How Is Citizen Journalism Playing Out Today?

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Citizen journalism has propelled hundreds of hyperlocal news sites into existence. In the middle of the last decade, CitJ, particularly at the community level, was the hot topic in new media. Journalism’s thinkers saw it as a necessary and overdue reinvention of news (see Dan Gillmor, Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, among others). So how is it actually playing out today — on the ground? To find out, I asked publishers and editors who have been part of the hyperlocal phenomenon:

Ben Ilfeld, COO of the Sacramento Press: “We generate over 65% of our content from volunteers and some of our most important stories come from our dedicated community contributors. If we abandon our efforts in community participation we will lose more than an opportunity to grow — we will undermine our responsibilities as journalists and community members. So we press on refining and evolving a working model for community participation and open media. On average we help 30 new authors write their first article every month and we have helped over 1,100 authors find their voice within our community.”

Ilfeld explains how the Sac Press works with citizen contributors:

“If the quality of contributor content on our site is poor because of bad grammar, it is our responsibility to offer free copy editing. This is something we added early on. If there are ethical questions about some volunteer contributions, we must create clear guidelines on our site and offer regular in-person workshops for contributors to discuss journalistic ethics.”

The Press has a community outreach director, Casey Kirk, who Ilfeld describes as “phenomenal.”

Patrick Boylan, founder and editor of the two-year-old Welles Park Bulldog in the Ravenswood section of the North Side of Chicago (near Wrigley Field): “You can’t depend on citizen journalists.  I’ve got 12 reliable contributors from a community of 60,000. I’m the  mule, producing 80% of the editorial content. I’ve done 1,700 pieces in our two years, two months of existence, and my wife Jane has supplied a lot of the photos.”

Boylan, depends on freelancers for a big chunk of the other 20% of the content. Being an independent who “self-funds” his paper, he can’t afford to pay his freelancers more than “carfare or enough for a snack.”

David Boraks, publisher/executive editor of the Davidson (N.C.) News, which relies primarily on its paid staff for news content: “We do sometimes use citizen-generated content. That can range from ‘photos of the day’ (more common) to announcements, sports stories, food page articles (particularly Liz Weindruch’s Blue Plate Special column with recipe), commentaries and traditional letters to the editor. Whatever the submissions, they usually require editing on our part—some more than others.

Mike Shapiro, founder-publisher-editor of 14-site The Alternative Press in New Jersey, said readers can submit guest columns but not news content: “All of our news content is original reporting and is paid for. We have paid freelance reporters in each town who have a specific beat. These are all veteran journalists. We also have about 200 paid freelance reporters who supplement the work of the beat reporters and also cover for the beat reporters when the beat reporters are unavailable. We also have 50+ unpaid columnists.”

Don’t sing any paeans to “amateur” journalism near Tracy Record, editor of the West Seattle Blog: “We have NEVER had a ‘pro-am’ strategy. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free and think it unconscionable that moneyed enterprises like some huge corporations do. WSB is a professional, commercial news organization. When we assign articles or dispatch breaking-news coverage, if it’s not done by one of us, it’s done by a paid professional freelancer. Our community contributions come in the form of news tips, breaking-news photos if someone is there before we send a crew. We also receive tons of contributions in the comment sections and our Forum, plus tweets/Facebook posts.”

AOL’s Patch depends onpaid editors for the biggest share of content at its 890 sites.  To reduce ballooning costs, the network has cut back on freelancers, who back up multi-tasking editors. Each site also has a clutch of unpaid bloggers to provide community flavor.  

At MainStreetConnect, that network’s 52 sites in the metro New York City region and Central Massachusetts rely on paid journalists who all “have deep roots in the community,” according to Carll Tucker, CEO.

The Chicago Tribune’s 58-site TribLocal began with mostly citizen journalism, but then moved toward a “pro-am” mix weighted toward paid staff at the community level, supplemented by stories contributed by the Tribune’s metro staff. The Denver Post’s YourHub, now 110 communities anchored by 11 hubs, followed the same pattern. Boston Globe’s recently created network Your Town does the same at its 34 sites.

Between 2005 and 2010, J-Lab’s New Voices initiative helped fund 50-plus sites built around citizen journalism—highly regarded Twin Cities Daily Planet in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Oakland Local and Baltimore Brew, among them. J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer says: “I think the rubric of ‘citizen journalism’ has become outdated. A lot of the new activity is coming from people who have some kind of journalistic background. And they bring some of those core values to their efforts… The fact is that reporting is hard work and is rarely undertaken consistently by citizen-journalism volunteering on an episodic basis.”

So, half a decade later, it looks to me as if citizen journalism is in a new place — with less emphasis on “citizen” and more on  “journalism.”

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.