Over the last few months I’ve become intrigued by the emerging field of citizen journalism (citJ, for short): news, features, analysis, and commentary produced and published by people including some bloggers who are not hired by news organizations.
I’m drawn to this field because I’ve grown to realize that traditional versions of news, journalism, and journalists are no longer enough. The cult of officialdom has reached its limits. There is more than one way to gauge relevance and credibility. We need more kinds of news, from more kinds of sources, to adequately serve the information needs of our communities and the world.
After spending months watching this field sprout, I’m finally ready to dive in and help it blossom. My longtime friend and colleague, A. Adam Glenn (who recently left his Senior Producer position at ABC News.com to broaden his media horizons) will be my teammate on this exploration.
Fortuitously, last Thursday I was interviewed by Randy Dominga of the Christian Science Monitor on the topic of citJ.
UPDATE: The Monitor article which mentions me (in the lead) is now online! See: Write the news yourself! Great headline, and great article. Read more about that coverage, and the associated blogosphere buzz. Thanks, Randy Dotinga!
So what exactly are Adam and I up to on this front?…
We’re launching a venue called I, Reporter. I’m building that site right this minute, and will link to it before the weekend is out. Initially I, Reporter will feature a weblog covering:
- How is citJ being done in the US and around the world, by whom?
- How might it affect society, communities, and the media business?
- What are the ethical, legal, social, and professional issues and how might they be approached creatively and constructively?
- What do citizen and professional journalists have in common, and where do they clash?
- What do audiences think of citJ?
- Behind-the-scenes discussion of our own citJ projects
- Tips, opportunities, pitfalls, and other practical tidbits
- CitJ questions worth pondering.
Also, we are developing a training program for citizen journalists and for news organizations that seek to nurture and leverage the efforts of citizen journalists. Our suite of services will include workshops, educational materials, publications, e-learning, mentoring, and more. We’ll also present the voices and expertise of some of our media colleagues as well as exemplary citizen journalists. I, Reporter will be the main hub for all of this activity.
Normally I wouldn’t announce a project like this before the blog is actually up and offers a few postings. However, I’m expecting at least part of this effort to be covered in a Christian Science Monitor feature due out Monday, June 20. So I wanted to give CONTENTIOUS readers a little advance notice.
WHAT DOES CITIZEN JOURNALISM NEED RIGHT NOW?
Most needs spring from discomfort. It seems to me that many would-be citizen journalists are motivated by discomfort with the quality and type of coverage offered by traditional news orgs.
Too often this motivation is negated by a surprisingly common experience of isolation and limitations.
These people often have great ideas for issues or events to cover. However, most of them lack the basic journalistic skills and insight needed to report, verify, craft, and publish those stories. They’re not clear on the scope and type of coverage they wish to create. It’s hard to realize a fuzzy vision.
Worst of all, most citizen journalists seem to be largely fending for themselves. Teamwork is currently rare in this field.
Some traditional news organizations are involved with citJ projects and sites. That can help as long as they don’t try to ghettoize or undermine it. The more passively managed efforts rarely attract many postings or traffic. However, some (like the Bakersfield, CA Northwest Voice) are seeing some success with innovative, active approaches. Independent citJ efforts such as South Korea’s OhMyNews can be surprisingly popular and credible.
PRO-AMATEUR COLLABORATION: ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Too often, news orgs’ main contribution to citJ is simply to supply a fairly passive venue for publishing citizen-produced news such as a web site associated with the local paper like the Boulder, CO Daily Camera’s My Town or YourHub.com from the Rocky Mountain News.
Beyond infrastructure, news orgs usually offer little or no guidance, mentoring, or training for citizen journalists. Nor do they typically highlight citJ efforts, online or via print or broadcast. This is probably why citizen-generated content is typically minimal on such sites.
The truth is, when it comes to citJ, you need to do much more than just “build it” to get people to come.
Also, misunderstandings and even mistrust (or at least skepticism) currently abound between professional and citizen journalists, thanks largely to key differences in some core assumptions.
Perhaps the thorniest issue is how closely citJ should emulate the objectives, format, and style of traditional journalism. For instance, in the citJ realm transparency is usually considered more crucial than objectivity. Many news professionals who’ve labored for years in traditional journalism have a particularly hard time with this.
It’s not surprising that most news orgs don’t yet know how to relate well to citizen journalists. This is fairly new. Heck citizen journalists are only just beginning to grasp their own identity.
All of this can leave would-be citizen journalists fumbling and feeling overwhelmed and isolated. That’s not fun for anyone and who would do that much work for free if it’s not fun?
Adam and I believe that motivation, training, creativity, experimentation, and collaboration are the keys to further evolution for both citizen and professional journalism. Both breeds of journalists have much to offer each other. We plan to focus on their mutually complementary nature, without putting one above the other. More mutual understanding, curiousity, and empathy might go a long way.
MY OWN CITIZEN JOURNALISM PROJECT: HOGAN-PANCOST
I, Reporter also will offer a behind-the-scenes look at specific citizen journalism projects. Here’s a bit about the citJ team reporting project I’m starting soon:
I live in the southeast corner of Boulder, CO where for months a contentious development issue has been the topic of neighborhood conversation and several public meetings. At issue is the Hogan-Pancost property: a 24-acre grazing field which abuts existing homes, soccer fields, a rec center, a semi-rural property, and open wetlands.
Over the last several years the owner of this property has been trying to get it developed, to the general dismay of nearby homeowners. This year’s push for development is particularly potent and may succeed despite the oppostion of local activists. The current proposal calls for 115 new homes on the property, including 46 units of reduced rental rate senior housing to help ease the city’s affordable housing crisis.
(Disclosure: I’m a resident of this neighborhood, and so far I lean very slightly toward opposing this project mainly on flood plain and ground water concerns. However, there also are several potentially positive aspects of the proposed development. So I can’t really say I’ve made up my mind yet.)
So far this year, the Daily Camera has published nothing about this controversy. On May 28, 2005, the Colorado Daily (a small paper primarily aimed at students and faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder) ran one article on it (now behind a subscriber firewall).
Citizens in my part of Boulder would like to see more coverage of this topic, so I’m going to help them create it. I’m currently pulling together a team of citizen journalists to write some basic news stories discussing various aspects of this issue from different perspectives. The goals are:
- Expand the amount of publicly available news on this story, even modestly
- Impart basic journalism skills to new citizen journalists
- Using a real-world experience to make learning “stick”
- Leverage the strengths of a small but diverse group in making coverage decisions
- Generate energy and fun through cameraderie
- Provide a simple but strong example of how citJ can complement professional reporting.
My team will be publishing finished stories on either the Camera’s or the Rocky’s citJ site. We’ll also publish them in a special section of I, Reporter to show the effects of different types of presentation.
On I, Reporter I’ll also be covering the back story of how this process is working, for better or worse.
This project seemed to interest the Christian Science Monitor reporter, so you might see it mentioned in that article.
Well, that’s all for now. Much more on this later!