August 6, 2006 8:25 PM
Worthwhile piece on Citizen Journalism
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, has written a thoughtful critique of the enthusiasm for citizen journalism and defense of the value of traditional reporters in The New Yorker magazine.
As someone who's been very involved in this movement with the launch of YourHub.com last year, I welcome the piece. It's rare to find something of this depth.
However, Lemann's approach raises a number of concerns for me.
His argument is probably best expressed in his conclusion: "As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away."
OK. But anybody involved in running a newsroom today knows that the economic tides require moving print reporters to the Internet, not adding new reporters. If anything, the shift of advertising to the Web and away from TV, newspapers and magazines, means fewer reporters overall at most news organizations.
At the same time, the Web affords reporters new opportunities that would have been unthinkable when I attended journalism school at Northwestern University in the early '80s.
Perhaps those are best exemplified by the way the Rocky staff has repurposed the state's CSAP scores to make them more useful to parents and to teachers or Chicagocrime.org, a database of crimes reported in Chicago. However, truthfully, at least in our case we haven't seen the financial return on the investment in providing our test score service. It goes to the identity of the news organization and doesn't have a specific profit attached to it.
Meanwhile, there's no question that citizens can participate in a way that also would have been unthinkable when I went to journalism school.
It may not be journalism, in fact most of it certainly isn't, but sites like myspace and Facebook are taking up the time of people who could be the audience for traditional journalism. Instead, they enjoy things journalism can't offer them, with participation clearly near the top of the list.
I'm concerned that Lemann inflates what citizen journalists are in order to more effectively knock down the phenomenon.
He writes: "Citizen journalists are supposedly inspired amateurs who find out what’s going on in the places where they live and work, and who bring us a fuller, richer picture of the world than we get from familiar news organizations, while sparing us the pomposity and preening that journalists often display."
He may be able to find examples to support that belief. But I think most people involved in citizen journalism wouldn't look at it that way. Of course citizens can be as pompous and as preening as any journalist. But there are way more of them. And they are in place to share what they see, experience and think about in a way we as journalists can't replicate. That possibility doesn't negate the contribution of journalists, but it does open the door to a much wider conversation. We're just learning how to have it, so any conclusions, in my view, are premature. For example, with YourHub.com we've already redesigned the site completely and changed its focus as we've learned how people use it and what they value.
Lemann predicts that "At least in part, Internet journalism will surely repeat the cycle, and will begin to differentiate itself tonally, by trying to sound responsible and trustworthy in the hope of building a larger, possibly paying audience." That may be the case. But Google doesn't need "responsible" or "trustworthy" sites to post its advertising. It needs traffic, people with related interests. And we've already seen that Google is willing to bow to powerful governments to further its economic interests.
I think Lemann goes way too far, in saying: "The most fervent believers in the transforming potential of Internet journalism are operating not only on faith in its achievements, even if they lie mainly in the future, but on a certainty that the old media, in selecting what to publish and broadcast, make horrible and, even worse, ignobly motivated mistakes. They are politically biased, or they are ignoring or suppressing important stories, or they are out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns, or they are merely passive transmitters of official utterances. The more that traditional journalism appears to be an old-fashioned captive press, the more providential the Internet looks."
I'm a believer in the potential of Internet journalism and I don't operate based on "a certainty" that traditional news organizations "make horrible and, even worse, ignobly motivated mistakes."
I'm enthusiastic because I see the possibility of so many more voices being able to participate in the conversation. And I do believe that the Internet has a self-policing aspect made possible because when so many people can participate they can quickly point out where news organizations are off track. I'm not sure what news or journalism will look like 10 years from now, but I'm optimistic that it will be richer and more impactful. Traditional news organizations can either participate in that change or they can watch as others take their place. Why did youtube have to come from outside a traditional news organization? To me, the idea of news organizations having layers of content, including content straight from the users largely unedited, would be far more interesting than news organizations who want to remain solely elite.
I believe that Lemann is correct when he says: "The best original Internet journalism happens more often by accident, when smart and curious people with access to means of communication are at the scene of a sudden disaster. Any time that big news happens unexpectedly, or in remote and dangerous places, there is more raw information available right away on the Internet than through established news organizations."
But I think that's because we're at the start of this era, not because it's an inherent truth that immediacy is the only thing the amateur has to offer.
Lemann says "the content of most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter—it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up."
Not yet, maybe. But it's hard not to read his words and find them condescending. The truth is that "community newsletter" type reporting adds a dimension to metropolitan newspapers and their Web sites that makes them feel more complete to many readers. People are more likely to feel that a Web site or newspaper is about them if it includes this kind of reporting, reporting that it's impossible for metropolitan news organizations to produce on their own. But the Web opens new doors for citizen participation that may have more impact. As a witness to the Hispanic protests over immigration policy this year, it was obvious that digital technology, especially text messaging and the Internet, were making the organizing of these events possible. The information about them was being communicated in non traditional means and on Spanish-language radio, not known for the excellence of its journalism.
Something was happening there and it was powerful. I think it's worth exploring how citizens can participate in journalism and how journalism needs to change to take advantage of what it can provide its audience that it couldn't before, synthesis and analysis of data that helps people be safe, find better schools, etc.
I hope that Lemann, as a leading figure in American journalism education, goes further than encouraging news organizations to move reporters to the Web and explores ways for news organizations to involve their communities in the sharing of information and opinion, in news.
One thing I've found with YourHub.com is that many, if not most, average people are still initimidated by the idea of writing something under their own name, or even sharing photos they've taken. Perhaps it will take only one generation for that to change. And when it does, we may see journalism by citizens that's difficult to imagine today. It's easy to look down on the promise of new technologies or approaches. I think we'd do better as journalists to explore the potential of the Internet and of citizen involvement in news gathering, if only because we may have no other choice, given the economic trends washing over our industry.