Thursday, July 16, 2009

Limits of Citizen Journalism

A breakfast conversation with my wife prompted me to some observations about the limits of citizen journalism.

The following is one part disclosure/one part necessary background to understand the situation: My wife, Missy, is a citizen journalist. She blogs under the auspices of our local paper, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle and also contributes to a hyperlocal site that covers our community of Webster, NY.

Our morning ritual includes reading the morning paper -- in print -- over breakfast. (Admitting this probably says more than I should about our age/generation.) An ongoing story that the paper has been covering in another local town (Greece, NY) concerns trouble in the police department there. A couple of officers have lost their jobs and been convicted of crimes; the chief has been suspended as part of an investigation into the hiring of these officers and his handling of the situations surrounding them.

So, as I read an update about this the other day, I looked across the breakfast table and asked Missy: if this were happening in Webster, would you be writing about it? Despite being only halfway through her first cup of coffee for the day, she just looked back with an expression that said: you're kidding, right?

In other words, as a citizen journalist, she wouldn't go anywhere near such a story. And I doubt she's alone. Missy has certain assets make her a very capable citizen journalist -- including a background in public relations that makes her very adept at collecting information and composing stories, and 25 years of marriage to a journalist/journalism professor that influences her ability to recognize stories (news judgment). If any citizen journalist could delve into such a community "trouble" story, it would be one with her skills and background. But she wouldn't, because she doesn't see that as her role or function. I think most citizen journalists would approach it the same way.

Which brings me to my point about limitations: if it weren't for the trained journalists, getting paid by a major organization (Gannett, in this case) who show up for work each day ready to tackle the "tough stuff" that falls outside of the umbrella accessible for citizen journalism coverage, we wouldn't hear about a great many of the police scandals and other vital news of our local communities. Citizen journalism can provide many benefits to community coverage by increasing the number of ears and eyes monitoring comings and goings and putting information about them out there. But there are certain stories it's just not going to touch.

On one level, this is not a startling observation; even the staunchest advocates of citizen journalism say they see it as a supplement or complement to traditional news organizations, rather than a replacement for them. But here is why I think it's a pertinent observation nonetheless: as news consumers have been caught up in a series of "next new things," from freely available text news on the Web to multimedia presentations to aggregation (e.g. Yahoo! News) to blogs to Twitter, newspapers have slid further and further down the list of "must" media in people's lives.

It almost doesn't matter that the citizen journalists themselves -- and the advocates and experts who promote and evaluate and research citizen journalism as a practice -- always carefully include the disclaimer "this won't replace traditional journalism." I say that because the people who really matter -- the audience -- don't get that drift. The heart of the financial crisis surrounding traditional newspapers is that too many people (and this might include some of those experts and advocates) see them as falling somewhere along a spectrum ranging from "optional" to "irrelevant" when it comes to regular news consumption; an ever-declining number of people see them as "irreplacable."

Almost 40 years ago* Joni Mitchell sang "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone ..." Will we be saying that about professional coverage of local news at some point in the not-too-distant future?

*"Big Yellow Taxi," 1970

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