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Rise of citizen journalism: in print & online

Citizen JournalistIn today’s digitally dominant landscape, a journalist can be a blogger, a tweeter or a community member sniffing out the news. Although it’s not hard to find a definition of citizen journalism online, New York University professor Jay Rosen’s definition sums it up succinctly: “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.”

The case has recently been made that Sohaib Athar, who famously tweeted the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, is one such citizen journalist. From Athar’s rise to reporter via social media, to websites powered by pro-active community members, citizen journalism has become a very real element of today’s media.

Coverage & Citizen Journalism

For some citizens, the idea to create a journalistic site came as a result of declining newsroom staff at professional outlets. Citizen journalism website The Rapidian launched at the height of the media industry’s decline in 2009 in order to increase the flow of community information in the city of Grand Rapids. Like anywhere else, the area’s news organizations were experiencing staff cuts. When there are gaps in news coverage, the people who suffer the most are the citizens, noted Rapidian citizen journalism coordinator Denise Change.

The citizens who contribute to the site are able to choose what they cover, lending to a particularly heavy focus on arts coverage and criticism of the arts. “We’re finding that when people put up content, first of all it’s a reflection of what the community cares about and tends to spark dialogue,” she said. “When mainstream media cover something to such a degree, our citizen journalists just won’t report on it because it’s already accessible.”

Also founded in 2009, Kentucky’s Lexington Commons is another outlet powered by citizen journalists. University of Kentucky student Allison Fister decided to contribute as an intern focusing her coverage on the nonprofits in the area. Although only four citizen journalists currently contribute, Fister noted that anybody from the community can create a username on the site and become a writer. They can’t post articles, but can write blogs and discuss what’s going on in Lexington. “That’s what I really like about the concept of Lexington Commons. It’s not just an online resource with certain reporters reporting something redundant that’s showing up all over, it’s a little different because I think it’s more of a casual community thing for people,” she said.

Like Fister, Change believes there are some benefits when the citizens are doing the reporting over professionals. “It allows a certain amount of media literacy and civic engagement that sometimes people don’t necessarily connect with they they’re reading the news. When a reporter has gone out there and done the research and the reader is just getting a product, that doesn’t mean they directly connect with the information. When citizen journalists are going out there and learning what it’s like to put together a piece, not to editorialize and all these sorts of things, there’s a greater [degree of] media literacy going on. People feel closer to the data, through their networks and their friends and their family,” she said.

Pitching Citizen Journalists

Meanwhile, PR pros have found that citizen journalists can be just as valuable as a professional journalist. Over the years, Sam Firer, a partner with the New York-based Hall Company, noted he has come to respect and work closely with bloggers in particular. “The independent blogger is so much a part of my industry – hospitality, food, restaurants – that professionally we don’t distinguish between online big business content or private blogs, as long as they impact on readers in some numbers; or as long as they have ‘criticality,’ a quality art experts use when appraising works of art: critical acclaim in the eyes of the general public, a trusted source,” he said in an email interview.

Michele Hollow, writer of a blog called Pet News and Views, is often in contact with publicists, she noted in an email interview. Rori Paul, a former Examiner.com column writer who currently pens a blog called RoriTravels Florida, said he has long sought and accepted contact with PR pros, developing close relationships with PR and marketing professionals through the years. Over at The Rapidian, community members and PR professionals are encouraged to pitch their citizen journalists, noted Change. The site hosts a story bank for people who want to submit article ideas.

According to Andrew Graham, founder of New York’s Andrew Graham Media Strategy, the increased status of nonprofessional news gatherers is one of the most important developments the industry has seen in decades. Although Graham doesn’t pitch citizen journalists directly, he often tries to break news online at sites citizen journalists regularly read and link to, he said. “What I’m seeing is a powerful trickle-down effect, where citizen journalists are immediately sharing and blogging about the stories I shape with traditional media. This definitely changes how I approach media relations because the citizen journalists really do shape opinions,” he said in an email interview.

The Import of Citizen Journalism in the Media

Be it a blogger, tweeter or community member with a hankering to write and a camera, citizen journalism is increasingly evolving so that nonprofessional journalists are finding a relevant role within the industry. Like Graham, Dwayne Waite Jr., principal of The Charlotte Agency in North Carolina, emphasized the importance citizen journalism plays in the scheme of things. “Citizen journalists are important, in these days,” he said in an email interview. “It is important for us to find those opinion influencers, whether it’s the New York Times, or a bunch of college kids that review items online. If my client’s audiences look at that site, it’s my responsibility to make sure my client has a presence.”

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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