The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

True citizen journalism

We had an interesting email come in the Powers That Be here at Mizzou the other day. It was from Vadim Gorelik, one of the people run the citizen journalism Web site Neaju, promoting the site’s work and some of their activities. A couple lines from an email exchange caught my attention (and emphasis is mine):

As a mentor to future journalists, I am certain you are aware of increasing profiteering and sensationalism that is increasingly dominating American journalism, often at the expense of the value we all hold near and dear to our hearts – journalistic integrity. It is for that reason that we’ve created the first true citizen journalism site on the Internet – http://www.Neaju.com.

The first “true” cit-j site. When our own Clyde Bentley wrote back and pointed out that OhMyNews has been online for, like, the whole millenium so far and that others (including MyMissourian) had been up since 2004 and beyond, the response was even more interesting.

I will take an issue with your reference to OhMyNews as a true citizen journalism site. Although they have been around for a long time, and is probably one of the most successful CJ efforts, they do exercise editorial control over their submissions, which I believe is stepping away from being true to the ideals of citizen journalism.

This is not meant to criticize those doing what they’re doing over at Neaju, but I believe that the sentiments expressed by Vadim get to the heart of a lot of debates we’re having in both the industry and academia about the citizen journalism phenomenon. Is it journalism? Is it news? Are they journalists or citizens doing journalism? What makes Timmy’s art class drawing journalism and not the latest refrigerator-magnet fare?

If anything, Vadim’s response misses the point: the rise of cit-j has led to a really cool discussion within the industry, and that is the question of what true journalism is. Four years ago I would have had a pretty unequivocally narrow definition; today, I am not nearly as easy to pin down. Thus, I’m not sure anyone really has the right to claim what “true” citizen journalism is, because we can’t even agree anymore on what real journalism is. Except in the j-schools of America, of course. But no amount of navel gazing is substitute for an honest-to-goodness public discussion on the issue.

The definition of citizen journalism is so diverse and hard to capture that any definition from a cit-j practitioner that excludes a large class of what currently constitutes cit-j is bordering dangerously close on Web bigotry 2.0 (e.g. the “YouTube is so last year” crowd). And by overemphasizing the notion of control, I believe Vadim mistakes the process of individual self-publishing for that of a large group. If an individual self-publishes, they are wholly responsible for what is printed. If someone submits to a site, the law is still a little fuzzy on who is responsible for what when all hell breaks loose. Control is not a mechanism for shutting down viewpoints, but rather a mechanism to make sure the site that publishes those viewpoints isn’t shut down.

Truthfully, it makes no sense for any cit-j publication to shutLe but de poker game. out those who submit. Contributors are the lifeblood of a cit-j publication just as subscribers are for a traditional publication. If you try to weed people out, all you’ll do is discourage people from submitting.

In addition, a quick perusal of Neaju shows there is some editorial control happening. The very notion of a “Highest Ranked News Stories” or “Top 10 Reporters” automatically elevates some stories and writers to the front page. This is editorial function (helllloooo, gatekeeping!). My guess is it’s based on user ratings and Web stats, but it is gatekeeping nonetheless whether it is done by a computer or done by the mob.

The point, of course, is that we can play semantic games all day about what constitutes “true” citizen journalism, but it really misses the point. The conversation is new, growing, and exciting. And it is diverse. Let the people decide how much control they want by whom they choose to write for; you’d be surprised how many of our submitters appreciate a light editorial touch now and again.

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February 18, 2008 - Posted by | Jeremy Littau

19 Comments »

  1. Those jokers really have a mistaken/overly narrow view of cit-j. No editorial input = “cit”-J? Forget it… if so, then any blogger is a cit-j… so what is then the “first true” cit-j “site” … they’re talking out of their a$$

    Comment by Todd | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  2. Todd, you obviously have no concept of CJ. Let me help you: it’s news. Blogging can be news but, as a blogger, I will tell you that most of my posts have a large injection of my opinion and slant. That is NOT News, that is Editorializing. You say Neaju has an “overly narrow” view of CJ. To the contrary, you have an overly broad view. To follow your “logic”, a person would get electronics news from the Best Buy ad in the newspaper. Your gutter language also indicates you’re not a journalist of any kind, just a self-important…..joker.

    Comment by Alex | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  3. Thanks for the “review”, Jeremy. Please see my response here http://neaju.blogspot.com/2008/02/what-is-wrong-with-journalists.html

    Comment by Vadim Gorelik | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  4. As is my comment on a pretty disappointing response.

    Comment by Jeremy | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  5. Alex, out of curiosity, based on this:

    “Blogging can be news but, as a blogger, I will tell you that most of my posts have a large injection of my opinion and slant. That is NOT News, that is Editorializing.”

    Would you say that anything produced by newspapers before the “era of objectivity” (circa 1900 or so) is then not news? The notion of separating opinion from fact is a relatively recent development in the history of journalism.

    I’m asking because I am curious about your definition of journalism, I suppose. That is the heart of my post, after all. The point of those who are promoting Neaju seems to be that they are practicing a special form of journalism because they are getting back to what it is supposed to all be about. And while I agree with their ideals as it pertains to the type of journalism they want to practice, I disagree that journalism was ever “about” anything. It’s about a lot of things in terms of history, because its practice has been so varied.

    My take on Neaju itself is that it’s a pretty ordinary cit-j site. I don’t mean that in an insulting way, I mean that it’s doing a lot of the same stuff everyone else is doing. I think they’re reading a little too much into the role the editorial hand plays at a lot of these other sites.

    Comment by Jeremy | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  6. Grassroots Journalism is the term I prefer – and it’s made up with a Pro/Am mix – professional journalists and amateur journalists – ie citizen journalism.

    Pure CJ? Heh. That’s a good one.

    Also, for the record, citizen journalism is dead as a term, imho.

    Here’s a great look at Grassroots journalism in action…

    http://www.andersonfreepress.net/node/5766

    It’s not about the ‘label’ or ‘being first’ – it’s about saving journalism because it’s so very important to the American way of life.

    K. Paul Mallasch – Publisher
    http://www.kpaulmedia.com

    Comment by K. Paul Mallasch | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  7. Slashdot was doing something along the lines of what people now call “citizen journalism” in 1998. And it was nothing but a take-off on Usenet newsgroups.

    Those newsgroups were created, inhabited, and operated by citizens of one country or another.

    A lot of them published news of some sort, too.

    Usenet got going in 1980.

    Comment by Roblimo | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  8. Good points by K. Paul and Roblimo.

    I actually prefer the term “grassroots journalism” myself because it does a better job describing what’s going on (citizen is a clunky term), but I think when talking to people about it, CJ is more of a well known term.

    And when I teach students I usually cite Slashdot as the first to really do this cit-j stuff as we practice it on the web. Slashdot also has something else going for it that most cit-j startups don’t have going for them (yet), and that is a vibrant community of users who discuss and comment. In a lot of ways, I look at Slashdot as a sort of model.

    Comment by Jeremy | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  9. Slashdot (and K5) are great, but they’re more geared toward specific topics (technology) than covering a certain geographic area. That’s not to say they’re not a great example of a community, but I’ve found it’s harder to get the momentum going when you’re concentrating on one specific geographical area.

    It is happening, though, at my Anderson Free Press site. Gives me hope for the future.

    I was telling someone the other day, though, that what I’m doing probably won’t be considered a success until I’m making decent money with it. As it stands I’m scraping by, but over the last three years things are getting better.

    If you want to jump on the bandwagon for killing the term Citizen Journalism, let me know. I’m all for that.

    -kpaul

    Comment by K. Paul Mallasch | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  10. If you really want to talk about the origins of citizen journalism, you might want to go back to the origins of journalism in the U.S., when printers were … well, citizens. Certainly in the Revolutionary era they got a lot of printing contracts from the gov’t, but by 1800 or so a class divide had started, where an editor or group of editors would write what we call “content” and hire a printer to print it.

    Still, throughout the Jacksonian era, multiple competing voices sprang up in nearly every new town as the frontier moved west, and much of the “news” content in those papers consisted of letters and reports contributed by citizens. It really wasn’t until we started having a “professional” press in big cities that there was a substantial divide between reporters and citizens.

    Much later, we arrogated to ourselves power as the “Fourth Estate” and started to (erroneously) believe we could separate ourselves from the reporting process. Now, it seems we’ve come full circle.

    Honest question for the people who study this: Why is the term “citizen journalism” now so passe? And what are we j-school folks s’posed to call people who post stuff on our sites? Users? Readers? Mob?

    Comment by Rob Weir | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  11. Great discussion and that’s what I like to see.

    To Jeremy:
    You’re saying we’re reading to much into editorial control? Perhaps. Certainly, the only example we have to go by in recent history is OhMyNews and the success they were able to generate with editorial control. However, their success came largely before Web 2.0 phenomenda. State-side, we have a number of notable citizen journalism sites that are doing a great job with what they have, however, it is simply not enough. As the proponent of citizen journalism, or whatever else you want to call it, their efforts are still largely unnoticed by the general public. Ask your average web-savvy young adult what Now Public or Ground Report is, and you’ll get a blank stare. A new generation is growing, that uses the Internet in an entirely different way, and yes, I do believe that lack of editorial control is the true form of citizen journalism. As far as your legal concerns are, as you might have assumed (unless you do not give me ANY credit), I considered that point and took necessary steps.

    To Rob:
    Excellent comment and much more appreciated than the one you left on my blog. Professional journalists did separate themselves from crowd, however, I do not think it is the journalists fault. Again, in very recent history, as the advertising dollars have moved away from billboards and media to the Internet, the pressure to generate a profit is what’s responsible for the mess we’re in. The current business model for big media is what’s dead for sure, and it is dragging the news reporting, and the public opinion, along with it.

    And Jeremy, your use of the word ‘mob’ was extremely poor, if that’s not what you meant. I did state that mob could mean crowd, but unless you’re in UK, nobody would consider mob to mean crowd.

    Comment by Vadim Gorelik | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  12. Vadim: I really have to take issue with your assumption that it’s the business model that’s somehow to fault for dragging reporting along with it. That’s so far off base I’m wondering if you’ve ever worked in the U.S. media.

    You’re right in the narrow sense that the business model is failing, but you’re wrong in drawing the conclusion that reporting is somehow following the dictates of the business office. You have it almost exactly backwards It’s more the case that fewer people want to read/pay for the type of reporting we do, not that profit pressures are driving reporting in some direction it hasn’t followed before.

    Comment by Rob Weir | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  13. K. Paul, Vadim et al:

    “Citizen journalism” was a term that was popularized by the traditional press, not the folks doing it. When we started in 2004, the operative term was “open source journalism.”

    But “citizen” is not a bad term if used with the same meaning as “citizen soldiers” — the National Guard. My dad didn’t want to be a full-time GI — but he was ready and eager to serve his country when needed.

    We liked the grass roots idea, so we incorporated it into the logo of our site (http://mymissourian.com). We’ve been “Grassroots journalism by Mid-Missourians” for quite some time now.

    As a side note, that “by” is the significant word in this discussion. I spent two decades doing journalism “for.” Whatever we call it, this new variant on journalism emphasizes the sharing of information rather than the preaching of information.

    But sites that refuse to exercise any editorial control soon fall victim to Godwin’s Law (aka Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies). We looked at this issue with academic rigor and journalistic curiosity and concluded the minimum gatekeeping with which a site can succeed is an insistence on civility. From the outset, MyMissourian enforced just four rules: No nudity, no profanity, no personal attacks and no attacks on race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.

    It works. The major finding of the MyMissourian experiment is that every day Americans can and will share their lives if you give them a comfortable, credible and civil place to do it.

    CB

    Comment by Clyde Bentley | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  14. To Rob:

    I am not sure why you’d say that people are not interested in the type of reporting you do. But then again, type is the operative word here. Are you implying that if a professional journalist is reporting on a topic, it is somehow different from .. well, I am not sure what that would be different from. From a blogger reporting on the same subject? Or do mean that cold, hard fact reporting is no longer interesting, and is replaced by the freewheeling style of bloggers? With all due respect, I think you’re off base here. I doubt I’ve seen cold hard fact reporting coming out of traditional media in recent memory. Everything has a slant. CNN has reputation for being liberal, Fox – conservative, and the same with newspapers: WSJ – conservative, NY Times – liberal, etc. And they all know it, because over the past few years, they all try to advertise their “opposing views” content. I do blame editorial control for that, but the more important factor is why.

    I did work in media, although in different capacity than reporting, and a slightly different type of media than news reporting. My view is that of a news junkie, not a J-school grad.

    To Clyde:
    I agree with you completely, there must be basic guidelines, and ours is pornographic content and factual, original information. I chose to spend my editorial resources on a moderation-type gatekeeping – checking and confirming after the fact, but making the posting process itself much more open, and hopefully, almost fun, to attract participation of many.

    Appreciate your comments!

    Comment by Vadim Gorelik | February 19, 2008 | Reply

  15. Vadim:
    I think you are saying the lack of success of stateside CJ is due to editorial control. I would caution you that that is one variable out of a hundred possible ones, including lack of visibility and promotion. It very well could be control, or it might be as simple as people didn’t know they could submit.

    I’ll use your site as an example, actually; there is very little on the front page that explicitly states what your site is, let alone that one can contribute. This is not a putdown, we made the same mistake early on with MyMo, and I’ve seen it on a lot of failed sites that never really knew how to sell what they were doing.

    If you ask me, that’s probably one of the biggest reasons why CJ sites fail. The other is due to what we call the “field of dreams concept” here. People think if they build the site, people will flock to it and contribute. CJ takes hard work, a heck of a lot of promotion, and a never-ending push to get the word out. I can point to several sites that I am very certain failed precisely because of that second factor.

    So, it may be editorial control that is driving people away, but I have seen a lot more evidence that makes me think there are a lot more things at play there.

    As for the legal concerns, my “quick perusal” of your site (which actually wasn’t so quick, I spent about 45 minutes looking around) led me to the terms and conditions. I realize you guys are passing off responsibility to the content creators, but my understanding of things is that this is a VERY murky area of law. Just because the user agreement says so doesn’t mean you guys can’t be held liable. It’s an untested area of law, and I’ve heard good explanations why CJ site operators should or should not be held liable.

    Rob:
    We went from open source journalism to citizen journalism (reluctantly). My thinking is that what you call it depends on whom you’re talking to.

    With industry types in traditional media, I refer to it as CJ. Among academics, I tend to refer to it as user-generated content (UGC), although my reviews of past research mean I have to include studies on CJ and OSJ.

    For myself, I prefer grassroots journalism (and I’m all in for killing CJ as a term, I’ll even bring the gasoline). I think OSJ is probably a better term to describe the process, but it’s a little inaccessible to those who don’t know the computer terminology driving it.

    Comment by Jeremy | February 20, 2008 | Reply

  16. Jeremy,

    Absolutely. Editorial control is one of the factors, but so far, it is a fairly unique feature to Neaju, and I am going to ride it, saddling with it being a true form of citizen journalism (but I do also believe it because citizen reports that are commented on and edited according to professional editor’s commentsAlso absolutely, lack of awareness is probably one of the bigger issues. Which is chiefly why I chose sort of grassroots or guerilla marketing methods, rather than running national campaigns.

    But awareness can be also be a function of complexity. I do like Now Public. If you look at their site and especially at the little tutorials they’ve put together, they are very nicely done. Except the most active content submitters, the young adults, would look at it and would not want to bother – except for the select few who have an itch to try their hand in journalism.

    As for the deficiencies on the site, I already noticed a lot from analyzing traffic and from feedback I am receiving, including yours. Although it doesn’t say Beta on it, the original PR said it was Beta. So outside of everything else, I appreciate the feedback, and definitely appreciate the discussion.

    Comment by Vadim Gorelik | February 20, 2008 | Reply

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