"If news media have to cut back and are unable to provide the same level of coverage for their communities that they did in the past, citizen journalism may need to step in," said Margaret Duffy, associate professor of the Missouri School of Journalism (Hurst). Her comment was posted in a July 2010 depiction of a study on Citizen Journalism vs. Legacy News, which refers to traditional coverage by mainstream sources. The outcome was not positive; it appears that the grassroots alternative is falling short of its potential. Few citizen journalists publish daily and sites that host them do not have the resources for conventional investigative writing. The Weblog of the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN-IFNA) was even more specific in claiming that informal writing of this nature was no threat to their sector. Apparently they do not believe that readers will find stories on a cat being stuck in a washing machine more fascinating than politicians or people with lots of money being stuck on their own spin cycles!
Like citizen militia members, citizen journalists are either people who want to be journalists or people who just have something to say and want to share their take on a subject (Bentley 2). While some do so because they don't care for traditional media access, there are now and have always been other reasons for writing in unofficial "newsworthy" ways. Arguably, three of the best known American Citizen Journalists were John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton who jointly wrote and published The Federalist Papers under the name of Publius, which even today sounds like a blogger tag (Bentley 3). But that level of action has grown dramatically. Estimates are that a new blog is created today every 1.7 seconds (Bentley 4). That's an impressive amount of information that is clearly trying to find its place in the world of journalism or information distribution.
OhMyNews started the "official" citizen journalism movement in about 2000 (Bentley 5). "Oh" began by providing a place to coordinate guerilla postings because he and his followed had no money to do their printing, and their interest was not in selling advertising or promoting their product. Liberal journalism was their forte and blogging was the method they used. As recently as 2008, Oh was said to be employing some 700 citizen journalists and was becoming organized as a profitable alternative business (Bentley, 5).
In the U.S., the track was a bit different. People were posting on various sites that were beginning to be available in a variety of formats (The Open Newsroom). But it would not be until conventional newspaper people started to blend the two models that stories written by local citizens got better noticed. In a curious 2007 case, a Missouri free shopper publication started using citizen journalists to produce some of its text content. An early study found that readers paid little attention to them, showing about 35% recognition. A second look, however, showed that very rapidly the number of respondents showing awareness jumped to 65% -- a number that registered higher than those familiar with paid advertising (Bentley, 8).
Moving online more specifically has clearly changed the nature of the citizen journalist game. It can be much more difficult for such sites to generate income in light of the fact that the types of stories that get attention tend to be those that might bring about controversy (The Open Newsroom 5) -- something big advertisers might not like. This was one of the reasons why the World Association of publishers sought to make light of the cat in the washing machine story. Blogging sites with a journalistic bent also suffer from having very little space to actually use advertising, which is in part by GoogleAds and similar click-through models came about because the power of paying for recognition could be amplified (Bentley, 12). Sites such as MySpace, Facebook and to some extent Twitter have built on both of these trends. Facebook allows for writing for (generally) a smaller, "friend" based audience, however. Free website building and posting sites like Wordpress, on the other hand, encourage narrative entries and even provide for earning some income or linking to income producing options.
In 2006, one of the first summaries of citizen journalism venues was put together (Bandon, 25). It included a listing of everything from weblogs, to mail lists and forums, to Wikis (open source text writing locations where people collectively add and edit information), to SMS texting by phone, to mobile camera and picture/video sharing, to peer-to-peer file sharing and RSS or Really Simple Syndication. Increasingly, many sites with a particular interest in citizen journalism are trying to be noticed for that and promote themselves specifically, such as http://www.TheHappyNews.com.
Where citizen journalism is heading is not year clear. But two examples of what is happening outside of the U.S. can be instructive.
CITIZEN JOURALISM IN AFRICA
Africa is a rather unusual place to be the center of citizen journalism on many fronts (Bandon). From being an intensively controlled and controlling country (including state ownership of its media), the nation has begun to explode with technology posting interest (Bandon 7-9). It may well be that the need for print journalism to survive made them turn to using more space for advertising or perhaps warping their coverage to be aligned with corporate interests. In addition, however, cellular telephone mobility has also exploded, making it possible for large numbers of people to turn information sharing to their advantages.
As recently as 2004, as the trend was beginning to emerge, native protectors often questioned whether technology of this type even belonged in Africa. It was thought by some to be a bad cultural fit that could be bringing about more "socio-cultural disruption, increasing economic dependency and introducing modes of thought which are alien to the working environment in which the computer is being used" (Bandon 41). The violence of the time brought into life what could be the first applicable citizen journalism site that went by the name of 'Ushahidi' which means something like testimony in Swahili (Bandon 43). The East African countries of Uganda and Kenya have their own variations, many with distinctive rural focuses.
A summary of the impact of this trend covers many of the economic implications:
The financial viability of citizen journalism is in question. There is clearly no definite reference to a sustainability model for citizen journalism. But it is evident that advertising -- and possibly sponsorship -- is seen as a potential way for citizen journalists to sustain their activism. As a matter of fact, some citizen journalists harbour the idea that they might woe enough 'hits' to interest potential advertisers in the cyber space they occupy. But it is not yet clear what shape such a model will take (Bandon 75).
CITIZEN JOURNALISM IN GERMANY
Germany is a far different national location. It tends to be much more monolithic in outlook and cultural connectedness, and it does not always favor political opposition as the motivation for its citizen communications (Bruns). myHeimat thus became one of the few aggregated hyperlocal news connectors with a distinctive regional emphasis:
Users specify their home location (their Heimatort) as they register for the site, and are presented with recent user-generated news items from their local area on subsequent logins. & #8230;. This provides a space for the development and maintenance of multiple on-site communities around shared local origins, but also offers a platform for the nationwide coverage of news and events from diverse local perspectives, and for the development of interest groups based on shared interests beyond local identity (Bruns 2).
One of the most remarkable financial outcomes of this 2005 experiment has been its operational partnership with its own print newpapers. Hundreds of thousands of print pages are now available for publications that sell advertising and conduct other business activities to capture writing from myHeimat and put it out in a format that local people still appreciate (Bruns 5-6). This has helped make it one of the few financially successful world citizen reporting models.
In many ways the field of publishing of everyday activity is seen for its positive aspects. The people who are journalists, after all, are the same people, as one commentator put it, "who used to be the audience." They not only know what they find interesting, but many have become sophisticated in sharing stories as quickly as they unfold. But there are drawbacks as well. Privacy and accuracy are two of the most serious of concerns. There are often no ways to judge the reliability or the objectivity of the information that is being presented, which takes away from the positive elements that people count on the news media for (Hurst). But privacy becomes perhaps more of an issue. Citizen journalists often rely on the public to question and monitor their efforts -- but this might not happen until after a false or damaging story is released. A 2008 study by the Project…