Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Myths of citizen journalism

Is the concept of citizen journalism fatally flawed? That is the question in a recent posting on a World Association of Newspapers blog.

“The fad journalism model is being brought down by poorly written and poorly presented content that is greatly inferior to content produced by experts,” it explains. “To put it bluntly, if you need information on a subject, would you rather rely on the edited and proofread opinion of an expert, or the misspelled musings from some guy sitting in his basement?”

Okay, that is a pretty easy question to answer, but I don’t think it really is that simple. Citizens have much to contribute, though it probably is not in taking our jobs as professional journalists.

I recently read of the accomplishments of a newspaper in Poland, the Gazeta Wyborcza. In 1996 in producing a guide to maternity wards in its community, the newspaper asked its readers for their experiences. It received 2,000 letters.

In 2006, the newspaper did the same survey online and received 40,000 responses! Needless to say, the survey was a huge success.

The Gazeta Wyborcza’s special projects editor, Grzegorz Piechota, has what I think is an intelligent view on the phenomenon of citizen journalism and how it relates to traditional news organizations.

“Readers are not journalists,” Piechota explained to the Ifra magazine newspaper techniques. “But readers are experts in real-life issues that we, the editors, often miss. We would be stupid not to ask them for help.”

Journalists have a tendency to dismiss citizen contributions and to put them in a separate area of their websites. They seem to be saying, you can post the pictures of your pets and children here, but we will keep the real journalism to ourselves.

There is much wisdom in this insight from Lawrence Picard at Harvard University: "News organizations that align themselves closely with their audience...and that allow their audiences to participate… will be able to create the value needed to sustain themselves and financially benefit..."

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