Q&A with a citizen journalist

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Citizen journalism has never been as present as it is in today’s media landscape. Through social media, newspapers, websites and blogging, community members are joining the ranks of journalists and relating the news during a time when the need for gaps to be filled has never been greater. Citizen journalist Don Morreale writes for YourHub, a site run by the Denver Post. He spoke with inVocus about his role as a citizen journalists and its place in the modern world of media.

Q: What kind of gap in the paper’s coverage are you fulfilling?  Is there a hole in the paper’s coverage that you are filling?

Don Morreale (DM): It would be lovely to think so.  When Denver went from a two newspaper to a one newspaper town, some of the celebrity journalists from the Rocky Mountain News moved over to the Post. The Post kept them on for a couple of years and then, this spring, fired the lot of them. It no longer keeps writers on board whose beat might be, say, art criticism, or music or restaurant reviews. There’s no longer a local gossip columnist, either. One of my favorite writers on the Post was a guy named Bill Husted who wrote about local personalities in the context of their favorite watering holes. The column was called Bar and Grilled. Husted focused on local people. When he went away, so did that particular niche. My weekly article, sans the watering hole angle, covers essentially the same topic. I interview local people who have interesting jobs, or hobbies, or life experiences. So if it can be said that I’m filling a gap, that would be it.  That having been said, and to be entirely fair, I write for YourHub, a weekly neighborhood supplement. It’s almost entirely written by citizen journalists, and always has been. So it could be argued that I’m not filling any real gap in coverage, since I was writing for the Hub at around the same time that Husted was writing for the Post. On the other hand, since Husted is no longer on staff, I’m the only one reporting on local personalities on a weekly basis. So I guess I’m plugging that gap for the time being.

Q: What topics do you generally cover?  Is there much freedom when it comes to choosing what you write about?

DM: Over the past several months, I’ve written about a national yo-yo champ, a woman who competes on a Dragon Boat racing team, a businessman who sold his profitable printing business to devote himself full-time to caring for the homeless, a woman who lectures aboard Amtrak for the National Park Service, and a professional window washer who cleans sky scrapers in downtown Denver. I have complete freedom to write about whomever I choose with one caveat, which is that the person or topic must relate in some way to Denver, preferably Denver Central.

Q: Why do you partake in citizen journalism?  What made you want to participate?

DM: I first became involved in citizen journalism while I was working on a master’s degree in creative writing. I’ve always written, but have only rarely published. So writing for YourHub, as well as for Examiner.com, was a means of breaking into writing on a more professional basis. In addition, the citizen journalism “angle,” if you will, was a strategy I devised for myself to stay on target to produce a book. I figured if I was under the gun to produce a finished article a week, by the end of say two years, I’d have generated enough material for a book. I’m about to assemble a compendium of 150 articles, the working title of which will be “How I found my way.” Once the book has been packaged, I will start in on another topic in hopes that YourHub will be interested in publishing them. One additional motivation: I wanted to build up a portfolio of my work to have something to show editors when I query them. I also wanted to be able to show potential publishers that I have a profile, a media presence, demonstrating that my work has an audience.

Q: Do you feel as though you are taken seriously as a journalist? Do you feel that citizen journalism itself is taken seriously?

DM: Actually, there’s an underlying supposition in me that if people knew that I do what I do without remuneration, they would dismiss me as an amateur and not take me seriously. So I make it a point never to tell them that I don’t get paid by the Denver Post. And I allow them to think that I’m actually working for the paper. I’ll say, for example, that I “Write a weekly column that appears in the Denver Post,” and leave it at that. I will admit, however, that the Denver Post connection does give me some street cred I would otherwise not be able to claim

As for Part 2 of your question, I think Citizen Journalism is beginning to be taken seriously. We’re everywhere, waiting on tables as a presidential candidate makes a cutting remark about the self-reliance of the 47 percent, fact checking the statements of politicians, taking pictures with our cell phones and texting them to the local TV stations. We’re doing, out of love and dedication, what paid investigative reporters used to do. When some guy with a hidden video cam changes the course of an election; you can bet we’re being taken seriously.

Q: How vital have citizen journalists become to the newspaper industry?

DM: As newspapers cut back on staff, citizen journalists are becoming more and more important.  I notice, for example, feature articles that have been repackaged from blogs and Facebook posts. In addition, instead of paid columnists, the Post has taken to recruiting specialists and advocates in various fields to write editorials.

So in this past Sunday’s Op-Ed section (October 28th), Doug Price, President and CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS argued in favor of funding for public television, while Mike Gonzalez, VP of Communications for the Heritage Foundation, argued against it.  Brent Gardner Smith of the non-profit, Aspen Journalism, wrote a piece on the possible sale of John Denver’s home.  Freelance columnist John Andrews, Director of Centennial Institute, wrote a piece on voter responsibility. Steve Briggs, chair of the State Commission on Judicial Performance , and Jane B. Howell, Executive Director of the Office of Judicial Performance Evaluation, collaborated on a piece about voting for judges. Freelancer Teresa Keegan wrote a piece on public transportation. Nate Jones, Freedom of Information Coordinator at the National Security Archive, wrote something on the true story behind the film “Argo.” Six inches of column space went to Twitter observations on current affairs supplied by citizens, if not citizen journalists. And fully four columns were devoted to “Letters to the Editor,” which in my opinion is a form of citizen journalism. So, 10 segments in last Sunday’s Op-ed section were supplied by Citizen Journalists vs. seven opinion pieces by paid professionals: George Will, Washington Post; Keving Horrigan, St. Louis Post Dispatch; Rick Tosches, Denver Post; Curtis Hubbard, Denver Post; Vincent Carroll, Denver Post; Neil Devlin, Denver Post; [and an] unidentified Denver Post editor wrote an endorsement of a ballot measure.

Gone from the editorial pages are the likes of [syndicated columnists such as] David Broder, E.J. Dionne, Tom Friedman, or Paul Krugman. These guys cost money and apparently, cash strapped daily papers like the Denver Post can no longer afford them. Ergo, citizen journalists [are] stepping in to fill the void. I think management has come to the realization that it’s cheaper to invite experts in their fields to comment on issues that pertain to their areas of expertise, than it is to keep reporters on salary with the attendant benefits. So I think from a financial standpoint, citizen journalists are helping to keep the industry afloat, but I wonder if what we’re getting isn’t PR as opposed to wisdom and perspective.

Q: Do readers view you and other citizen journalists as a credible news source in your area?

DM: In the new citizen journalist news environment, there is very little actual oversight, no fact checking on the part of editors. Readers have to discern a reporter’s bias for themselves. One nice feature of online citizen journalism is that it’s possible to make corrections immediately. It’s one advantage of online vs. print media. Bear in mind here that I write human interest features as opposed to hard news, so the emphasis is on color vs. hard facts. Based on what I’ve heard from both my readers and my subjects, I am viewed as a credible source.

Q: Where do you see citizen journalism heading in the future?

DM: I think it will grow, simply because the tools are accessible and there are few if any gatekeepers preventing anybody who is so inclined from jumping in and doing it. Also, it’s a wonderful opportunity for fledgling writers to get a foot in the door. The Internet is a voracious consumer of content, after all. In lieu of paid professionals, newspapers will probably become more like a public forum than simply a purveyor of information

–Kimberly Cooper

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