Posted on July 9, 2007
Filed Under OMG! Old Media is Dying! |
Wired has reprinted a story entitled “Open-Source Journalism: It’s a Lot Tougher Than You Think” which provides some interesting insights into the citizen journalism movement.
There are many Web 2.0 proponents who feel that the efforts of citizen journalism will marginalize the need for professional reporters and news outlets. After all, if we’re completely capable of reporting on the news ourselves and have means of distributing content freely on the Internet, what real need is there for a mainstream press that often does a poor job reporting on the news? Others contend that citizen journalists lack the skills, resources and access necessary to provide anywhere near the coverage necessary to serve as a viable source of news.
The Wired article is particularly intriguing because it’s written by individuals who have given citizen journalism a go in the political arena, which happens to be an area where many feel the mainstream press has failed us.
The authors come to one conclusion: “In short: There was plenty of room for improvement.” As they state:
I want to report news, not PR. I want the powers that be to quiver at my approach, not the other way around. I want to cover the stories that won’t be covered by a tame local press, but I know I’ll get nowhere by going it alone; I need a network to teach me what I need, to support me in these efforts, to look at what I’m doing and tell me where I’m going wrong, to suggest angles worth pursuing.
I want more.
But to go there, I need backup.
In other words, it sounds like they want to be professional reporters.
I am personally intrigued by citizen journalism. I think there is something to it, however being the analytical skeptic that I am, I see three major stumbling blocks to its ability to thrive:
- Journalism is a time-consuming task. It’s difficult to expect volunteers with no financial incentive to be able to morph into citizen journalists 24/7, even though reporting the news is a 24/7 business. Most citizen journalists have full-time jobs, and many have families and other commitments. This makes it difficult to expect legions of citizen journalists to provide far-reaching coverage on a regular, consistent basis. Members of the mainstream press are able to produce this type of coverage because they have paid positions. While I have no doubt that there are people who will engage in citizen journalism without any desire to be compensated monetarily, there is something to be said for Adam Smith’s comment in The Wealth of Nations that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” What’s wrong when people have the ability to do what they love and can earn a living from it?
- Journalism is a resource-intensive task. As the authors of the Wired article came to realize, they “need backup.” Reporting the news requires a significant amount of financial and human resources. Without these, it is very difficult to report effectively, and some stories may be outright impossible to cover without significant resources. The mainstream press has these resources because entities within the mainstream press (at least in the United States) are organized as for-profit entities. Their business models enable them to generate enough money to invest the capital and resources that are required to report the news. While their business models (typically revolving around advertising) and other factors can lead to bias and less-than-impressive reporting, there is no doubt in my mind that citizen journalism can never reach its full potential if citizen journalists don’t have adequate resources. Passion and motivation will only get you so far.
- Good journalism requires training, experience and skill. It’s positive that there are many people in society who have an interest in important topics and want to report on them, particularly when they feel that the mainstream press isn’t covering those topics satisfactorily. The problem is that journalism is a profession, and like most professions, it typically requires an education, formal training and a specific set of skills (or a combination of these). These can not be substituted. It’s no different than having a person who is eager to be a web developer, but lacks the experience and skills necessary to complete the job he or she is applying for. Having legions of citizen journalists attempting to do what professionals have been trained to do doesn’t sound like a good trade off. Those who have a true passion for journalism should try to make it their career path if possible.
Given these three major challenges, I think it’s going to be difficult for citizen journalism to thrive in its current form. Major efforts will not be consistent and many budding citizen journalists will find themselves piggybacking on the reporting from the mainstream press (just as many bloggers rely on stories reported by the mainstream press for the subjects of their blogs).
I also agree with many of the points Andrew Keene makes “The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture.” We risk a considerable amount when we devalue the work of experts and trained professions in favor of the work of people who may or may not have any ability to produce something of value. By celebrating the demise of newspapers and television news, we’re celebrating the demise of the only entities that may be truly capable of providing quality reporting, holding politicians accountable, etc. While these entities may not always do the job we think they should and can, I don’t think a patchwork of citizen journalists is going to create a better system.
That said, the mainstream press has problems, and I think citizen journalism may be able to help. The mainstream press should look to leverage the most talented citizen journalists. In theory, if done right, this may provide the mainstream press with some cost benefits, while giving the citizen journalists more resources, access and exposure than they have on their own.
Just as I think that Silicon Valley and Hollywood will end up looking more like partners as opposed to foes, I think the world of the mainstream press will eventually come into contact with the world of citizen journalism. And of course, when this happens, a funny thing will take place: the best citizen journalists will become the professional journalists that so many of us take pleasure in marginalizing today.
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