Rise of the Citizen Journalist
— Everyone with a Cellphone Can Be a Reporter
— Can They Do Anything More Than the Trivial?
Professor Atkins says, “..Citizen journalism can help local newspapers survive by making them a more interactive product. Readers who post comments, articles and photos on their local newspaper’s web site might feel a stronger connection to the paper and be more likely to read the print version and the online version of the paper.”
Derek Clark, who runs www.geekpolitics.com – a site that comments on public affairs and media issues, agrees. “The newspapers that survive will be the ones that make the most of the benefits of the online world…Citizen journalism can in many cases provide free content and the internet provides the ability to reach a much larger audience. The old media that combine their resources with the advantages of new media will thrive. The old media that try to cling to their old methods of doing things will die.”
Bleacher Report, which calls itself “the Web’s largest sports network powered by citizen sportswriters,” made a big breakthrough for itself early in 2010 … and for citizen journalists as well.
The company announced it was beginning a partnership with Hearst to introduce local online editions in the newspaper publisher’s four largest markets … the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, the Houston’s Chronicle’s Chron.com, the San Antonio Express-News’ MySan Antonio.com, and Seattlepi.com.
This would seem to have a good shot at succeeding. Bleacher Report is bringing in the coveted young and middle-aged male demographic that is vocal and passionate about sports … and more than willing to write about them for free … and these guys are also thought to be open-wallet buyers of products from the advertisers who’ll be lured to the sites.
Elsewhere in newspaperdom, the Washington Times and Hartford Courant offered on extensive citizen journalist efforts in 2009. The Times launched a full, themed page strictly by citizen journalists in its local section six days a week … and the Courant presented a project called iTowns with citizen news from a roster of 73 towns in the area.
But an earlier venture by the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk failed. According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, the paper tried a citizen media effort called Co-Pilot that ran three times a week with community news in print and online. It even sent an editor to Spain to study similar projects there.
After a nine-month struggle, the paper pulled the plug in March 2008. Pew quoted editor Dennis Finlay as saying, “Mostly we discovered it is not the savior we thought. It was very difficult to get quality reader-produced content.” As for the general base of readers, Finlay said, “nobody cared when we got rid of it.”
While the rise of citizen journalists has caused a flurry of excitement and discussion in the journalistic community, there have been precursors for many years. Papers have always relied on what they used to call “stringers” to call in tidbits such as high school basketball scores or news from small-scale events the paper doesn’t staff, or using man/woman on the street responses to a set question, or birth and wedding announcements. Via syndicates, papers have also run features by nonjournalists such as doctors with Q&A medical columns or mechanics with Q&A automobile columns.
The citizen journalist movement has attained some organization as at least three major groups have been formed, with even lofty Harvard deigning to get into it …
— The Knight Citizen News Network. Out of the old Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, this is an impressively complete online self-help portal to help citizen journalist s launch and responsibly operate news sites.
— The Center for Citizen Media, a news and issues roundup site. It’s run by Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University.
— The Berkman Center for Internet & Society, out of the Harvard Law School. It runs the Citizen Media Law Project, training individuals and organizations in CJ law.
So the scope is broad. The immediate question for us here is whether this crop of citizen journalists will replace, not supplement, regular reporters … and whether their work can be presentable without editing by regular staff or a syndicate.
“With smaller staffs chasing fewer stories, citizen journalists could help local papers keep a broader mix of stories and community reporting in front of readers,” says Thom Clark, president of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. “Citizen journalists can also show editors or remaining beat reporters where there is keen community interest about certain issues and institutions that could heighten reader interest.”
What’s more, “citizen journalism can be a powerful tool for reporting hyperlocal news (news that is specific to one community) because people care about their community and have a hunger for finding out what is going on. People care about school board and local planning meetings, and these are stories that citizens who attend these meetings can report on and post to a web site. Will it be a completely factual, objective account of what went on at the meeting? Well, maybe yes and maybe no, but at least someone is disseminating the information about it. The problem comes when an investigative or in-depth story needs to be done. This requires a lot of time and resources, neither of which many citizen journalists have.”
Roy Christopher, author of ”Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes,” sees citizen journalism as “viable strictly for its potential in representing a diversity of viewpoints.”
Christopher adds: “How viable can the quality of information be if it’s only coming from a handful of sources? Whoever can come correct with the news and information in the fastest, sexiest manner will determine the future of journalism. Citizen journalism will certainly be a part of this evolution. I can’t say through what communication channel that will be, but whereas our parents read the newspaper, our children certainly won’t.”
Adam Stone is the publisher of the Examiner community newspapers in Putnam and Westchester counties, N.Y. … just the type of publication you’d think would welcome citizen journalists But no.
“I don’t think citizen journalism should dominate or even play a minor role in the operation of mainstream newspapers,” he says. “I’m sure there is a place for it … a valuable place … in alternative media. I think it’s been the mainstream newspaper industry’s embrace of new editorial formulas and approaches that has been leading to its demise (although) my opinion runs contrary to what most inside and outside the industry believe.”
Indiana’s Prof. Weaver doesn’t even think citizen journalists should be the correct term … “citizen communicators” would be better because “without the training and education that most journalists have, most citizens cannot qualify as journalists.” He thinks citizen journalists, or citizen communicators, “are best at reporting breaking events, and not likely to be very helpful for in-depth, analytical or investigative reporting.”
Add Richard Roher to the mix … he’s president of Roher Public Relations, Pleasantville, N.Y. He thinks of newspapers as “brands that bestow credibility, authority, gravitas on their content. I don’t think ‘citizen journalism’ (is there agreement on what this term even means?) can sustain the type of reporting that produces Pulitzer prize winning pieces.”
A common concern about citizen journalists is their competence or lack of it, but Roher says, “it’s not ineptitude I’m worried about (dolts won’t attract or keep an audience; I believe quality will out). It’s maliciousness or subversiveness that really poses the greatest risk. Skilful, willful acts of misstatement or distortion are the greater concern. Newspapers aren’t perfect in keeping out blatant or intentional falsehood, but they do a decent job.”
Dr. Kirsten Johnson, assistant professor, Department of Communications, Elizabethtown College, Pa., has authored several papers on citizen journalism, and is currently writing a book chapter on the subject.
“Local newspapers should not rely on citizen journalists to help them survive,” she says. “Most citizen journalists are not paid anything for their work and lack the motivation to help a for-profit entity continue to make a profit. Citizens cannot and should not be viewed as free labor.”
Prof. Johnson notes that “with many local newspapers going out of business, there is a void that can be filled by citizen journalists.” In her town, the Elizabethtown Chronicle has gone of business. “Now citizens are starting to band together to write and post stories on our citizen journalism web site www.we-town.com” … a site she helped establish.
Citizen Journalists and Ethics
A big concern with the use of citizen journalists is the lack of journalism training and quite possibly journalism ethics. However, there are many things newspapers can do keep a high quality standard.
“Newspapers could hold regular citizen journalism training sessions at the newspaper every month that could focus on newsgathering techniques and media ethics,” says Larry Atkins, adjunct professor of journalism in Arcadia University’s English, Communications and Theatre Department. “They also could post a podcast or video presentation on their web site giving reporting tips and ethical advice. Have a newspaper staff member regularly monitor the citizen journalism submissions much like a newspaper message board to keep an eye out for content that might appear biased, dishonest, false, defamatory or otherwise objectionable.”
Brian McNeil, Wikinews pioneer agrees. “Regardless of the newspaper, I think one of the most important things they should consider is nurturing talent. Are you a local newspaper? 90%+ of your income from print adverts targeted at people in the area? Then you should be looking for the local citizen journalists who sit next to their police scanner and report on the drug busts and local fires. Assume you will have to invest in improving their writing skills, be relaxed about them publishing elsewhere, and pay them enough money to make it worth their while to give you first option on material. If they could afford to, they would be on the scene at these fires and such;”
Learn From TV.
We come right back to Prof. Atkins: “Local newspapers could take advantage of citizen journalism much like the manner in which cable television outlets like CNN have used I-Reports. Newspapers could encourage citizen journalists to send photos and write first-person accounts of their experiences in observing a news event. For instance, people who attend a local July 4 parade could send photos, video and written impressions to be posted on the newspaper website. If there are over 50 local July 4 parades in a metropolitan area, one reporter can’t get to all of them. Through citizen journalism I-Reports, a newspaper could post information about most, if not all, of those parades.”
In short, he says, “citizen journalism can help local newspapers survive by making them a more interactive product. Readers who post comments, articles and photos on their local newspaper’s web site might feel a stronger connection to the paper and be more likely to read the print version and the online version of the paper.”
Have the Right Attitude.
Instead of viewing citizen journalists as a necessary evil or even as a burden, why couldn’t papers view them in a positive light and help themselves become more qualified, more expert? Why not tap into experts in the community and create an array of citizen journalists who are authoritative?
For instance, many papers used to have a medical writer to do stories on that specialty and nothing other. That’s gone the way of the do-do bird. Instead, why not develop a given medical topic and invite comments from medical professionals in the area, perhaps working through the local medical association? This way, they would be 1) providing more expert material than they could provide themselves, and 2) would bring in the types of people who normally don’t participate in the journalistic process.
Or try a roundup of comments on a legal topic through the local bar association, or an architectural topic from architects, an interior design topic from designers, and so on.
Many experts are pleased to communicate with the public and anxious to try new forms of doing so online.
Make Them Credible.
With citizen journalism reports, “it makes you think, how do we judge these people?” Peter Shankman wonders.
Shankman’s answer: through a rating system. Just as users compile quality ratings of eBay sellers or restaurants in online reviews, if there’s a regular part of the paper with ongoing stories from a crew of citizen journalists, readers could rate the stories and the writers themselves, giving them an incentive to do their best.