Being a journalist for the last 27 years, covering issues in my own country, Egypt, and other parts of the world, I have to admit that I always belonged to a generation that believed, until recently, that the sole and pivotal role of traditional media was in effecting social and political change. Of course, such changes could be for the worse, in situations where traditional media failed to be free and independent, as today’s environment in Egypt, or for the better, in situations where media is independent. I must admit that it took me many years to believe in the ability, efficiency and effectiveness of social media to effect such positive changes.
We cannot separate the precarious situation of today’s Press Freedom in many Arab countries from the dreary situation that Social Media is up against. For if traditional media in these countries has been under relentless attacks for the last five years, then it would definitely be easier for those leading the attack on social media as well. As a reminder, when referring to attacks on traditional media, I’m not only talking about shutting down media outlets opposed to current governments’ policies, as dangerous as that trend is, rather I’m talking about murdering journalists and activists for the mere fact that they may differ with government policies. If we take Egypt as an example, we are talking about detaining 100+ journalists, most who are being tried on bogus charges, others who are pending trial, and many who are simply thrown in prison with no charges at all. Again, whoever is doing this is most certainly capable of attacking social media.
However, in 2008 I had my first encounter with a different kind of social media, one which changed my short sighted views. I was invited to train citizen journalists in Egypt; it was the first generation of this type of journalist, though unfortunately it may be the last. Initially, I took the matter lightly, laughing at the idea that you could create journalists out of common citizens coming from different walks of life. I laughed even more at the idea of creating a third stratum of citizen journalists who could strengthen the bond between the professional journalists and their audiences. I didn’t take any of this seriously until I met some of the trainees. It was only at this time when I began to revisit my traditional old-fashion thoughts about social media and its role in effecting positive social and political change.
The idea was simply to train members of society who show deeper interest in media than the regular traditional audience, and for them to take part in creating the content while keeping their own jobs and careers. The trainees came from different walks of life.
The course took six months in which I trained 35 men and women on how to create journalistic content that made sense and which could serve their communities. Needless to say, most trainees were selected from remote governorates that had suffered for decades from marginalization on all accounts by the Central Government.
As we progressed, these six months became the most interesting of my whole career. I created semi-professional journalists out of civil engineers, accountants, high school teachers and even housewife’s. In many cases some families attended the classes and when I say families I mean the man, the wife and their children, sometimes babies. Oftentimes, I had to provide breaks to allow time for young mothers to breastfeed their hungry babies, whose cries many times out voiced my own voice. This made me more patient and also more respectful of those young mothers who wanted to serve their communities by way of journalism.
The objective of the program was not to turn the trainees into professional journalists since there are actually too many professional journalists. Instead, the objective was to enhance the content of social media in order to make better sense and to empower the creators of that content so they could better serve their neglected communities. The ultimate goal was to enable those communities to make their voice heard.
At the end of the program, I must admit that I was not 100% successful in light of the surprising outcome. The reason was due to the fact that five of the trainees showed such expertise that I couldn’t help but support them in their subsequent efforts to become professional journalists, roles where they have proven quite successful. Of course, that was never meant to be one of the objectives, yet I eventually realized it would be our gain to work with these new professional journalists. The remaining trainees proceeded to report on their own communities and chronic problems they faced.
A few months after the program ended, my employer, Al Ahram, assigned me to be editor of our international edition. It was at that time when I thought of using the services of some of the citizen journalists I had trained, to address their community’s problems in remote areas. The reasons were:
• Most media outlets find it costly to assign correspondents to remote communities. However, in the case of those citizen journalists, they are already living there and have their own source of income. In other words, the cost is minimal.
• One of the worst things to deal with as an editor is when management sends correspondents to one of these remote communities, and the reporters would write their stories before even traveling to the local community. Their pre-written stories usually had nothing to do with either facts or realties on the ground.
• Most of the reporters in the main office had little knowledge of these remote communities.
• Most importantly, by using citizen journalists, traditional media was more able to extend their reach in attacking dictatorial governments with this eternal cat & mouth game between the two parties. Such expansion of the frontlines weakens dictatorial government’s security grip over media.
My idea was to hire citizen journalists to work as correspondents for the newspaper. Of course, the content they produced was not always a quality as that of professional journalists. Nevertheless, this minor shortcoming could be handled by the newspaper’s editorial staff. I came away from the experience with increased enthusiasm, and effective results including:
• I managed to set up an unprecedented example of marrying social media and citizen journalists to traditional media.
• Citizen journalists became, through their work on social media, married to traditional media which proved to be very efficient in rejuvenating traditional media, making it more vibrant and realistic.
• When managing citizen journalists, there were fewer concerns regarding their background motives, an important requirement with professional journalists who, over years of their career, formed networks of personal interests with politicians and businessmen. In other words, the resulting stories of citizen journalists and their social media reflected more innocence than professional journalists.
• The results of the experience were amazing in terms of circulation and readership as well as increased credibility.
Though very satisfying, it was, unfortunately, a short lived experience, and terminated once I left my post. However, after that experience I became convinced that one of the lifelines for traditional media is to couple it with citizen journalists. Media and journalism should never make themselves hostages to their own Babylon towers where they have been locked in for years. Traditional media must revolutionize their own profession; journalists must take a hard look at themselves and make the necessary changes, otherwise the public will eventually revolt.