February 1st, 2006

A Challenge to Citizen Journalism


The citizen journalism movement is shaking Old Media journalism out of its complacency, but is it realistic to believe that citizen media can and should replace institutional media? I remain deeply skeptical.

Jeff Jarvis is out in force again today, smacking the “dinosaurs” of Old Media for not understanding the power of the people. As usual, I think Jeff gets it half-right — what he misses is illuminated by Robert Feinman’s response to Jeff’s post:

You always concentrate on how news gets distributed, but not on how it gets gathered. All of the secondary distribution channels that you constantly point to as innovative are really parasites off the primary news gathering services.

I would be interested in seeing some examples of actual news gathering done by these new channels. Even the few original releases in the blogosphere can be traced back to some print or broadcast item that was previously overlooked, like the Trent Lott incident.

Perhaps the day will come when government insiders start calling the bloggers instead of Judy Miller, but it hasn’t happened yet. And, even if they do, how will anyone know if the material is valid, there isn’t even the most minimal system of verification in place.

Here are the questions I have for Jeff and other advocates of citizen journalism who like to swing sledgehammers at old media institutions:

How many citizen journalist are reporting from Iraq, Afganistan, and other war zones? How many citizen journalists will step forward to risk their lives to keep us informed? And who will provide them with the funding and the infrastructure to exhibit this kind of principled bravery (which we, the public, often don’t seem worthy of)?

I would not be surprised to learn that there are independent voices already reporting from the front, who have risked their lives for their principles. But can their work continue if we tear down all of the media institutions? As I’ve asked before, who will fund the public good?

This question seems particularly acute to me, not just in light of the high-profile wounding of Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt, but because I know journalist who have risked their lives to keep us informed. I had the priviledge of knowing Michael Kelly (albeit briefly), who was the first American journalist to be killed in Iraq in 2003.

Mike was a truly rare human being — even those who strongly disagreed with his views found him to be one of the warmest, most affable, most genuine, most principled people they had ever met. Mike went to Iraq because of his strong conviction, and because he stood by his principles.

Will citizen journalism produce more Mike Kellys? That is the challenge. I am inclined to assume that there are such people among the ranks of bloggers and other independent voices. My fear is that without funding, without resources, and without an institution to support them, they will be fundamentally hamstrung in their pursuits.

The revolution that is shaking the foundations of media and journalism needs to happen — and I believe a greater good can come of it. But only if we think very carefully about what we intend to build up in place of what we tear down.

Others who are echoing this theme — amen to all:

Dan Gillmor — Why We Still Need Big Media

Tim Porter — Good Work, Great Journalism

Craig of Craigslist — Professional journalism is a big deal

All in response to the San Jose Mercury News series — Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice

Dan points out “The impending sale of Knight Ridder may ensure that such efforts fall victim to investors’ preference for high profits at the cost of genuinely pathbreaking journalism such as this.” Tim points out, “And, we need to create economic models to support it.”

Citizen journalism is here. Let’s stop beating up on Old Media for its complacency and corporate profit motives. Point made.

Let’s focus all of our energy and effort on figuring out a new economics of journalism. Without viable business models to support journalism, democracy and the public good will ultimately suffer.

Dan Gillmor and Ethan Zukerman are reporting from Doha:

I’m at the second Al Jazeera forum in Doha, the base of operations of the Arabic news broadcaster that is about to launch an international network in competition with CNN, BBC and others. Later today, I’m speaking on a panel about blogs and other grassroots media.

My Berkman Center colleague, Ethan Zuckerman, another speaker here, is blogging the conference. He types faster and more accurately than I can manage, so I recommend that you read his blog if you want to get a feel for this gathering. (Like Ethan, I do not agree with some of what I’m hearing from the stage, but the range of views is remarkable and educational nonetheless.)

More power to them.

Comments (14 Responses so far)

  1. sees them as too vulnerable to manipulation, especially from public relations firms. Enfin sur le thème des enjeux de la professionnalisation, un billet argumenté de Scott Karp (Publishing 2.0), spécialiste de stratégie média, qui s’affirme sceptique sur la supposée menace du journalisme citoyen face aux médias institutionnels . A lire absolument son billet précédent sur l’effet Bubble 2.0, la bulle dans les médias, une brillante synthèse de la théorie économique de Umair Haque autour de la crise de l’ecosystème des médias, où comment retenir l’attention du

  2. At Brave New Films we’re doing our damnedest to get out there and tell stories that aren’t being told. Getting our hands dirty with original reporting. These are films, but really it’s more citizen journalism combined with citizen distribution — using quick production cycles, cheap DVDs and distributed grassroots screenings.

    And funding it all is a nightmare. Attacking the media establishment (outfoxed), and Hollywood’s sugar daddy (wal-mart) makes a lot of funders scared.

    So that’s a big reason we use DVDs because at least we can sell those and have some kind of revenue stream. People are willing to pay for that (at least for now).

  3. Hey Scott — I dig your blog, been reading it for a week or so now.

    I agree with both your general enthusiasm for and skepticism of citizen journalism. In regards to your comment about independent reporters, there are quite a few independent bloggers who have gone or are going to Iraq and other hot zones to report. Chris Allbritton from back-to-iraq.com is the first who comes to mind. Two years ago he raised $10,000 via his blog, travelled to Iraq, and did some original reporting. Today he freelances for Time from Beirut.

  4. Jim, if people will pay for the content itself — that is the purest business model, which leaves you beholden to no one except your consumers. Much will depend on whether the “grassroots” approach can works as well for “cash on the barrel head” sales as it does for content creation and distribution.

    Steve, thanks for the example of Chris Allbritton — if anyone else has other examples, I’d love to learn more about them.

    That Chris had to raise money through his blog to be able to risk his life in Iraq is exactly my concern — “with no back-up, no bulletproof vest and no embedding.” as Chris says on his blog — independent voices need and deserve institutional support, whether we reform the old institutions and/or create new ones.

  5. Here goes a challenge….

    Here goes a strike against grassroots (efforts without $6million dollar backer) civil journalism sites….

    Without naming any names….

    A user on our site published two stories related to an event that occured late last year.

    There was a firm related to this event – one with ALOT of financial resources
    and influence in our region.

    The event was a disasterous flop – so much so it was covered by our local mainstream media.

    Our user posted his opinion about the event and linked and quoted mainstream news stories about it.

    The firm has filed suit against a number of folks involved and against smaller members of our mainstream media.

    The firm has threatened us to remove those posts – due to the damages
    they are causing – or face consequences.

    We have a pro bono law team. It will cannot help us in case of lawsuit. It doesn’t think we’ve done anything – anything – wrong – but since we have no resources to fight – money that is – we should remove those posts and comply with that businesses wishes.

    Only when backed by money and institution can an independent ward off
    threats like this.

    If we blow this up on the web – some may come to help – but chances
    are not – we are too small for that kind of rallying cry.

  6. Anyone reading this who has a blog — PLEASE shine your spotlight on the plight of PhillyFuture.org and show the power of the blogosphere!

  7. Scott:

    With all due respect, I think you’re creating a false dichotomy in the setup for your argument — a “straw man” I believe it’s called :-)

    I don’t think Jeff Jarvis or anyone else who supports the idea of “citizen journalism” would argue that it should replace traditional journalism, or if they are saying that then I haven’t been reading them closely enough. I think they are saying that it can help reinvigorate and extend traditional journalism. And I think they are saying this in particular about local reporting, not so much about reporting on a war, which as you point out takes considerable resources.

    I don’t think Jeff is saying that bloggers can replace that sort of thing, and for what it’s worth I don’t think that you really think he’s saying that either. I guess I’m saying that it seemed like a bit of a cheap shot, especially since the rest of your post makes a lot of worthwhile points (many of which I think Jeff would agree with).

  8. Mathew, first of all, I think the blogosphere should have a moratorium on the use of the term “straw man” as the set up every “here’s why I disagree with you” post. It’s way overused and misused as a rhetorical device. (But that’s a separate issue.)

    I don’t attribute the “sledgehammer” approach to even a fraction of the citizen journalism movement. As I said in my update above, most everyone is on the same page.

    With all due respect to Jeff — I did say I thought he was half right — he uses the term “dinosaur” to describe old media. Dinosaurs symbolize the path to extinction. If what he has in mind is “reinvigoration” and “extension,” that’s not something I’ve picked up in reading what he’s written.

    Perhaps I need to read him and others more carefully. And/or they need to choose their language more carefully.

  9. [...] Publishing 2.0 » A Challenge to Citizen Journalism Brings togther some good analysis. (tags: citizen journalism) [...]

  10. I’m late to the party, but readers might enjoy:

    “Citizen Media” Skeptical Questions

    “What’s so superultrafantastic about being an unpaid freelancer?”

  11. Lives in Focus is another example of ‘donation driven blog journalism’. Sandeep raised around $6,000 for him and a photographer to go to India and report on the plight of the HIV+ population affected by changes in Indian patent law. Fascinating multimedia project. Shows what can be done, and done better than old media, on a limited budget. I interviewed him specifically about how this model could be used by other journalists with possible involvement of newspapers etc. if you’re interested, the audio’s here.

  12. [...] News 2.0 is Not Journalism 2.0 I’ve been working on a column called “News 2.0 is Not Journalism 2.0″ It’s a riff on things I’ve see Om Malik, Scott Karp, and Paul Montgomery have been saying about news 2.0 mashups. So this post is mostly me thinking out loud. As a journalist, I’ve watched the news 2.0 paradigm with much interest but also a little dissapointment. The great part about Web 2.0 is that it focuses on the user and allowing the user to slice-and-dice information how they want it. This is particularly true of news 2.0 sites like reddit, tailrank, digg, etc. (leaving alone for now that I don’t think all these sites are “news” 2.0.) This ability speaks to a great need online: Context. The search for context runs like a bold trend line through the recent history of the Internet. Get what you want, how you want it. Your way, right away. Like Burger King, but with a yellow fade technique. Ritzy. But what news 2.0 sites are missing, with the exception of one or two, is original journalism. You know why? Because it’s hard. This is why Newsvine and Topix have such great opportunities, and where they can truly demonstrate how different they are from sites like digg. They’re already concentrating on the news, and they’ve already got user-generated content. Imagine if they employed real journalists as well. I remember back in, what, 1997, when news.com came along, everybody thought they were insane to compete as newsmakers. But look what happened. They started breaking stories. How amazing would it be to see a site like Newsvine not only have the best discussions and the best amateur journalism, but also hard-hitting investigative journalism, or original breaking news. This is where the true value is: At the intersection of what has been histroically two different markets/industries, news and technology. One company is already starting down this road. Yahoo, with Kevin Sites and Richard Bangs, is poised to break into news journalism. All they’d need is Newsvine and a journalist or two. [...]

  13. [...] A challenge to citizen journalism from the blog Publishing 2.0. One question he asks: Will cit-j produce more Mike Kellys? That would be Mike Kelly, famous UNH grad and unfortunately the first American journalist to die in Iraq. [...]

  14. [...] Publishing 2.0 » A Challenge to Citizen Journalism Says: February 1st, 2006 at 12:38 pm [...]

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