Crawl Across the Ocean

Friday, July 22, 2005

Citizen Journalists?

Readers will likely know Antonia Zerbisias as the proprietor of the blog, Azerbic, but may not realize that she also has a regular column in the Toronto Star newspaper. In a recent edition of said column, she talked about the idea of citizen-journalism:
"We're a long way away from true participatory journalism. ... Not until "citizen journalists" do the tedious slogging through court records. Not until they attend news conferences and do interviews. And maybe not even then.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for citizen journalism. I have been agitating for it at the Star a long time, urging editors to hire or link to local bloggers, open up the process and let readers in.

Give the people access.

Because the bottom line is, journalism is about access. Access to information. Access to newsmakers. Access to the airwaves. Access to the means of distribution. And last but far from least, access to pictures."

Now as I see it, there are three stages of providing information to people (i.e. doing 'journalism'): Information gathering, information transcribing and information distribution.

The first step of gathering information has been vastly democratized by the internet. Whether it is the federal budget, the latest Statistics Canada report, the latest think tank study, the movement of the stock market, the latest poll or election results, the weather forecast or the stories on the newswire, this information is available to the citizen as never before. My long, slowly moving process of adding dropdown boxes to my sidebar has been an attempt to group together all these 'sources of information' for easy reference.

Of course not all useful information is published on the internet. Paid journalists typically have access to more information sources such as personal conversations with contacts on their 'beat', attendance at ceremonies, speeches, conferences etc., greater access to prominent people for interviews as well as being on the receiving end of press releases from various organizations.

The one advantage citizen journalists have (as a group) is strength in numbers. It is simply more likely that a 'citizen journalist' will be in the right place at the right time to experience / get a photo of a tornado or a terrorist attack. It is also more likely that a 'citizen journalist' will have specialized knowledge on some topic. Why read columnists in the Star or Globe regurgitating Michael Geist's take on the latest developments in intellectual property in Canada (of course Geist has his own column in the Star as well), when you can read what he has to say for himself directly? Why read some columnists interpretation of the latest news on global warming when you can get a take from an actual climate scientist at RealClimate?

The second step is to sift through all the information available, figure out what is important and make sense of it. Of course if you are just taking pictures of a tornado with your cellphone and sending them off to the local paper, this isn't so important. But if you a blogger (or a podcaster or a videocaster) then your ability to choose topics and to write (or speak) well is the most important aspect of what you do.

Typically, journalists have some sort of training in their field such as attending journalism school, being sent on courses by their work, learning from colleagues at the office or what have you. But, based on what I've seen, I'm not really convinced that this consistently translates into superior writing. I'm guessing that if I focussed on writing a couple of fairly short pieces a week, and was supported by an actual editor, you could slip my columns into most newspapers and nobody would say, 'hey that guy's writing isn't up to the usual journalist standard, he must not be trained as a journalist!'. And there are many, many bloggers out there who are much better writers than I am.

With video or audio transmissions there might be the odd issue with production values, but for the written word this doesn't seem to be much of an issue. Most blogs I know are just as easy on the eyes (if not more so) than your typical online 'mainstream media' outlet. Even for audio and video what barriers are left are falling fast.

So I don't think there really any significant obstacles to citizen journalism in the transcription step. If anything, many citizen journalist sites (Hullabaloo comes to mind) probably thrive because they are so much better written than most of what you find in the mainstream media.

The third and most troublesome area is distribution. Things are starting to open up with digital TV and radio but there is still a lot of inertia from the era when bandwidth limitations meant that only a chosen few companies had access to transmission of audio and video, and production costs ensured that the whole operation had to be staffed by salaried employees. Similarly, the natural convenience of having print information bundled together into an easy to handle package led to the formation of newspapers and magazines which again led to the hiring of full time staff members devoted to providing content.

Not having a non-journalist 'day job' is of course a big advantage in that it gives you a lot more time to both gather and transcribe information. I think an important milestone has been reached in that, in the U.S., blogging has become popular enough that some of the most popular bloggers are actually able to make a living at it. Of course, over time, we may find that the blogging world solidifies and starts to become as structured as the mainstream media. Perhaps in the future a blogger will start out their blogging career by submitting trial posts to the big name group blogs and hoping to get taken on as a writer for them. Or perhaps big 'brand name' sites like DailyKos will aggregate content, giving more exposure to anything which is recommended by enough readers.

Or perhaps blogging will be just a fad and will fade away leaving the same old mainstream media plugging along as always, just now online as well as on paper (or on air), but I somehow doubt it. Individual bloggers will come and go of course but I suspect there will always be lots of people interested in putting their thoughts out there for the world to see. And, as the old concentrated distribution models break down, the mainstream media will be able to afford fewer correspondents, fewer staff writers, fewer editors - that is, they will be less competition for citizen journalists and they will drive readers to seek out bloggers who are writing about the specialized topics people are interested in.

I myself first came across Jim Elve's BlogsCanada site because I was searching for information on the Green Party in the lead up to the last Federal election and couldn't find anything more than a couple of 'Hey the Green Party exists' columns in the mainstream media. I'm guessing this desire for specialized information is only going to continue to increase as new generations grow up expecting google to have both an answer for every question and an insightful (or at least animated) discussion of every topic.

So it's nice that people like Zerbisias are working to get the barriers knocked down a little faster but, given the trends in access to information, access to transcription tools and ability to distribute content widely and cheaply, I'd say the days of the citizen journalist are coming sooner or later, no matter what anybody does (short of destroying economic and technological progress that is). The biggest risk (as I see it) is that this new generation of citizen journalists may not have the same skillset (or resources) to follow trails, sniff out deception, dig up the truth and follow a paper or money trail that today's career, professional journalists do. And that means that stories which require a lot of background work may never get written. It's a risk, but I'm optimistic. It's a big world with a lot of people and I'm guessing that there will be those willing and able to do this kind of forensic reporting no matter what the structure of the market is.

It should be interesting to see what happens anyway - especially since I'm not someone who currently makes a living as a journalist.

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