The term “citizen journalism” has become very popular recently, referring to both traditional bloggers and to average citizens who have turned the video and still cameras of their mobile phones into tools to capture and distribute news of events worldwide. In fact, many commentators have suggested that one of the reasons for the decline in the popularity of traditional media, such as newspapers and network TV news, is that consumers of information can now get their daily dose of the news from other non-traditional sources. Without a doubt, the information universe is expanding rapidly due, in large part, to more and more individuals writing and publishing in blog formats, creating their own non-traditional news.
Well, ten years before the proliferation of blogging and an independent, non-traditional media, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin
was providing information on environment and sustainable development policy events on the internet. Prior to any model of how this type of journalism should be done, how it should be financed or what the editorial guidelines should be, we were at the cutting edge of citizen reporting. From the Rio Conference in 1992, to the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, our teams of young academics were sitting in the back of the room, taking notes and reporting using the new and emerging computer-mediated technologies, on the statements of governments and international organizations at these key world summits.
However, we have never considered ourselves to be “journalists” and none of us has had any journalist training. In fact, if we had called ourselves “journalists,” we would not have been allowed the access we enjoyed by taking on the role of independent conference reporters, not unlike court reporters, who were not media. There are traditionally five types of participants at international meetings, such as the ones we were attending:
These are the negotiators, who have carte blanche access to any meetings;
Intergovernmental Organization Representatives:
These are the bureaucrats from UN agencies like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Secretariat or the World Bank. Usually the representatives from these groups are allowed to access all meetings as well;
These are members of the organizing body that facilitates the meeting, provides support to the process and has access to all areas. They are also prohibited from lobbying, speaking with the media or speaking on matters of substance;
Non-Governmental Organization Members:
The NGOs are relative newcomers to most international meetings and the rules for their participation vary from process to process, but they are often excluded from informal consultations, contact groups and drafting sessions where transparency is sacrificed for expediency during the negotiations;
Journalists are the lowest members of the participants “food chain” and there are traditional rules regarding their access and where they can circulate. Usually they cannot go down into the area where delegates are negotiating and are not permitted in any but the most formal and “open” of sessions.
When we first started publishing the Earth Summit Bulletin
and later the Earth Negotiations Bulletin
,we decided that the best way to influence the process was not by using our publication to lobby or advocate for any political position, but to help level the information playing field and promote both transparency and the free distribution of knowledge to all of the participants. If this was in some way influencing the process, it would only influence it for the better by providing useful information to the decision makers, enriching the “infoverse” and informing the entire public policy formulation cycle.
As “knowledge brokers” rather than journalists, we wanted to be considered the neutral, trusted intermediaries who were willing to spend the long hours taking notes, gathering information from throughout the negotiations and synthesizing this down into objective, timely reports that could be easily read and digested by the participants. This type of influence was subtle but important, contributing to raising the tone of the meeting through the provision of knowledge that the participants could use to negotiate better, or at least we hoped.
However, we had to have badges to get into the meetings and had to find our proper place within one of the five groups listed above. We were certainly not government delegates. We did not want to be journalists, since that would limit our access to policymakers and exclude us from meetings. As NGOs we would have been discriminated against as well and, as we were not lobbying or advocating, we did not want to be accredited as an NGO. We briefly considered becoming part of an intergovernmental organization, such as UNEP, who would provide us with access to meetings. But, beginning in Rio when we were made part of the UNCED Secretariat, we realized that we had more in common with the members of the Secretariat and they had a vested interest in supporting our work. By providing daily reports, in a neutral and objective manner, we did a job that benefited them and removed pressure on the Secretariat to inform participants what was going on in the meeting. So, since 1992, we have always participated at meetings as members of the organizing secretariat and never as either the media or as NGOs.
There were no other groups doing what we did at the time and no competition. We often joked that no one would want to take on the enormous amount of work that we did, starting the task of synthesizing a meeting only after the other participants had ended for the day and publishing it all the next morning after an inevitably late night. However, there we also no other groups to learn from as we pioneered this form of citizen reporting.
One of the important factors in our success from the beginning was that, with the advent of computer communications, the cost of publishing was dropping rapidly. For the first few years, before people had email and before the internet, one of our largest expenses was photocopying and mailing our reports to subscribers all over the world. There is no way that we could afford today to print and mail each of the more than three million PDF files that were downloaded from our website last year. So, email and the web made it possible for us to rapidly increase our readership and, eventually, in 1996, we stopped publishing the Earth Negotiations Bulletin
in paper format and moved completely to an electronic publication.
But, the internet also allowed us to become a “boutique” publishing house. With a readership of under 15,000 subscribers in the early years, our email publishing costs were so low that we could service the small but powerful (and information starved) community of diplomats, UN staffers, NGOs, academics and media who followed the negotiation of multilateral environmental agreements very closely. It is only in the last few years that other organizations have realized that there are audiences other than the general public who have information needs and have begun to publish for micro-audiences.
The other decision that led to our early success was in marketing this “citizen reporting” as a shared common good that should be supported by governments in the interest of the processes we covered. Our funding model, which emphasizes smaller contributions from a broad range of governments, has been very successful and has provided us with the resources needed to sustain our work for more than seventeen years. While other websites have turned to advertising or subscription fees, we have been able to provide more than US$3 million a year in information for free to our readers through the donations of governments to our work.
As more and more online readers turn to non-traditional and direct sources of information, the number of citizen reporting sites is sure to increase. However, finding reliable and trustworthy information amongst the plethora of sources will continue to be a challenge for the reader who dares venture away from longtime sources such as the major TV networks and established news outlets. The benefit of finding a site like ours is that some citizen reporters actually understand the issues and can report with a level of understanding that the average journalist cannot match. In our case, our writers on issues such as climate change, biodiversity and chemical management are experts in their fields and the quality and accuracy of our reports, while not read by the hundreds of thousands like the New York Times or a Reuters story, provides greater insight and insider knowledge of the issues at stake.
As we prepare for the Copenhagen Climate Change talks in December 2009, it will be the Earth Negotiations Bulletin
reports prepared by our “citizen reporters” from the negotiations that savvy readers will use to follow what is really happening in the crafting of a post-2012 agreement. While the mainstream media like CNN and the Financial Times may sit in the press conferences, our writers will be in the contact and informal groups where government delegates will be actually working out an agreement. Come join us on the road to Copenhagen at http://www.iisd.ca
and meet our group of citizen writers at http://www.iisd.ca/about/team/