Citizen Journalism: Ready for a Rewrite

Down with citizen journalism!

Long live citizen journalism!

Remember the passionately earnest debate about whether citizens manning the keyboards were either the future or end of journalism?

I’m not certain exactly when the debate’s embers went cold, but the first entry under Google search is a Wikipedia article, most of which was written in the previous decade, and the next two entries go back to 2006 and 2005. A fitting capstone is what’s happened at The Columbia Missourian, produced by students and staff at the Missouri School of Journalism. The Missourian – a pioneer advocate for citizen journalism — has finally integrated community contributions onto its main site after keeping them in a ghetto for seven years on a site called MyMissourian. (The integration is actually only about 90% complete. Reader contributions are still kept antiseptically separate from staff work — on pages under a READERS tab, and they still have to go through a gate-keeping editor.)

So, has citizen journalism won?

One argument-ending answer is this recent contribution — video, photos and text — to The Missourian on “storm chasing” by community contributor Dustin Mazzio. It’s a compelling package that any site would die for. The most skilled regular-issue journalist writing a third-person account could never match what Mazzio produced (“We could feel the inflow as well as see the wind blowing across the crops in front of us, sucking what it could up into the storm”). Mazzio is a professional too — a storm chaser who tracks storms and helps people caught in them.

In every community there are scores, hundreds, of people who have special expertise like Mazzio, and if they were mobilized could give a whole new face to community journalism.

There will always be room for regular journalists, who have been trained in the craft of finding information and the art of fashioning it into narratives that may not be as gripping as Mazzio’s first-person story but can throw a searchlight on community problems that need fixing.

There’s ample room for both, and any site will be improved by having both. Clyde Bentley, a professor at the Missouri School and founder of MyMissourian, told me: “The traditional media, when stripped to the bones, must maintain its role as the eyes of the public on government and civic life. While dispassionate government coverage is often boring, it is vital to society. What citizen journalism can do, when included in a traditional outlet’s mix, is provide some of the softer side of news that takes the edge off of the daily dose of meetings and mayhem.”

But what about going further and putting these two forces together at the community level? There can be a synergistic 1 + 1 = 3. A site that can do that will attract readers and advertisers who want to reach them.

Take health care. But that’s a national issue, isn’t it? Or is it? People don’t go to Washington, D.C., to see their doctor, get an MRI or to be hospitalized. Add up all those local activities and you get the ever-growing $2.6 trillion annual bill for health care. What’s worse is that all these costs vary wildly from community to community and for no logical reasons. Imagine if hyperlocal sites would tell the story of health care in their community – documenting whether it was more or less costly than the average (with adjustments for regional cost of living)?

This is, to be sure, a complex story. But it could be put together if professional and citizen journalists could tackle it from different angles.

The first place to go would be the local Accountable Care Organization, a voluntary group of doctors, hospitals and other providers who collaborate with the goal of improving the quality of care of Medicare patients while also eliminating unnecessary expenses, with all parties sharing in the cost savings. ACOs, part of Obamacare, focus on Medicare because this federal service accounts for 20% of all health costs, and it covers the fast-growing senior population. (Washington Post Wonkblog staffer Sarah Kliff’s reporting on this issue is a great resource to send hyperlocal editors in the right direction.)

The editor of a local site can get the ball rolling by finding which providers are on the local ACO, and inviting them to contribute to a new section that could be titled “Our Health Care Bill for Seniors.” Questions to put to ACO members:

  • How can ACOs improve the quality of care – in doctors’ offices and at hospitals
  • How do we know that cost cutting won’t include cutting into quality?
  • If the ACO works, how much will it save in our community?
  • Will some of the savings be invested in improving care locally?
  • Do average citizens have a real voice in ACOs?

These are questions to which seniors, and their children and other relatives — indeed the entire community — will want to know the answers. These answers will make great stories for the local website.

It’s possible that some communities don’t yet have an ACO. If not, the website editor should find out why. Is the organization being boycotted by one or more providers who don’t like the rules set up by the feds? If the answer is yes, then the editor can ask the boycotter to explain its action, and get reactions from other local parties. So either way, there’s a story – and if there’s no ACO because it’s being boycotted by one or more local providers, that could be a big story with ramifications for both quality and cost of care.

This is just one example of how citizen journalism can be reinvented to help communities not only become better informed but better places to live – and get quality health care at an affordable cost. Education reform – which is not far behind health care in local importance – is another. The list could go on.

The question is, are community sites ready to take the lead in reinventing citizen journalism to produce a 1 + 1 = 3?

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.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Keith Williamson.

  1. mayerjoy
    May 10, 2012

    Thanks for writing about the Missourian! I’m so excited about how our handling of community contributions is evolving. We’re doing a lot of issuing specific invitations to people we think might have interesting things to say.

    And while you’re correct that From Readers content has its own section on the home page, I want to point out that those stories also go in our normal news sections. If a school shares information about a fund-raiser, the story goes in the From Readers section but also in the K-12 education section. So readers can stumble across that content in traditional ways, not just by seeking our community content specifically. We also sometimes feature readers’ stories in display spots on our home page.

    Thanks for continuing to talk about the importance of community stories!

    Joy Mayer, director of community outreach, Columbia Missourian

    1. May 10, 2012

       Thanks, Joy, for this clarification. It’s great you’re inviting people “we think might have interesting things to say” to be contributors to the Missourian. Staff journalists can become what I would call impresarios — finding and inspiring talent in the community. Some journalists aren’t comfortable stepping into this role. Reluctant impresarios should be reminded that some of journalism’s greats — pre-eminently Joseph Pulitzer — were enthusiastic and successful impresarios in bringing outside talent to their publications.

  2. briansteffens
    May 10, 2012

    You mentioned health care … check out created by former Reynolds Journalism Fellow Jane Stevens (Joy Mayer is also a recent RJI Fellow, as was Clyde Bentley). Or check out this student initiative presented last week at RJInnovation Week:

    1. May 10, 2012

      I’m very familiar with WellCommons, and have written two columns about
      it’s pioneering work in journalism beyond the walls of the newsroom — and  The site
      continues to build on what Jane started. However, it has yet to dig into
      health care quality and cost from the angle of the local Accountable
      Care Organization, if an ACO even exists in Lawrence or Douglas County.

  3. stefitup
    May 10, 2012

    The problem is what is citizen journalism and what isn’t. Journalism even by the average joe requires some verification of fact and it should be well-written without a ton of grammatical errors. You look at a website like Topix for example. I have heard the CEO of Topix refer to it as “news” and “citizen journalism” when in fact the vast majority of that site has no journalistic quality at all. Most of the posts are “who is sleeping with who” “what do you think about so-so” “who is the biggest drug user in town” ….. That is gossip and often times libel.

    What needs to happen is getting better control over citizen journalism. Any one posting should have some accountability and yes, it can be done with anonymity, but there should be a verification of a person through a valid email address and some kind of code like google does and moderators should approve things before going out or leave the comments for confirmed actual news stories. I think what has tragically occurred is basically you have the National Inqurier and then cowardly sites are claiming it as some type of journalism when it is not. 

  4. Joe Banks
    May 11, 2012

    There is no such thing as a “professional journalists” just as there is no such thing as a “citizen journalist.” Journalism has always been a craft, and any way it is diced, spliced, divided or hyphenated, no amount of phrase invention can dress it up. Until a “College of Journalists” is established, until Amercian reporters must obtain accreditation like their British brethren, or it becomes illegal for anyone to write for any publication in print or online, that will not change.

  5. jkubin
    May 12, 2012

    Communities is a hybrid between the daily news site, The Washington Times, and citizen journalism in that we, as a group, are not tethered to the daily news floor.  This allows us the freedom to right from both sides of the political and social aisle and provides a fresh voice of free journalism that is well written and supported. 

    1. May 16, 2012

       “This allows us the freedom to right…”

      Ummmm, did you mean “write”?

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