The Unpaid Citizen Journalist – What Value?

“If you put out a product, and nobody wants to pay for it, you don’t have a product.”  David Simon

A debate is heating up on the topic of unpaid, or “Citizen Journalists.”  This issue is whether or not citizen journalists are qualified to represent news to the public, and if the news they distribute has any inherent value.

Traditional newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor have gone to online-only editions.  Most existing print newspapers also have online editions, and those online editions are gradually opening up to include blogs, including non-paid blogs opened to citizen journalists with little or no experience and formal training in journalism.

Citizen journalism is not limited to online newspapers.  Broadcast media and cable media such as CNN solicit citizen journalism through their “iReports,” which encourage non-journalists to record events and submit them online for distribution without pay.  The citizen journalist gives up the copyright to their contribution, and newsreaders or other journalists add further comment.

Leonard Brody, CEO of NowPublic, states that “Our job is to provide an army of people who are eyes and ears that journalists can build around.”  NowPublic describes their business as a group the “collects, organizes, and distributes news from unconventional sources.”

Brody believes journalism is still in the responsibility of professional journalists, however those journalists do not always have the depth of resources available to build credible stories, and citizen journalists fill the role of collecting information that can be interpreted by journalists.

Brody continues “telling someone they are going to be a citizen journalist is like telling them they are going to be a citizen dentist; it requires training and the average person just can’t do it.”

On the other hand, SF Weekly criticizes the San Francisco Chronicle’s use of citizen journalists stating “By now, aficionados of San Francisco Web journalism have probably noticed the San Francisco Chronicle’s new “City Brights” online feature; a group of “luminaries” who, essentially, blog about whatever they see fit. We’re ostensibly supposed to be compelled to read it.”

Mark Watson, a freelance journalism activist in the UK believes that “such a working culture has become prevalent in media jobs because employers know they can get away with using unpaid workers in this way.”  “People either do not realize they should be paid, or feel unable to claim. As a result employers can tap in to a steady stream of unpaid workers – and so do.”

Newspapers have always had a reader’s page, or opinion page, allowing readers to put their opinions in print.  Those opinions are not checked for facts, and are clearly identified by the paper as opinions expressed by the reader, and do not reflect the opinion of the newspaper.

Citizen journalism now takes a further step towards replacing some of the activities previously performed only by professionals. 

In a recent speech titled “The Incredible Shrinking Newsroom: How can fewer reporters meet increasing demands for coverage?” at the University of Oregon, Marty Baron, editor of the Boston Globe acknowledged:

“In many ways, we are headed for a thrilling new world of media. Technology allows journalists today to tell stories in ways that were never possible before, to reach audiences larger than ever, and to build a tight and more intimate bond with the public. For young journalists, there can be remarkable opportunity as old media models crumble and as an entrepreneurial culture takes hold in a field that has long been dominated by overbearing media behemoths. There is a lot to be excited about, and a lot that is healthy.”

Rick Daysog of the Honolulu Advertiser agrees, reinforcing the need for news media to embrace “new models of communications and media distribution.”  The Honolulu Advertiser does have nearly 50 bloggers posting topics from surfing to high school sports available online, with most of those being posted by unpaid citizen journalists.

How can an unpaid citizen journalist dedicate the time to develop and uncover facts in a story, when the journalist needs to focus the majority of their effort on their primary salaried job?  Can you really drill into a local environmental issue if your efforts are primarily in recording what you see on the surface of an issue?   Is it possible journalism will fall into a snapshot looking at the façade of a story, which may be a deception?

Of course seasoned journalists such as David Simon (producer of the HBO serial “The Wire” and former Baltimore Sun crime reporter) will tell you that unless you work the “beat,” you will never learn the real story.  He also sees reporting as a profession.  You go to work every day, earning money to pay your “mortgage, car payments, and living expenses.” 

If you are not earning a living from journalism, you are probably “not producing a product that has any real value.”

Marty Baron continues to voice additional risks in the new media and the potential of big business to further corrupt the quality of news.  Brody says “there also are risks for the practice of journalism. There are risks that journalism will turn cynically to the quick, the easy, and the cheap – that a story’s greatest accomplishment will be to get a million page views, rather than to correct an injustice, or unearth wrongdoing, or give voice to people who would not otherwise be heard.”

Part 4 of this series will explore the future of advertising in media.
John Savageau, Long Beach

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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