A crash course on citizen journalism

Crossposted from my Portland Community Media blog. Read comments on the original post.

Or participatory media, as I like to call it, for more inclusive reasons. One of my favorite quotes about participatory journalism is from Macromedia founder Marc Canter. “Five percent of the populace (probably even less) can create. The others watch, listen, read, consume. I think one of the destinies of digital technology is to enable the other 95% to express their creativity somehow. That’s the gestalt view.”

Back when I was in college, I wanted (and still entertain the idea) to be a journalist. Right before my senior year, a movement was beginning to gather steam, a movement called citizen journalism.

“Who are these people?” Lev Grossman posed in Time’s 2006 Person of the Year article. “Seriously, who actually sits down after a long day at work and says, I’m not going to watch Lost tonight. I’m going to turn on my computer and make a movie starring my pet iguana? I’m going to mash up 50 Cent’s vocals with Queen’s instrumentals? I’m going to blog about my state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak fries at the new bistro down the street? Who has that time and that energy and that passion? The answer is, you do.”

Everywhere I looked, on magazine covers, front pages and home pages, I saw three words: “Print is dead!” Columbia’s Dean of Journalism Nicholas Lemann was not in such a rush to support the statement. In his mind, it was amateur hour, where at its best, you might get a couple of decent opinions, but more brilliant and polished insights on the matter are already available in the papers. He echoed the thoughts of many journalists at the time.

So who are citizen journalists and why do they do what they do? Here’s where the term “citizen journalism” falls apart. The term was coined by academics trying to name something they saw, a something where everyday people were creating worthwhile media distributed on the Internet. Other terms for it are participatory journalism, pro-am journalism and grassroots journalism. Of those that frame the movement in terms of journalism, I believe the most encompassing name is participatory journalism (Aside: In my personal opinion, the biggest reason citizen journalism isn’t an adequate term is because “citizen” denotes geography, and this doesn’t take into account diasporas, immigrant identities, or the unfortunate few who aren’t protected under any citizenship).

Of course, there are many bloggers who see themselves as the alternative to mainstream media, but why participatory journalism? Well, the Baghdad Blogger put it best. His blog, Where is Raed? was the go-to source for on-the-ground information during the War on Iraq. As an Iraqi citizen, he had access to areas that even the most high-power journalists could not wander into.

“[Blogs are] good because they seem like small windows in to how people are living and thinking in the outside world. I also realized that there’s nothing coming from the Arab world. So I thought I’d start one. To give something back to the blogging community … Honestly, I’m not comfortable with the idea that I am considered a ‘news source.’ I am just blogging. A blog is where you can make the news more real for you… for me.”

The Baghdad Blogger wasn’t blogging with the intent of becoming an authority; he was writing what he saw in his little corner of the world in spite of politics, research and statistics. His accounts enhanced that greater entity called news. His facts were sensory ones.

“Let me tell you one thing first,” he wrote. “War sucks big time. Don’t let yourself ever be talked into having one waged in the name of your freedom. Somehow when the bombs start dropping or you hear the sounds of machine guns at the end of your street you don’t think about your ‘imminent liberation’ anymore.”

Since graduating college, I’ve come across a couple of new terms: Web 2.0, social media, new media. All of this thanks to my position with Portland Community Media as the New Media Vista. Ultimately, all of these are very similar to participatory journalism, where normal and average people are choosing what goes on their front pages (Digg, Newsvine, Reddit) instead of journalists, where commenting on blogs can create a sense of community. Where people are fulfilling their need to share and create. Simply put, social media, new media and Web 2.0 are all terms referring to media that is driven by social desire and positive reinforcement. This media encourages dialogue and collaboration and uses technological tools to reinforce human social relationships. The difference between citizen journalism and social media are simply how they are phrased: One looks at everything from a social interaction perspective while the other focuses specifically on journalism.

This is clearly a powerful force, one that journalists, community media centers and marketers are trying to harness. At first, journalists begrudgingly accepted citizen journalism’s de facto existence, but are now scrambling to find a way to reinject the social aspect into news in order to secure their survival, which is ironic because news is ultimately about people. To understand this, it must also be understood that the way mainstream media have progressed in the last century is akin to a soup kitchen: The public was served predetermined headlines and portions with little say in what they wanted to have. It was an experts-to-advisee system. Broadcaster to consumers.

Ultimately, the best citizen journalism and social media sites seem to keep three things in mind. One, that your public is a capable public with interesting and valuable information to share. Two, that everyone craves community and positive reinforcement. Three, that everyone–from the site’s members to the site’s administrator and hosting company–is both the broadcaster and the audience. Any social media or citizen journalism site takes a lot to maintain, but if participants are invested enough in the content they create, the quality and the warm fuzzies they get from social exchange, they can ultimately become monitors who watch out for vandalism of their media forum (i.e.: Wikipedia).

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