City Hall beat was used as an example of this). For all of the news organizations represented on the panel, citizen content still went through a verification process that indicates the ultimate journalistic responsibility of that organization. It is in this vein that MacMillan pointed out that engagement tools and social media ultimately act as a wealth of sources that make the job of finding stories and sources easier for their journalists. 

For full coverage of the forum, check out our liveblog of the event, embedded below.