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Rise of citizen journalism reflects shifting media landscape

June 23: During the post-election turmoil in Iran last year, a total media blackout led news outlets to rely heavily on Twitter updates from local citizens. The practice attracted so much notoriety that citizen journalism gained a sudden and newfound level of recognition worldwide.

Increasingly a hot topic in the media, citizen journalism inverts the relationship between reader and writer, between audience and presenter, by empowering amateur – usually unpaid – reporters to gather, analyze, and disseminate news themselves. Limited editorial budgets, the advent of social media tools, the rise of the blogosphere, and increased interactivity on media websites have all factored into this growing trend.

While the Iran reporting occurred spontaneously, there are a growing number of citizen-run newspapers, websites and online initiatives designed to bring together public media from different communities. The American Town Network began as a citizen media site for areas of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Michigan, but now offers links to news in local areas all over the United States. One advantage of citizen reporting is increased coverage of breaking stories in a community where a newspaper may not have a professional reporter stationed. A potential upside for traditional media is that many of the citizen-run publications offer what is known as a steal our stuff policy in which other publications can reprint their stories for free.

A major difference between traditional and citizen journalism lies in the mission behind each newspaper. A typical citizen paper, such as the Main Street Journal in Marlborough, Mass., is a not-for-profit publication that focuses heavily on grassroots activism and is somewhat less concerned with providing traditional news reportage. The mission statement on The Main Street Journal’s website speaks of a return to locally owned newspapers that are staffed by individuals with strong roots in the community, as opposed to those owned by large corporations. With this in mind, the paper was formed by a small group of “average people” who resolved to create a publication “based on common-sense values that placed service to the community over bottom line profits.”

This idea of citizen journalists as activists is one of the reasons why many in the mainstream media object not only to the term citizen journalism but also to the idea that these amateur contributors can supplant professional reporters. “Citizen Journalism is a misnomer. I don’t consider people who do amateur drama on weekends to be actors any more than I regard people who help their friends through tough times to be counselors,” said a contributing writer for the New York Times, who wishes to remain anonymous. Journalism “is an independent act of gathering and assembling information by an individual or an organization. The work is completed in service of the audience. The journalist’s loyalties are with the reader.”

He went on to suggest that because citizen journalists are often unpaid volunteers, this tends to increase the likelihood of a specific agenda behind their work. Other critics also question how amateur contributors are vetted, whether their reports are adequately fact checked, and whether their work adheres to journalistic standards and practices. For these reasons, some feel that such writers should limit themselves to opinion pieces – on sports or entertainment especially – and leave more complex or investigative stories to the professionals.

Regardless of which side of the debate you are on, it appears as though the citizen journalism movement is here to stay in the U.S. as well as internationally. The U.K.-based Guardian practices a collaborative approach by incorporating citizen journalism into their traditional business model. Meanwhile, YouTube recently announced YouTubeDirect, a citizen news channel aimed at connecting news organizations with user-generated content.

“The decline in resources and employment of professional journalists by traditional news media is not the result of a failure of journalism or decline in demand by citizens for local and state news. It is the result of media business leaders’ failure to adapt to new market realities,” said Jason Steverak, President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, in an e-mail interview. “The survival of the news business depends on its ability to form partnerships with online nonprofit journalism organizations and bring their business model into the 21st century.”

–Katrina Wolfe

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