Travis Smith: my resume, bio and photos back to the main blog page

I spoke this morning at the Canadian blogging conference called Northern Voice, doing a talk called “How to be a Citizen Journalist.”

I have to say, I had a great time doing the talk.  The audience was fabulous—they asked just the right amount of questions so that I felt like no one was nodding off, and yet they didn’t seem confused by what I was saying, which is also pretty gratifying.

For those of you who weren’t able to be there, I’ll post the notes of my talk online shortly in this post.

However, I also wanted to give a shout out to Susie, who made some great slides for my talk.  Once we got past the initial hurdle of trying to display the presentation, they were just what I envisioned and just what the talk needed.

So thank you to all the folks who came to the talk, and a big thank you to the organizers (I helped organize the conference, but I didn’t get to choose myself as a presenter, that’s for sure.) who gave me a bit of time in their fun conference.

UPDATE: Here’s the full prepared text of my talk, from which I may have strayed somewhat.

How to be a Citizen Journalist
11:30 - 12:30

Citizen journalism—you don’t go to a citizen doctor or a citizen mechanic, so are citizen journalists really such a good idea? Absolutely, and the more the better. Some powerful citizen journalism projects have evolved in Vancouver, projects that are worthwhile and fun to join. I’ll go over what it takes to be a good participant, and a safe consumer, of citizen journalism.

^^ Citizen Journalism 1.0
  Participatory News-gathering
  Eye-Witness Accounts
  User Generated Infotainment
  We Media Thingy
  Undiluted Truth Deliveries
  Self-Produced Surprising Facts

Hi, is everyone doing well today?  Is someone taking notes?  Photos?  Video?  Audio?  OK, so basically, if I make a mistake up here, it’ll be captured in every possible way, right? Great, that’s wonderful.

So we’re all here today to learn about How to Be A Citizen Journalist.  There’s a lot to learn.  We’re gong to cover it all.  We’re going to lean about journalism, about the tools, about the pitfalls.

^^ Include What the Duck cartoon

Let’s talk about what a journalist is.  I’m a journalist.  You’re probably one, too, but I did it the old fashioned way.  I went to journalism school and paid thousand and thousands of dollars, and I got a fancy receipt that’s says I’m a journalist. 


Let’s call that Journalist 1.0.

While I was in school, we spent a fair amount of time talking in class about what a journalist actually was, and this was before citizen journalism muddied things up, but you know, it was still pretty tricky.  When they asked this question on my final exam, I came up with a pretty good definition of a journalist, if I do say so myself, and I’ll share it with you here today, for free:  A journalist is someone who does journalism.

^^ Journalist: someone who does journalism

There, that clears up everything, you can all go read blogs for the next hour.

OK, maybe not.  I didn’t get an A on that answer, though I still feel like I was right.  But still, it’s an answer that seems to need a little more something, right? So I want to improve that definition, but we need to go on a brief tangent, and learn about editors.

^^ Editors: We Hates Them / (Don’t We?)

You may not know this, but the word editor came in to existence not at the same time as the word “edit,” but much before—what I mean, there was this word, “editor”, first recorded in use in 1712, and there’s the verb “to edit” which is first recorded many years later, in 1793.

^^    Editor:  1712
^^ add: To Edit: 1793

Which leads to the question: what did editors do for the first 81 years?  My guess is, mostly business lunches and rejection letters.

I kid, but there’s an important point here: It’s important to realize that you can do something—edit—without being something—an editor.

In Canada, people treat people and their careers as being interchangeable, which is a big mistake.  For example, when someone new meets me, they often ask me, “What do you do?”

^^ Image: “What do you do?”

But what they really mean is, “What category of worker are you?”

^^ Image: “What do you do?” with “trucker, doctor, housewife, lawyer, baker, student”

That question isn’t answered the same way everywhere in the world, by the way—some cultures answer the question “What do you do” by listing the activities in your general life.

^^ Image: “What do you do?” with “swim, sing, take pictures, raise kids, collect stamps, write, attend conferences”

What’s the point of this?  The point is, that we’re trying to figure out what a citizen journalist is, and we need to get forget about the career or work implications of the word.  Instead, let’s go back to what a journalist is: someone who does journalism, and we’re going to focus simply on the activity meaning of the word.  If you’re a citizen journalist, it’s because you do journalism, not because you’ve got a career or a job or employment as a journalist.

Let’s get back to “Journalism.  We can agree that “journalism” is not just a career, that it’s also an activity done by people who do other things, too.  So what is journalism? It’s the process of reporting the news.

^^ Journalism: the process of reporting the news

Oh dear.  What’s news? What’s reporting?  What do you mean, “the process”?

^^ News = What’s changed

Well, news varies from person to person.  You know the expression, “that’s news to me.”  Old news is just facts.  News is more than facts.  News is what’s changed since the last time you checked.  And that means that the definition of what’s “news” is never the same from person to person.

^^ News ≠ Facts
^^ That’s news to me!

So, let’s say you never, never, never pay attention to the sport of curling.  If I told you that “Saskatchewan’s Jan Betker and defending champion Kelly Scott cruised to their fourth straight wins at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts women’s national curling championship in Lethbridge, Alta., on Monday.”, would that be news to you?  Actually, no.  You’ve never checked, never paid attention, never cared about curling.  So it’s information to you, but not news.  To me, it was news when I first heard it.  And getting news to people is reporting, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

^^ “Saskatchewan’s Jan Betker and defending champion Kelly Scott cruised to their fourth straight wins at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts women’s national curling championship in Lethbridge, Alta., on Monday.”

And what’s reporting?  Well, reporting isn’t just one thing.  It’s three things.  And those three things have to all happen, or you’re not really reporting.  It starts when you gather information.  You gather it, and you record it somehow.  With your eyes and ears, if that’s what you have handy.  We’ll talk about equipment shortly.

But yeah, you’re gathering information.  Then you filter it.  You might group it, you might save it, you might toss it out.  You might emphasize some of it, the important bits.

Then you have to distribute that information.  You gotta publish.  Publish or perish, is how one old saying goes.

  Gather > Filter > Publish

So, what if you don’t gather information?  What if you just publish?  Well, maybe that’s fiction, or maybe it’s opinion, or maybe it’s a big violation of someone else’s copyright.  But it’s not reporting.  Reporting has a source, an origin, and it’s something that’s gathered.

^^ REMOVE Gather

And what if you don’t filter?  If you don’t filter it, you’re not reporting, you’re transcribing.  No one would say a security guard filling out a log book is a journalist. No one says that CSPAN is reporting.

^^ REPLACE Gather REMOVE Filter

So, what if you don’t publish anything?  Well, then you’re just kind of a snoop.

No, I’m kidding.  If you don’t publish, you’re just researching.  You don’t have to publish everything, you know, because you’re also supposed to be filtering, and part of filtering is knowing what to publish and what to leave out or not even bother with, but you have to publish something.

^^ REPLACE Filter REMOVE publish

And now, finally, we’re getting to what it takes to be a citizen journalist.


^^ 1. GATHER

First of all, you need to gather information.  So what are some ways you can do that?

1) Get out of your house.  Go places.  Talk to people.  Ask questions.
—Call around about where the new Nintendo Wii is for sale
—Ask for a tour of some place you haven’t been.  Someplace interesting.
—Head to the library, look something up that isn’t online.
—Mostly, though, just go out and look at the world.

Here’s a good example. On November 16 last year, a crane collapsed in Bellevue just outside of Seattle, killing one man and doing a lot of damage on the way down.  Many people posted photos and eye-witness accounts on their blogs.  But the most interesting posting, I thought, was by a fellow named Bernie Thompson.  He had pictures after the collapse, and also of the crane the month before it collapsed.

Turns out, lots of people like taking pictures of cranes, and the government was able to figure out what had happened to the crane thanks to the photos people send it that they’d taken before the accident. That’s what I mean by, go look at the world.  You never know what’s going to be news.

Here’s another good way to gather information. You pay taxes, so make the government do it for you.
—File an Access to Information Act request (In the U.S. it’s called the Freedom of Information Act).  It just costs a stamp.
“Subject to this Act, every person who is a Canadian citizen, or a permanent resident
has a right to and shall, on request, be given access to any record under the control of a government institution.”

^^ Access to Information Act

You can ask all sorts of things: how many uniforms did the army purchase last year?  Who did your MP meet with last month?  How big is her cell phone bill?  How many park rangers are assigned to my closest national park over the past 20 years?

There are equivalent provincial laws, too, but the basic idea is, you can ask the government anything, and they have to respond. Try it!

Here’s another big source of news: Interview someone.  Just ask them a few questions.  An interview can be three, four or five questions, it doesn’t have to last for half an hour.  People have all sorts of information inside them, information that’s not written down anywhere, and certainly not organized or explained as well as it is coming from someone else’s head.  Save yourself a lot of work and interview someone.  That’s why journalists are always asking other people questions: they’re lazy, and it’s easier than figuring stuff out themselves! So, you can be lazy too.

2) Carry your tools with you: something to write with.  Something to record sound.  Something to get pictures.  Something to record video.

I’ll start with video by saying I don’t know that much about it.  I have a cell phone that can record video, and many cameras can record video, too.  Hold it steady, point it at the action, and get as close as you possibly can, as long as you can stay safe.  Other than that, there’s tons to know about video, and hopefully you can find someone who knows a lot more than me to explain it to you. 😊

Again, I’m not the expert here, so if you want to know more, rush over to the podcasting session.

Every iPod you can buy now, except the shuffle, can record audio, if you hook up a microphone, which costs about $60.

Your cell phone can probably record audio—look for something like a Voice Memo function.
Is it perfect? No, but it’s probably in your pocket right now.


As for pictures, well, there are all sorts of people talking about photography at Northern Voice, but let me just say that there are only two important Rules of Photography when it comes to journalism.


^^ Take Your Camera
  Take The Picture

Here’s a picture taken by someone at home or from their office of the collapse of the B.C. Place dome.

He had a cell phone that took video with him, and he took the picture.

Don’t wait to see if you’re allowed to take the picture.  Don’t have your camera in your backpack.  Have your camera ready, and when ever you can, take the shot.  Sure, there are exceptions to this, but the rule is, take the picture.

And if you’re wondering about camera law, remember this: You can always decide later not to use a picture you took.  But you can’t decide later to use a picture you didn’t take. With the exception of military stuff, if you can see it, you can take the picture.  No one can take your film or digital files away from you, either.  They can ask you to leave, and that’s about it.

If you want to know more, visit this site:

^^ Canadian Photography Law

Now, about publishing the photos, we’ll cover that later.  But for now, take the shot.


OK, in some ways, this is really easy.  We filter all the time.  It’s habit, it’s innate.  If I ask you what you did this week, you’ll tell me the important things first.  You’ll save the boring things for last.  And you might change your story, depending on who you’re talking to.

Filtering, however, is also contextualizing.

When you’re being a citizen journalist, this is even more important.

Keep in mind what your audience knows, and what they don’t know.  You’ve got to balance general information with specifics.  For example, if you’re writing about an play in Vancouver, you might say it’s happening during the Push festival.  How many people here know what the Push Festival is?

So filtering isn’t always about taking stuff out.  It’s about putting information in, too.

Filtering is really important when it comes to audio and video.  Because it’s not easy to search them or skip backwards and forwards, and because downloading can take a lot of time, you want to keep these things short.  Edit them down.

Filtering is sometimes a learning process.  If you’re starting out as a journalist, you put three stories online, and one of them gets the most reaction, and you learn what’s popular or controversial or hard to explain, and next time, you make that story a little longer, or a little more detailed.

Filtering is also something that applies to choosing your audience.  You want to reach the right audience.  Spend a moment to consider your type of audience.  And that leads straight into the third part of being a citizen journalist:



Finding a place to publish isn’t hard these days.  The trick is, choosing the right place to publish.

I suppose, depending on the news, that might be the best option, but most of the time, you’ll want to reach a wider audience.

Vancouver, for instance, has several city blog sites, and the wonderful NowPublic, which I’ll get to in a minute.  So what does being a blog have to do with anything?  Not much—blogging software is just pretty well suited to publishing small items quickly, and are good at featuring the newest content, which is what you want to do when you’re publishing news: publish quickly and let people get to it quickly, too.

Some of the Vancouver blogs require you to commit to regular posting.  Some examples of this are Metroblogging Vancouver, and Beyond Robson.  If you believe you’re going to write pretty regularly, these are decent outlets for you.

^^ Screenshots of Metroblogging, and Beyond Robson

Of course, maybe you don’t want to write regularly, but you do still want to contribute to a local news outlet.  There’s Urban Vancouver, which is a little neglected these days, but open to anyone to start contributing to.

^^ Screenshot of Urban Vancouver

If you have a How To, you might post that to or

^^ Screenshots of Instructables and Kiro5hin

Or, if your journalism is a little broader, you might want to consider a general news site like NowPublic.  NowPublic calls themselves a “platform for participatory news-gathering”

^^ NowPublic:
  a platform for participatory news-gathering

^^ Screenshot of NowPublic

NowPublic lets anyone come to their site, create an account, and post an account of a news event.  They have tools that help you collate information from other Web sites.  They let you upload pictures directly, or link to photos from other sites, like Flickr.

They have some interesting tools that integrate with your browser and help you put together stories quickly and efficiently.  And they have a group of editors reviewing the latest submissions and highlighting the best works so you’ll get your stories in front of the widest audience.

They also have a great new partnership with the Associated Press, so it’s possible that your journalism will get picked up and used in a whole bunch of traditional news outlets, too.

(If there’s time, mention, another Vancouver-based but broad news site.)



One of the reasons I liked studying journalism so much, and I like working in journalism, is that the people are some of the craziest, most abnormal people in the world.  There are a bunch of different motivations for becoming a journalist, and they don’t all necessarily mesh, but they sure make for interesting dinner parties, that’s for sure.

It’s important to figure out why you want to do journalism, because it gives you insights into what comes naturally, and what you need to work on.

Here are a few of the reasons I could come up with:

  I Know a Secret
  Being Around Important People
  Story Tellers

* Curiosity: Some people like to go place, find out things, just be generally nosy.  They ask the brash questions.

* Secrets: Some people just like to know secrets.
* Status: Some people like to have access and be around the famous and powerful.
The thing about secrets and status, though, is that you need to be a pretty good journalist to get to this stage—to get people to trust you, to give you access.  There might be better ways to satisfy those particular itches than with journalism. But that’s just my opinion.

* Story tellers: Some people like to tell stories, and they need an audience for that.  Most bloggers fall into this category.  They’re people who have a natural ability and propensity to share what they know, in an engaging way.

I-Was-There: This is like the story-telling gene, except that it applies to people who have been in a particular newsworthy situation, and want to tell that one story.  It’s people like this who are perfectly suited to NowPublic—eyewitnesses to big or small news events who have something vital and real to share with others.

* Advocacy: These people believe that if they tell people the truth and educate them, it’ll change the world.  And you know what?  They’re right.  Journalism is a powerful force.  it can be used to liberate, and it can be used to oppress.  The power of the press isn’t just a figure of speech.  It’s quite literally true that journalists can sway elections, can get laws enacted.

Let’s talk a little about this.

^^ Nellie Bly
  Show a picture:

In the 1880s, Nellie Bly went on an undercover assignment for the New York World newspaper. She agreed to feign insanity, and fooled several doctors. She was committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in New York. After ten days in the asylum, the World newspaper got her released, and Bly wrote a book called “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” talking about the gruel she was served, the beatings she witnessed and the poor conditions for the inmates, some of who she said were as sane as she was.

A grand jury launched its own investigation, and in its findings, echoed some of the recommendations she had proposed. The jury called for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.

So journalists can change things, and in very concrete ways.

(Side note: 100 Photographs that Changed the World - LIFE )

And that brings me to probably the most important part of being a citizen journalist:


^^ The truth shall make you free - John 8:32”

Tell the truth, and you’ll avoid 95% of the trouble you can get in.

Tell the truth, and you’ll have the support of your audience, of your sponsors, of those who you might want to help defend you.

Telling the truth means getting it right.  It means double checking your facts.  Triple checking your facts.

A column on had the following line, which I whole-heartedly support:

“Accuracy is the goal; fact-checking is the process.”

After tracking errors in The Oregonian of Portland, editors concluded that the three most frequent sources of error are:

  1. Working from memory.
  2. Making assumptions.
  3. Dealing with second-hand sources.

Let’s talk about assumptions:  A journalist posted recently on


about a name he misspelled.  He was talking to a very gruff, unfriendly sheriff about a murder that had occurred.  He asked the sheriff his name and the sheriff said “Paul”  He said “Paul what?”

The sheriff said “Paul Ger”

The journalist was very well trained, so he asked, how do you spell that?

The sheriff said “Paul, like Paul, G-E-R”

^^ Paul Ger

The journalist wrote that in the story.  Next day, the journalist got a very upset call from the secretary for Paul Paulger asking for a correction.

^^ Replace with Paul Paulger.

So, double check, and get it right.

What other trouble can you get in?  Well, there’s libel.  Libel is basically when you make someone sound like a bad guy, or bad girl.  Like if you say they’re a thief, or a cheater.  And there are a few defenses against libel, but the best defense is truth.  If you can prove it, you can write it, basically.

^^ Libel: Always a bad idea.

There’s also invasion of privacy.  You can be sued for publishing information about someone that isn’t really news, but that exposes someone’s personal life for no particular reason.

There are other things you can’t publish.  You can’t publish military secrets, as I mentioned earlier.  But really, what are the odds you’re going to do this, and if you do, get a lawyer first to try to talk you out of it.

^^ Treason: Generally a bad idea

There’s also trade secret law, which is a little too boring to talk about here.

But I do want to mention a case that involved trade secrets, and Apple computer, because it’s a good example of what you can be up against.

^^ Apple vs. AppleInsider and PowerPage

So, Apple sued these two bloggers, saying that they published news about something Apple considered a trade secret.  It also said these bloggers weren’t journalists, so they weren’t protected by California laws concerning journalists.  These two bloggers fought Apple for several years, with the help from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.  Eventually, in appeals court, Apple lost, and the court asked Apple to pay the 2.2 times the cost of the legal bill, a total of $700,000.  So that means the legal bill was about $320,000 USD.

^^ Legal Bill: $320,000

I don’t know about you, but a legal bill that size would scare the crap out of me.

On the other hand, what’s $700,000 to Apple? Apple’s profit in 2006 was

^^ Apple’s 2006 profit: $1,989,000,000
  This legal bill: 0.00035%

So, this is a good news story: the California court recognized that bloggers were journalists—or at least that the court couldn’t say they weren’t.  But it does bring the point home that it can be pretty scary to be on one side of a legal battle when someone big is on the other side.

Now, I did talk about getting paid for your work.

How many people here are getting paid for their hobbies? Not many, I bet.

You’ve got a few easy revenue streams, and by easy, I mean small.

If you publish your own news site, you can put ads on it.

^^ Google Ads
  Yahoo Publishers Network
You can have a tip car or donation model.

Some online video sites are starting to offer shared revenue.  YouTube says they’re gong to start sharing revenue.  Revver shares revenue, though I haven’t seen the system in action.

^^ YouTube

And the top contributors to some citizen journalism sites can and do end up getting hired to be full-time bloggers, or even full-time journalists.  Or they head into other writing projects, or use their publicity to generate some additional income form whatever their current job is.

But ultimately, the compensation for citizen journalists won’t necessarily or primarily be financial.  People don’t often become professional journalists for financial reasons, so it’s odd to think that amateur journalists will be motivated that way.

Frankly, I think that most citizen journalists do it because they like to tell stories, because they like to find out things, change things, and expose the truth, and I think that’s a great development for society in general.

I’d like to open it up for questions now…

^^ (Questions)

Thanks for having me.  I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to talk to you.  I’ll be posting my notes on my Web site,  I hops you’ll come visit it.

^^ Thank You


“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?




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