Winter 2005

Citizens Media: Has It Reached a Tipping Point?

New media initiatives emerge when citizens feel ‘shortchanged, bereft or angered by their available media choices.’

By Jan Schaffer
First off, let’s address one thing: Citizen journalists don’t particularly aspire to be called “journalists.” That’s a label mainstream journalists often apply when writing about this mutating media ecosystem. Many citizen media folks are reacting to journalism, not embracing it—at least to the journalism they see in their communities. Meanwhile, some mainstream media folks are reacting to these upstart citizens with skepticism and even hostility.

The fretting usually goes like this: Citizen media participants are not part of the journalistic club. They don’t do real journalism. What if they get something wrong? What if they only print news releases? How do we know if they are credible? Do they have any ethics? How will they make money? And, of course, what if they siphon off “our” money?

And the complaints look like this: Hey, they are not reporting “news;” they don’t know the “rules” and, of course, they are not producing “quality journalism.” Only we anointed big-J journalists can manage all that, right?

Now that doesn’t mean that community media pioneers won’t commit acts of journalism as they go about contributing or creating content or fulfilling their visions for community news and information. If anything, many citizen media ventures exhibit a lot of journalistic DNA.

So what does it mean that in 2005 citizens media initiatives are cropping up all around us? These initiatives are generating hyperlocal and special-interest news and information and breaking-news eyewitness accounts from far, far away—from the perimeters of major media markets to the outer reaches of rural areas. They are rolled out as franchise opportunities by legacy news organizations seeking new revenue centers; they are bankrolled by venture capitalists seeing future business models; they are supported by foundations hoping to bolster community building, and they are launched by retired or just plain tired, solo journalists as sideline enterprises. Most important, they are blossoming from the fertile imaginations of a new cast of visionaries—usually citizens feeling shortchanged, bereft or angered by their available media choices.

Media Participation

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No one size fits all in this evolving landscape. But an overarching narrative emerges: We are witnessing the creation of a robust infrastructure of media participation. And it is now far surpassing the efforts of individual bloggers. It’s emerging to serve a new “culture of contribution,” asserts “We Media” coauthor Chris Willis. In this ecosystem, “not everyone wants to be a journalist, soup to nuts,” Willis told a Media Center gathering in October that was cohosted in New York City by The Associated Press. But they might want to contribute something—to upload photos, shoot video, post a comment or item, or write a full-blown story.

“We used to call them citizen journalists, but we stopped using that term,” says Jonathan Weber, founder and editor of NewWest.net, the “voice of the Rocky Mountains.” The term “intimidated” people who were not journalists, he said. Now citizen contributions to the site are simply labeled “unfiltered.” At VoiceofSanDiego.com, more than half the content now comes from “contributed voices” and “guest columnists,” says founding editor Barbara Bry.

Readily available tech tools teamed with the growing tech savvy of ordinary citizens are making this all possible.

Community News Ventures

Again and again, the applicants said no news organizations were covering their concerns or their communities—whether they lived in cities or villages, military bases or university towns, ethnic enclaves or Indian reservations. So, they proposed, they would do so themselves—through Web sites, podcasts, low-power FM radio, and ink on paper.Just a little over a year ago, I proposed a project to the Knight Foundation to fund some start-up community news ventures. Little did I expect to be on the cusp of the next wave in journalism, but the clues came pretty fast. Two months after receiving the New Voices grant, we issued a national call for proposals. Ten weeks later, we had received an astonishing 243 vision statements.

The proposals were eye opening—innovative, ambitious and poignant. Again and again, the applicants said no news organizations were covering their concerns or their communities—whether they lived in cities or villages, military bases or university towns, ethnic enclaves or Indian reservations. So, they proposed, they would do so themselves—through Web sites, podcasts, low-power FM radio, and ink on paper.

“There was passion in what these community news ventures said they wanted to accomplish,” said Bruce Koon, a Knight Ridder executive and New Voices advisor who helped select the projects. Usually the applicants envisioned their projects as counterpoints to their local journalism, which they described as polarizing, shrill, focused on the near term, and certainly not focused on them or their concerns. At times, their ambitions could put journalists to shame.

Consider the Loudoun Forward project, starting up in one of the nation’s fastest growing counties in Northern Virginia. Even though Loudoun County has two weeklies and a weekly zoned edition of The Washington Post, the project’s managing partners said: “Today, there are no local media organizations that explore Loudoun’s future—no presentation of ideas and solutions to long-term problems. Current media focuses on the short term and is, by nature, reacting to events.” Their announced aspiration: to make LoudounForward.org into a nonpartisan, forward-looking “public think tank,” using the Web, e-newsletters and public forums.

The Madison (Wis.) Commons Project has just finished training its first corps of “civic mappers” to cover two neighborhoods, and they’ve already turned up good stories. And The Forum in Deerfield, New Hampshire, which was launched as an alternative to coverage from the Concord and Manchester television stations, dailies and weeklies, urges contributors to “Be the news, not just read the news”—hardly a prescription for the typical journalist. It’s worth noting that, two months after launch, the all-volunteer project views its mission as filling a new void: Voters recently ended Deerfield’s participatory town-meeting tradition. The Web site (forumhome.org) is filled with content and is already moving on its plans to expand to three more communities.

I see some common denominators in these and other citizen media efforts: They seldom frame news coverage around “conflict.” They don’t invest in keeping score on who’s winning or losing in their communities. And they embrace different definitions of “news”—from municipal agendas to announcements to photos to pats on the back to pleas for help.

Susan DeFife, CEO of Backfence.com, which has launched hyper-local community Web sites for McLean and Reston, Virginia, and Bethesda, Maryland, told the October “We Media” gathering: “We’re not there to be journalists or to ask the questions. The community is asking the questions. They are doing that quite well. It also means the sites may not deliver the answer unless someone in the community has the answer.” Backfence.com just announced it has $3 million in venture funding to go national.

Civic Participation via Media

There are emerging signs that citizen participation in the media can fuel civic participation. That feeds into a current debate in academic circles: Is citizen journalism the same as civic journalism?

Civic journalism seeks to get citizens to participate in civic life; citizen journalism seeks to engage them in the media. They’re not synonymous, but they can be symbiotic. One can fuel the other: Soon after former Wall Street bond analyst Jarah Euston launched FresnoFamous.com to cover the city’s local arts scene, the mayor invited the 26-year-old to join the city’s Creative Economy Council. “He probably didn’t want me to write about him,” she wryly told a recent Fetzer Institute gathering in Kalamazoo. She now writes weekly summations of the council’s meetings on her Sour Grapes blog on FresnoFamous, and the blog helps the public give the council input.

OneKCvoice.org in Kansas City tries to engage users in wrestling with big community questions, such as whether there should be a sales tax for big metro projects. Its “You Decide” feature provides pros, cons and places for users to weigh in.

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Of course, much has been written about the role that citizen reporters at OhmyNews played in getting Roh Moo Hyun nominated and then elected as South Korea’s president in 2002. OhmyNews uses stories from journalists and citizen contributors. Citizen contributions helped the news site become enough of a force in those 2002 elections to challenge the conservative news organizations that had monopolized coverage of the nation’s politics.

The Tipping Point

Beginning in December 2004, coverage of calamities has brought us to a tipping point for user-generated content, a new term for citizen involvement in the news. When the tsunami hit South Asia, tourists readily captured the tidal waves and their aftermath on cameras and videocams. More than 20,000 tsunami photos are posted on Flickr.com.

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Then the July 7th bombings in London set a new standard. Video shot from camera phones led the BBC’s coverage that night. “That had never happened before at the BBC,” Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC’s World Services and Global News division, said at the “We Media” conference.  The BBC’s Kate Goldberg has reported that eyewitnesses sent the BBC more than 20,000 e-mails, 1,000 photos, and 20 videos in just the first six hours after the bombing. “This is not just a toe in the water,” Sambrook said. “Even calling it a movement sells it a bit short. It’s a fundamental realignment of the relations between Big Media and the public.”

Then in August, Hurricane Katrina opened the doors to even more citizen contributions—and news organizations themselves stepped forward to facilitate relief and rescue activity.

Citizen content does not create an either/or paradigm. It’s an “and.” Citizen-contributed content can do much to enrich traditional journalism: It will complement as well as compete with mainstream offerings. Citizens can serve as guide dogs as well as watchdogs.

Lex Alexander, cocreator of the Greensboro, North Carolina News & Record’s community blog project, has urged news organizations to start labeling content that is initiated by readers or viewers. Soon we’ll see the next new thing, and I believe Alexander foreshadowed that at the New York City gathering: “Once we have this up and running,” he said, “ I’d like to work with citizen readers on some investigative journalism.”

That evokes new images of citizens as parajournalists, akin to the paramilitary forces waging new-age wars. Can the era of “guerrilla journalism” be far behind?

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, a spin-off of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

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