J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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“Actually Existing” Citizen Journalism Projects and Typologies: Part II

Posted by chanders on August 1, 2006

(Read Part One)

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-

Personal homepages
Indymedia
Blogs
Hyperlocal Journalism
Big Media Citizens Journalism
Networked 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?

8 Responses to ““Actually Existing” Citizen Journalism Projects and Typologies: Part II”

  1. Hi!

    Personally, I think the term “citizen journalism” focuses the debate around what newspapers do well. We’re not asking the question, how well do community newspapers connect citizens to each other? If we did, the results would be different. In any case, trying to figure out whether a placeblog is a good or bad newspaper obscures almost anything we could learn about each other.

    Personally, I don’t think local sites are actually in competition with newspapers. I did a presentation on what I like to call “placeblogs” at yesterday’s citizen journalism gathering at Harvard. I’m working on collecting a list of 1,000 placeblogs in the US. I’m up to about 350 having gone through only 13 states. I think part of the reason why the conversation on blogs and journalism has gotten so stale is that the same few examples of placeblogs are used, when in fact there are hundreds of placeblogs and there’s a lot of variety within placeblogs.

    If you look here you can find a link to my slides.

  2. First, thanks for the link/mention.😉

    I like the way you’ve categorized the evolution of things so far. Don’t count out the regional independents yet, though. A lot of us realize the need to do more ‘serious’ journalism. We know that takes money, though. The trick is going to be in raising money through the existing sites (with our bake sale stories) while building a bond with the community. At some point (at least in my plan) there will be paid reporters, stringers, photogs, etc.

    The problem is that MSM skipped a lot of steps because they have a large (huge!) warchest available to them. They’re missing the point of it, though, I think in that thing you mentioned about them maybe wanting to replace rather than supplement traditional (paid, professional) reporters. They’re looking at ways to continue dominating the market and keep their 20%+ profit margins.

    On the other side, the independents, for the most part I think, are really wanting to give the power of media back to the people. Sure, we’ll still have gatekeepers and what-not, but I for one want to have paid stringers and reporters out in the field.

    I also want to say that I’m trying to do more of the type of journalism that rights public wrongs, but the biggest obstacle at this point is time and money (very related…) Here in Indiana, I’ve started tying together loose groups of people in various counties who are fighting CAFOs, which are invading our state at an alarming rate, with very little regulations in place to stop us from becoming like North Carolina, Michigan, and other states where the factory farms have come in, ruined the environment, then moved on.

    I don’t know, there’s a long way to go, but in the end I think the ‘hyperlocals’ as you call us will eventually make the jump to the next evolutionary step – at least making enough money to start hiring people.

    I applaud Rosen and his work with NewAssignment.net, though. So many people have told me that to be successful I had to have 100 or more cookie cutter sites spread across the country. I want to stick to my little region for the moment, though. Like Hannibal, I’m picking the battleground for the moment and rallying the countryside against Rome (Gannett)…

    Anyway, thanks for the great/thoughtful piece.

    peace,
    kpaul

  3. Sunday Wrap Up

    Just clearing out some remaining news and commentary for the week:

    The Bivings Report surveys the top 100 newspapers’ use of online offerings.
    Socialmeter scans several major link-tracking sites and spits back an analysis of your URL&#…

  4. Lisa Williams writes: “Personally I don’t think local sites are actually in competition with newspapers.”

    At WestportNow, a mixture of professional and citizen journalists, that’s not completely true. Take Sunday, Aug. 20, 2006, for example. WestportNow’s output for the day included more than a dozen photographs and stories. Included were exclusive photos of two Saturday night/Sunday morning spot stories – four youths from neighboring Bridgeport crashing a stolen car in Westport and, a roll-over on I-95 in Westport with a rescue.

    There was also exclusive coverage of 267 applicants showing up on a Sunday morning to take a firefighting exam, feature photos of a couple strolling a the beach and of a fisherman making a catch, coverage of a minor fire call at a supermarket, and a photo of an evening outdoor concert. In addition, there was a story of some downed trees that caused power outages for hundreds of residents. All this in less than 24 hours. It was a busier Sunday than usual for sure.

    Westport’s two newspapers — one that publishes Wednesday and Friday and the other that publishes every Thursday – may or may not catch up with some of these stories three or four days from now. If they do, it most likely it will be via a police handout without any photos.

    My point is that news occurs seven days a week. And Westport residents no longer have to rely solely on coverage (or non-coverage) from weekly newspapers or occasional stories in neighboring dailies. They can read – and interact – with the news almost as it happens through WestportNow. And it is news covered by their friends and neighbors who are genuinely interested in making sure Westport is an informed community, even on weekends and holidays.

  5. tish grier said

    Interesting stuff, Chirs…but two points not addressed that are important to some kinds of citizen journalism:

    Sites that dig up info that would languish in specialty pubications and (to stress a point in Gordon’s comment) interaction.

    The internet allows for quick discovery of information that may be important but gets underreported–such as the vote on the DOPA legislation and the current goings-on with the FCC and ClearChannel. Part of the mission of some citizen journalism is to bring this stuff to the surface so that individuals can not only read but discuss it, elaborate on it (as in “what you can do about it” stuff).

    This resembles your idea of Indymedia, but I think it’s a bit different. Take a look at ePluribus Media, which has a variety of things going on including a journal for longer pieces (that are edited and fact-checked) as well as timelines, etc.

    Some migh call this as a form of activism–but aren’t some kinds of professional journalism also activism? What’s the difference between a site like ePM and a local alternative paper, other than that ePM is put together by “citizens.”

    Interaction is also key to the success of many citizen journalism projects. Interaction sometimes adds to stories, corrects them, or simply stimulates conversation around what is reported. The sites become small town squares with conversation localized around the stories. This promotes discourse as well as making the reporter accountable in a somewhat different way than might be at a daily paper that vets its Letters to the Editor.

    I giggled a bit when you said I also thin that its amazing that the conversation has gotten as far as it has in such a short period of time…yes, it’s amazing, but if you spend any considerable lenght of time involved in this space, you’ll get a better sense of the quickness of communication. When the least experienced can comment and discuss aspects of journalism (or anything) with the most experienced —either directly in comments or via linking–without the delays of censorship that are inherent in most professional journalism, is it any wonder that the advancement of ideas would happen much faster? Out here, it’s as much about the conversation stimulated by content as it is about the content itself🙂

  6. Reporters said

    Passato e futuro del (citizen) journalism

    Si comincia con le pagine personali, si continua con Indymedia, si arriva ai primi blog, ai blog di informazione iperlocali, ai blog di citizen journalists aperti dai grandi mass media, fino al networked journalism con lorm…

  7. Appreciated the two part article, as someone who has a hyper local site. It is in essence a blog, but fills a critical gap as we have two regional daily publications, and two weekly (advertising based), but no “traditional media” focused on the community.

    I also keep a behind the scenes blog and quoted you extensively in a recent post regarding the classification and possible certification of various community sites and placeblogs.

    You can read it here:

    http://newsovercoffee.wordpress.com/2006/09/07/quixote-or-einstein-determining-your-place/

    Thanks for the overview and history of this exciting media segment.

    Best wishes,

    Ross

  8. Young Indian research Journalists starts Citizen Journalism In India

    A community news portal http://www.citizenxpress.com has been laucnhed in india by group of young indian research Journalists in december 2006.

    The community new portal http://www.citizenxpress.com is research work of ABC Media Research and Development Center, the research wing of ABC News Network Private limited .This portal is fully dedicated to the cause of citizen involved journalism popularly called CITIZEN JOURNALISM. All news and information have their sources in citizens. They create news and information or witness the news but they have no relevance in news gathering, processing and publishing system of contempory media. The citizen journalism is the voices of all those citizens who are creating or witnessing news and information around them, the citizenxpress is an open platform for all those citizens.

    Now a day’s fascinating proverb is being engineered i.e. for all (4 all).like education for all, health for all, justice for all etc but participation by all is no where in their agenda. This gives impressions that all who want to do some thing for all still not willing to relinquish their position of givers. Which always reflect in their actions vice versa. So there is urgent need of a platform, where all will act as givers as well as takers. Flow of knowledge can be from either sides depending on the need and requirements of situation.

    Flag Story

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