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Citizen journalism, a concept at which mainstream news organizations used to turn up their nose, has been documented and praised enough that they are now paying attention. But do professional journalists and news organizations really have anything to be worried about?

Professional amateurs

The popular vlog Rocketboom did an interview with XML guru Dave Winer in which he gave his take on journalism: “Amateur is not below professional. It’s just another way of doing (media). The root of the word amateur is love, and someone who does something for love is an amateur. Someone who does something to pay the bills is a professional. The amateurs have [more integrity than] the professionals. If you’re an amateur you have less conflict of interest and less reason not to tell your truth than if you have to pay the bills and please somebody else.”

What Dave has to say may be true in theory, but in reality it doesn’t fly. Amateurs can’t really dedicate themselves to performing thorough journalism because the fact is they have to pay the bills doing their own profession. After that job is done, they can entertain themselves however they would like and many in recent years have taken up reading, writing and commenting in the blogosphere.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it is exactly this practice that is today hailed as “Citizen Journalism” which really has nothing at all to do with journalism.

Think quickly about the top political blogs on the Internet. They have massive followings, enough to allow their authors to support themselves and then some. But do they do any real journalism? No. They are just commentary on what’s in the Mainstream Media. Educated and insightful commentary, no doubt. Often better than MSM editorials. But just commentary.

Amy Gahran at Poynter picked up the Winer interview and had her own take: “I think this basic question — what constitutes integrity in media? — cuts straight to the heart of the discomfort that many traditional journalists experience when they consider the booming field of citizen journalism and grassroots media. We journalists generally prize integrity. Certain core values and practices of traditional (professional) journalism — such as objectivity, accuracy, corroboration, avoiding conflicts of interest, transparency, editorial oversight, etc. — exist in order to enhance our integrity and thus earn the audience’s trust.” She later declares, “amateurs can learn to produce high-quality news content.”

Let’s dissect Gahran:

First of all, the “field of citizen journalism and grassroots media” is not “booming.” Who some would consider to be the father of citizen journalism, Dan Gillmor, is changing course after his first attempt as an independent citizen journalism because he did not receive the rate of participation for which he had hoped and he was not able to make it profitable (see “paying the bills”).

Backfence, the start-up citJ project which is taking over Gillmor’s blog has seen tepid results at best.
Even Wikipedia, which isn’t particularly citizen journalism but runs along the same lines, doesn’t produce the kind of dedication one might expect: the Economist (print edition) is the latest to point out that of Wikipedia’s millions of users, there is a core of “a few hundred committed volunteers” editing entries.

Secondly, amateurs could definitely “learn to produce high-quality news content,” as Gahran insists. But what’s the point of investing all of that time and money unless they wanted to become actual journalists from which they could draw the paycheck to pay the bills?

And of course the principles of journalism that she lists have little to nothing to do with amateur citizen journalists (bloggers):

Objectivity: blogs are inherently biased
Accuracy: bloggers don’t really report so what’s there to be accurate about?
Corroboration: blogging and commenting are one-man shows…
Avoid conflicts of interest: …one-man shows with a personal motive.
Transparency: Bloggers are pretty good at this by linking to background material, but some still post and comment anonymously.
Editorial oversight: against the whole concept of a blog

So it looks like not only do amateurs have a long way to go to do real journalism, but that if they are ever to do real journalism, they’ll no longer be amateurs. Professionals have nothing to worry about.

But what about professionals using these amateur technologies? Our next posting shines some light…

Source: Poynter, The Economist (April 22 print edition, special survey on new media)

Posted by John Burke on April 28, 2006 at 04:43 PM

Citizen journalism vs. professional journalism II
If you missed our last posting, we argued that true amateurs will never be able to perform true journalism. Still, newspaper websites nowadays are doing everything in their power to integrate the interactive capabilities inherent to amateur blogging they once dismissed. But should they?

Amateur Professionals

Online Journalism Review conducted interviews with several online journalists to see what they thought about newspapers integrating blogs into their journalism. Results were mixed:

Lisa Stone, BlogHer.org: “Of course they can… Newspaper blogs that work are carefully planned, openly executed exercises in public conversation about news and information. These blogs allow comments and turn into 24/7 townhall meetings about everything from the headlines to how well the paper is doing to deliver and discuss the news. Newspapers that blog well embrace the community and use the blogs as an extension of their op-ed pages.”

Nick Denton, Gawker Media: “Reporters, trained to put aside opinion, make uninteresting bloggers. And it’s notoriously hard to manage, in parallel, a daily news cycle and regular updates for breaking news.”

Bob Cauthorn, CityTools.net: “I think it’s going to be difficult for newspapers to do blogs right because their DNA continues to be trapped in the “we talk, you listen” mode… if newspapers blogs are not *really* about interacting with the community — and I challenge anyone to demonstrate they’ve been successful at that goal — what makes them different? They just offer the same voices you read all the time.”

All three make good points. Starting with Cauthorn, journalists should not keep blogs; they do not have the time to respond to their public.

Journalists need to be out gathering information, talking to people involved in their stories and putting what they find together in a comprehensible manner. It’s not that they ignore their public or that they wouldn’t like to converse with it; it’s that newsgathering takes a lot of time for which journalists get paid.

When papers ask their journalists to write on the tool of an amateur for no extra compensation they are undermining their own quality because they steal time away from their act of journalism. For example, the Washington Post recently felt the backlash from annoyed staffers.

And moving beyond journalists, not even bloggers have time to blog. Poynter notes that the “pre-blog” of an upcoming conference isn’t as lively as it should be due mostly to the fact that the bloggers on the site are busy organizing the conference. And Frank Barnako at MarketWatch notes that some of the biggest names in the blogosphere are getting fed up with the constant updating and taking some time off.

Nick Denton alludes to the journalistic principle of objectivity. Objectivity is another reason why journalists should not keep blogs. Blogs are meant to take a position, to have a voice. Professional journalists traditionally are not. They would compromise their position as journalist by letting their reader know where they stand on a blog and then reporting objectively.

But this doesn’t mean that newspapers can’t integrate blogs into their everyday function. In doing this, Stone has the right idea.

Op-ed pages should be transformed into blogs because opinion is essentially what blogs are. The only thing that distinguishes them from blogs is their lack of interactivity, something that newspapers seriously need to integrate in order to reconnect with their readers. Op-ed columnists should react with their pubic just like bloggers do to create a conversation.

But if the beat journalists don’t have the time to respond to readers, who will?

This is where newspapers need an intermediary; not just traditional ombudsmen like those that have popped up in the past few years but staffers whose job is to filter comments, alert journalists to a few that deserve personal responses and respond to others themselves.  They would effectively act as “reverse editors;” whereas traditional editors filter down to the public, “reverse editors” would filter up to journalists.

With such positions doled out by section or competence, all articles could be opened up to reader comments and readers would be happy to hear that their paper cares enough to answer their concerns. These intermediaries should also scan the blogosphere to see what their readers are saying about their paper and linking to relevant posts.

At the end of the day, professional journalists need not worry that amateurs are going to steal their jobs, nor should they worry that their ability to do their jobs will be compromised by new interactive tasks.

But both professionals and amateurs should be worried about something else. If you noticed, much of the two parts of this essay revolved around time and money: amateurs don’t get paid to do journalism and thus can’t find the time; professionals get paid for journalism and thus can’t find the time to blog. Well, time and money, according to this prediction, may be running out for the medium on which they both depend; newspapers.

Let’s hope that professionals and amateurs soon find a lucrative way to work together to make newspaper journalism thrive for centuries to come.

Sources: Online Journalism Review, MarketWatch, Poynter, Digital Deliverance (prediction)

 John Burke