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June 03 2015

Rise of the Citizen Journalist

Would you sit in a dentist's chair and also have a root canal made by a citizen dentist.

Can you undergo a gall bladder operation by a citizen surgeon.

But to learn the newspaper of the future in print or online or both, it's at least possible you'll have to read stories by citizen journalists ... enjoy it or not.
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The reason is simple. Newspapers across America have become so decimated by staff cutbacks that citizen journalists ... let's give them a call CJs ... will have to step in to fill the gap in covering the news in publications and on the web site, if the gap is to be filled.

"The newspapers that survive would be the ones that make essentially the most of the benefits of the internet," says Derek Clark, who runs the GeekPolitics site that comments on public affairs and media issues. "Citizen journalism can most of the time provide free content along with the internet provides the capability to reach a much larger audience. The existing media that combine their resources with all the advantages of new media will thrive. That old media that try and cling to their old strategies to doing things will die."

As the rise of CJs is mainly responsible for a flurry of enjoyment and discussion within the journalistic community, there has been precursors for many years. Papers usually have relied on what they accustomed to call "stringers" to call in tidbits like high school basketball scores or news from small-scale events the paper doesn't staff, or using man/woman all the time responses to a set question, or birth and wedding announcements. Via syndicates, papers have run features by nonjournalists like doctors with Q&A medical columns or mechanics with Q&A automobile columns.
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In a broader sense, this also fits in with the American strain of do-it-yourselfing ... that you can do anything you want, or at least try. Thus we've citizen painters with the living room, citizen auto oil changers, citizen builders of cabins inside the woods, citizen soldiers in times of war, citizen almost everything.

In communications, the citizen participation craze reaches an all-time high as citizens determine the contestants' fate on "American Idol" ... rate destinations on travel sites and people's houses for sale on real estate sites ... end up part of an assemblage of amateur restaurant critics in the popular Zagat guides, thus supplanting the once all-powerful professional restaurant critic at a metro newspaper ... and most notably take part in the largest mass editorial participation ever online with the compilation of the Wiki encyclopedia, or Wikipedia.

Therefore the scope is broad. The immediate question for individuals here is whether this crop of CJs will replace, not supplement, regular reporters ... and whether their work can be presentable without editing by regular staff or possibly a syndicate.

And in discussing citizen journalists, we should distinguish them from bloggers. Bloggers produce opinions .. usually with no thought, research or personal expertise in what they're writing about. CJs within the ideal sense would report stories with facts they turn up from being at a meeting or talking with knowledgable sources.ãEUREUR

Around the plus side, CJs can broaden your base of a paper, extend its reach.

"Probably some events get reported by citizen journalists that might not be reported with out them," says David Weaver, a journalism professor at Indiana University. "Reporters cannot be everywhere and cannot learn about all events happening in their communities. Because sense, citizen journalism may help to broaden the kind of events that are reported."

However, it almost seems the greater trivial and mundane the topic, the more appropriate it really is for a CJ, and the more important it is, the less appropriate.

Adam Stone will be the publisher of the Examiner community newspapers in Putnam and Westchester counties, N.Y. ... the type of publication you'd think would welcome CJs. But no.

"I do not think citizen journalism should dominate or even play a minor role at the same time of mainstream newspapers," he states. "I'm sure there is a spot for it ... a valuable place ... in alternative media. I believe it's been the mainstream newspaper industry's embrace of latest editorial formulas and approaches that's been leading to its demise (although) my personal runs contrary to what most in and out of the industry believe."

Stone says essentially the most relevant place for CJs in a traditional paper 's what it's always been ... "the letters towards the editor section."

Indiana's Prof. Weaver doesn't think citizen journalists medicine correct term ... "citizen communicators" should be because "without the training and education that most journalists have, most citizens cannot become journalists." He thinks CJs, or CCs, "are best at reporting breaking events, and never likely to be very helpful for in-depth, analytical or investigative reporting."

Dr. Kirsten Johnson, assistant professor, Department of Communications, Elizabethtown College, Pa., has authored several papers on citizen journalism, which is currently writing a novel chapter on the subject.

"Local newspapers should not rely on citizen journalists to help them survive," she says. "Most citizen journalists usually are not paid anything for their work and do not have the motivation to help a for-profit entity keep a profit. Citizens cannot and cannot be viewed as free labor."

Here is a look at three recent experiments by sizable metro papers with citizen journalism.

WASHINGTON TIMES -- This scrappy paper, which barely hangs on in their battle with the larger plus more prosperous Washington Post, has grown to be probably the nation's foremost print user of citizen journalism in large urban centers. In April, it launched a complete, themed page strictly by CJs in its local section six days a week. Monday, the theme is academia; Tuesday, the Maryland and Virginia suburbs; Wednesday, D.C.; Thursday, local military bases; Friday, religious communities; and Sunday, charity and public service news.

HARTFORD COURANT -- This paper calls its project iTowns and offers a well-designed page with a roster of 73 towns in the region. Click on the town you want and you'll find its news with a section called iTowns Local ... reader submitted headlines.

THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT of NORFOLK -- This was a failure. According to the Pew Problem for Excellence in Journalism's latest Condition of the Media Report, the paper launched a citizen media effort called Co-Pilot that ran 3 times a week with community news in print and online. It even sent an editor to Spain to analyze similar projects there.

After having a nine-month struggle, the paper pulled the turn on March 2008. Pew quoted editor Dennis Finlay as saying, "Mostly we discovered it's not at all the savior we thought. It had been very difficult to get quality reader-produced content." As for the general base of readers, Finlay said, "nobody cared when we got rid of it."

To do a good job with CJs, a paper would have to 1) find them, 2) give them some training or assess their initial efforts, 3) cause them to become do stuff totally free when the paper needs it, and 4) edit the things they're doing. It might cost money to complete all this. Yet not spending any cash is the reason why some editors are enamored with all the thought of CJs.

Some thoughts ...

It is possible. The Washington Times and Hartford Courant show it can be. Like anything else, a paper must make at least a bit of an effort and devote a staffer's time and energy to oversee the CJs.

"Newspapers could hold regular citizen journalism exercise sessions at the newspaper each month that could focus on newsgathering techniques and media ethics," says Larry Atkins, adjunct professor of journalism in Arcadia University's English, Communications and Theatre Department. "They also could post a podcast or video presentation on the web site giving reporting tips and ethical advice. Possess a newspaper staff member regularly monitor the citizen journalism submissions much like a newspaper forum to keep an eye out for content that may appear biased, dishonest, false, defamatory or otherwise not objectionable."

If newspapers use their imaginations, there is no limit on the interesting, informative material they could add.

LEARN FROM TV. We come right back to Prof. Atkins: "Local newspapers could take advantage of citizen journalism such as manner in which cable television outlets like CNN have used I-Reports. Newspapers could encourage citizen journalists for you photos and write first-person accounts of the experiences in observing a news event. For example, people who attend a local July 4 parade could send photos, video and written impressions being posted on the newspaper internet site. If there are over 50 local July 4 parades in a metropolitan area, one reporter can't get to all of them. Through citizen journalism I-Reports, a newspaper could post information about most, if not all, of these parades."

In short, he states, "citizen journalism can help local newspapers survive start by making them a more interactive product. Readers who post comments, articles and photos on his or her local newspaper's web site might feel a stronger connection to the paper and stay more likely to read the print version along with the online version of the paper."

Contain the RIGHT ATTITUDE. Instead of viewing CJs being a necessary evil or even as a burden, why couldn't papers view these questions positive light that assist themselves become more qualified, more expert? Why not tap into experts in the neighborhood and create an array of citizen journalists who're authoritative?

For instance, many papers once had a medical writer to accomplish stories on that specialty and zip other. That's gone the way of the do-do bird. Instead, you will want to develop a given medical topic and invite comments from medical experts in the area, perhaps dealing with the local medical association? In this way, they would be 1) providing more expert material compared to what they could provide themselves, and 2) would bring in the types of people who normally don't be in the journalistic process.Citizen EM0320-59D

Or get a roundup of comments on the legal topic with the local bar association, or perhaps an architectural topic from architects, an enclosed design topic from designers, and so forth.

Many experts are pleased to communicate with the public and anxious to try new forms of this online.
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MAKE THEM CREDIBLE. With citizen journalism reports, "it allows you to think, how do we judge these people?" says Peter Shankman, a speaker, author and futuristic consultant who runs the e-mail alert Help a Reporter Out hotline.

As a staff writer, a reporter is actually certified by the paper to be skilled and trustworthy. How could you do that with CJs?

Shankman's answer: through a rating system. Just as users compile quality ratings of eBay sellers or restaurants in online reviews, if there's a regular part of the paper with ongoing stories coming from a crew of CJs, readers could rate the stories and also the writers themselves, giving them an incentive to do their very best.

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