“Actually Existing” Citizen Journalism Projects and Typologies: Part II
Posted by chanders on August 1, 2006
Yesterday, as I was completing Part I of my post on "actually existing" citizen journalism projects, Nicholas Lemann, my Dean at Columbia and very well-regarded a New Yorker columnist, wrote an article that was fairly critical of citizen’s journalism. Much of what he wrote can be tied in to this here Part II (can I just start by saying, however, that it would be awesome if the New Yorker had a way to let readers comment on Nick’s article itself, rather than depending on bloggers to carry on the conversation for them? That would be an enlightening conversation…)
Anyway, I concluded yesterday’s post by noting that there were really at least three streams of media activity going on in the confused world of blogging: ‘zine like personal expression, punditry, and "reporting." I’ll now pick the thread up here and talk about some of the ways that the reporting thread got carried forward until today.
IV. Hyperlocal Citizens Journalism
Let me start by saying that it wasn’t very long before the deep thinkers in the blogging world, fueled on by questions like, "is blogging journalism?" began to realize the dearth of original reporting in the blog world. It wasn’t entirely non-existent, of course. But the basic criticism– that politically inclined blogs were too derivative of the "MSM," too focused on commentary and analysis, to ever replace the professionals– hit home. 2004 and 2005 saw the emergence of something its supporters and practitioners were calling "hyperlocal citizens journalism," defined by Wikipedia as "online news sites [that] invite contributions from local residents of their subscription areas, who often report on topics that conventional newspapers tend to ignore." Some well-known examples of hyperlocal CJ include the Northwest Voice, h2oTown, and the Muncie Free Press (ahhhh, flashbacks to my IU days). By and large (though certainly NOT entirely), reports from hyperlocal news sites tended to focus on things like bake sales and the building of new high school gyms.
The invention of Hyperlocal journalism (and I do believe we can speak if it in these terms, even if the invention wasn’t planned or deliberate) allowed advocates of citizens journalism to solve three problems at once. First, and most importantly, they dramatically lowered that barriers to access that reporters needed to hop over. Rather than needing a special press pass to be one of the 6 or so journalists lucky enough to get invited along on Air Force One, hyperlocal journalists merely needed to show up at their local town council meetings with laptop in hand, or even simply write about their daily lives. Secondly (and this is related), hyperlocal CJ was served up as an example of how the internet really does facilitate the practice of that thing we call reporting, even if the most popular bloggers are largely pundits. Finally, it could be argued that serious local reporting is largely neglected by large metropolitan dailies, and that there was a public benefit to focusing the attention of the internet on this ignored area.
Hyperlocal journalism also solved a business problem, one that it didn’t necessarily set out to solve. What that problem was, and how the solution to it has been embraced by larger media outlets, is discussed in the next section.
V. Big Media Citizens Journalism
Now things start to get complicated, because when you see CNN starting up its own citizen’s journalism web site called CNN Exchange )where they write ""CNN Exchange invites YOU to connect with the news: Share your stories, your pictures, your videos wherever you see the I-Report logo") you know things have gone beyond the old battlefield of blogger versus journalist. In other words, CNN– and most other major media outlets– have finally embraced the fact that we live in a Web 2.0 world, that you can make money of "user-generated" content (or at least attract those ever-harder-to-attract eyeballs), and, perhaps most importantly, you can tie user generated content into reductions of newsroom staff. Or, as Chris Krewson put it on the NORGS mailing list:
Our *publishers* — those of us still at the old-timey newspapers — […] are hot on "user-generated content." What scares a lot of us who’ve bet lives — and mortgages — on real, paying journalism is whether those kind of powerful folks may be wondering if and how that stuff can replace paying newsroom jobs.
So here’s one point of intersection across the old battle lines. The second point is a primarily stylistic one– newspapers and other major media outlets adopting the format and cheeky attitude of the weblog. Most big journalism outlets now have their own blogs. Much of this big media blogging, however, seems to consist of paid reporters blogging about fairly trivial things, like food, the Wagner festival in Germany, or the Oscars (all New York Times blogs). In a sense, this is the ghettoizing of the internet media form, safely confined to fairly trivial areas of news content where it really doesn’t matter all that much anyway.
VI. Networked Journalism
At this point, we get to where Jay Rosen, Josh Marshall, Chris Albritton, and others have left us: the notion of the new journalism as a collaborative event that unites the former audience and professionals. I’ve devoted a lot of space in this blog to the idea of networked journalism, and Jay Rosen has explained New Assignment.net better than I could, so I won’t spend much time reviewing the basics of what I mean by networked journalism. I just want to make a few points that will bring our narrative to a (momentary) conclusion.
For starters networked journalism can be seen as addressing the very real problems inherent in the "hyperlocal" concept, as well various problems relating to money. I think its important to remember that every "important" piece of journalistic work is not the second coming of Watergate, and that sometimes community journalism is just as meaningful as its flashier, investigative concepts. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that there is a good deal of triviality within hyperlocal reporting as a whole. All hyperlocal journalism need not be "serious," but the fact remains that there ARE meaningful things going on in local communities– rampant political corruption, for instance– that are being ignored by most citizen journalists.
This gets to the second problem, that of "how the heck you pay for all this good, but expensive journalism." And as Rosen points out, his networked notion is largely designed to answer this very question. I won’t belabor the point here.
Finally, we should keep in mind that networked journalism is a retreat from the more expansive, utopian claims of (some, not nearly all) of the citizen journalists. Not only are we no longer talking about replacing professionals, but we are actively putting them at the center of the new journalistic model. Although its common now to repeat the refrain that "no one wants to replace professional journalists" I don’t know if this is true. Indymedia, as part of a much larger critique of hierarchy, takes a more radical line where this is concerned. So do the anti-MSM partisans of the right. Lets keep this in mind.
So, to conclude: we’ve looked at 6 forms of actually existing Ctiziens Journalism-
Big Media Citizens Journalism
They’re not mutually exclusive. Many will exist side by side, and in some ways, thats the most interesting part of the whole thing.
Now Playing: "Napoleon Says," by Pheonix.
UPDATE: I realized that I never really addressed Nick Lemann’s basic question in this post: namely, has citizen journalism been successful? But the answer depends on both your definition of success in relationship to what it is your trying to achieve.
For starters, it seems fairly obvious that the internet has fundamentally altered (until net neutrality goes away, of course) the basic equation of content providers versus content consumers. Blogs and homepages, along with mashups, You Tube, etc, are here to stay. In other words, people can be creative now, in public, in ways that’ve never been possible before. I don’t think this is a meaningless development. It may not as be as overtly profound as some of our more "political" happenings, but its not trivial, either.
Second, when it comes to what people used tp call "punditry," the rules of the game have changed as well. To be blunt– there is nothing that Maureen Dowd, or Tom Friedman, or David Broder do that is unique anymore. On almost every topic imaginable, I can find a better post online than any of the highly paid and powerful columnists with the majpr papers. These folks are the real disappearing journalists.
So, we’re left with the future of reporting. This is a much more mixed picture, as Lemann forcefully points out. But I think the future is still "in development" on this one. I also thin that its amazing that the conversation has gotten as far as it has in such a short period of time. We’ve gone from "is blogging journalism?" to a much higher bar in a matter of years. Who knows whats coming down the road?