"Who is a journalist? Who is a blogger? Who cares?"

At a young leaders conference in Sweden, Mark Comerford, self-described on his twitter account as a "Journalist, educator and generally strange guy," shared his knowledge on digital media with workshop participants. MENASSAT caught up with Comerford to discuss social media, social change and journalism's redirection.
Sweden Mark Comerford
Mark Comerford - welder, ship-builder, digital pioneer. R.R.

CAIRO, July 3, 2009 (MENASSAT) — When Mark Comerford set out from his home in Ireland to Sweden to work as a welder in the early 1980s, digital pioneer wasn't in his crosshairs as a career goal.

But a failing ship industry in Sweden forced many to look for different job prospects - Comerford was one of them.

Fast forward to 1994 and we see a welder-turned digital media advocate establishing the first on-line daily newspaper in Scandanavia - Aftonbladet.se, a man that over the last 15-years has spread his digital media knowledge across the globe, teaching thousands how to get the best out of Internet and digital technologies

These days, you can find him teaching new media at the Department of Journalism, Media & Communication at Stockholm University in Sweden.

MENASSAT caught up with Comerford at a recent media conference in Sweden organized by the Swedish institute called the Young Leaders Visiting Programme (YLVP) - a program designed to use social media as a tool for positive change.

This year's YLVP 2009 included 30 participants from Sweden and the Arab world - young people at the vanguard of the digital movements in their own countries.

Comerford hosted a number of workshops on how different technologies, were successful tools for citizen journalism - primarily in the West.

He sat down to discuss the role of social media in the Arab world and the effect citizen journalism has had on print media - especially as blogs have become a vehicle for independent writers in the Arab world to express themselves and break through what are often very restrictive press environments in their home countries.

MENASSAT: You were a welder and a shipbuilder then you started working in the digital world. How did the career shift come about?

MC: “There was no plan, just a series of opportunities where I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Luck and serendipity.”

MENASSAT: You have been involved in YLVP for two years now. What is your opinion of the program? What change do you hope it will bring to the MENA region?

MC: “I hope it will help create networks of trust that will play a role in strengthening civil society, sustainability and human rights. But the program can only facilitate the initial contacts and give access to some informational tools and knowledge."

“Any change will be the result of passionate people prepared to organize and fight for what they believe to be right. People make change, not programs.”

MENASSAT: What is the role of bloggers in the Arab world?

“A number of blogs from the MENA region fill a gaping and shameful hole in the dominant news industry, allowing for freedom of speech and expression that is all too often censored either by repressive political regimes or by economic needs of the share holders of the major news organizations."

“There are a growing number of courageous voices that refuse to be silenced, voices that try to bring a side of the story that seldom gets heard, to ears and eyes that want to see. Blogging and social media in general can be important tools to strengthen civil societies.”

MENASSAT: What is your opinion on paying bloggers and social media users to post information?

”That is an ethical policy question that each publication/blogger needs to ask themselves. Whatever the answer it should be communicated to the public clearly and unambiguously."

"If you have been paid, then it should say so in the piece. And how much.  If you lie, you will be found out. As trust is a cornerstone of communication, broken trust will be hugely damaging to your reputation.”

MENASSAT: What's The Difference Between A Blogger and A Journalist?

MC: “I honestly can’t answer that question. Some journalists blog. Some bloggers do journalism. What is journalism? Who is a journalist? Who is a blogger? Who cares?”

MENASSAT: People are turning to social media and networking more and more. What benefits do social networks have for newspapers looking to reach out to their audiences in new ways?

“This will be different in different circumstances. To begin with, any media organization has to redefine who its target audience is."

"Then the organization has to redefine what communication means. For too long communication in media has meant “us” telling “them” what the story is."

“News organizations (and we also need to re-examine what we mean by news) need to understand that they do not have a monopoly on the story, just on the reporters view. This can never be as rich a story as one built in cooperation with those who live it.”

MENASSAT: Do you believe newspapers will become obsolete and replaced by news websites?

MC: “If by newspapers you mean the actual printed-paper, then yes. This will occur at different speeds in different areas of the world."

"Of course, the digital infrastructure has to be there for this to occur. And there will still be paper-based products, they will just be very different to what we generally see as newspapers today.”

MENASSAT: How has the development of social media affected digital media strategies at newspaper companies?

“Again, this differs a lot in different regions. In general it has yet to have a strategic impact on most newspapers."

"There is an increased usage of video and slide shows, some use of Twitter and other social media tools, but mainly this is the result of individual journalists using them rather than a strategic decision on the part of the management.”

MENASSAT: Are their opportunities in social media that you think newspapers could take a better advantage of?

: “Yes. Lots. As a way of reconnecting to a rapidly dwindling public. As a way to reinvent story building, as a way to increase the breadth and depth of many investigative stories, as a way to once again become an integrated part of the communities they once say themselves serving. As a way to find new and more relevant sources."

"There are too many to mention all of them.”

MENASSAT: In your experience, what digital media strategies have proved to work best? What practices should be avoided?

“Listening works well. Thinking that only journalists can tell a story well, thinking the journalist has all the answers and believing that journalists and journalism are “objective” does not, in my opinion, work well."

MENASSAT: Do you use Twitter to interact with your readers? How? Do they offer story ideas, tips, and interview questions?

“All of the above. I use my Twitter network as my filter (anything of interest will usually percolate up through my network), as my fact checker (no matter how much I know I can never know more than everyone), as a source, as co-creators and as sounding boards.

“I trust my network more than I trust myself.”
MENASSAT: What is the future of Journalism ten or twenty years from now?

MC: “Ahhh I wish I knew. That there is a great future for story builders, information facilitators, networkers, investigative “journalists” and others of that nature, I am sure. Exactly what form it will take I don’t know.”

For Mark Comerford's blog check out markmedia.blogs.com.