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Citizen journalism today and tomorrow

Journalism is a constantly changing beast. In a world where deadlines are a constant, and newsroom staffs dwindle, citizen journalism has a place.

Over the last several years, citizen journalism has taken on new meaning in the news world. Average citizens contributing stories to local papers or websites now play a bigger role than ever before. By giving the public an active role in producing news, collecting information and reporting on stories of importance to them and their community, news organizations are able to fill in the gaps left behind  in the wake of layoffs and cuts. Although citizen journalists haven’t always enjoyed a reputation for being the most reliable, the idea of the public producing news is becoming more commonplace, and more accepted. Take the recent ruling by a Massachusetts court for instance, which now allows citizen journalists “regularly engaged in reporting” to blog in real-time during hearings.

Over in Colorado, YourHub.com is a citizen journalism site run by the Denver Post, the only major newspaper left in the state. It features content produced by both Post staff and community members, with the best content from each section produced in print and distributed within the Thursday edition of the Denver Post. Residents have the power to post stories and events, upload photos and comment on existing stories.

“The Denver Post doesn’t have the manpower or the space to cover the hyperlocal news that YourHub covers,” said Kayla Albert, a community manager for YourHub.com, in an email interview. “By opening up our publication to submissions from the community, we can get specific news and events that cater to neighborhoods or sections of the city that might normally be overlooked.”

But utilizing citizen journalists doesn’t only fill in the news gaps; the practice gives readers a voice. “It also gives average community members the chance to speak on issues that they find important – issues that others might not even know about,” Albert said.

Holly Bechiri, managing editor of the Rapidian, a citizen journalism site based in Grand Rapids, Mich., reiterated this power-to-the-people notion. “The positive is that we are empowering anyone – anyone! – to tell the news around them,” Bechiri said in an email interview. “We get to ‘let the people determine what the news is’ and that’s pretty powerful.”

While citizen journalism is turning into a force to be reckoned with, it is not all flowers and rainbows. Just like every new venture to come along, there have been bumps along the road. One major issue is funding. For a source sponsored by a larger paper, such as the Denver Post, funding isn’t a problem since citizen journalists are technically a free way to provide more content to readers. But for smaller, semi-independent citizen journalism resources, the income may not always be there for the people running the site. “Having little income and money is a negative,” said Barbara Iverson in an email interview. Iverson is the publisher and co-founder of Chicago Talks, a citizen journalism site based in Chicago. “Not having a big staff is a negative,” she said.

But in both forms of citizen journalism, credibility is often viewed with some misgivings. To combat this, Bechiri believes in training. “The standard of journalism ethics, as well as format, have to be passed down to those who want to participate fully,” said Bechiri. “This will not only benefit the readers but will benefit those reporting as they take themselves seriously and can thereby be taken more seriously by the general public.”

Training is exactly what the Journal Register Company’s Register-Citizen provides citizen journalists in the Torrington, Conn., community. The newspaper offers citizen journalists access to classes in journalism, and partnerships with the newspaper via its Community Media Lab.

In the media world, citizen journalism is only a baby. It has some kinks to work out before it can contend with traditional journalism. As time goes on, however, it is starting to solidify itself as a real contender, a true source for people who want community news tailored to their needs, and a resource for news organizations to provide more comprehensive news coverage.

–Kimberly Cooper

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