The Goodness Of Citizen Journalism

There's long been an understandable tension in the media world around the term "citizen journalism." As legacy news organizations unleashed new media vehicles, as we've worked hard to sort out our feelings about the blogosphere, as we've maligned the dinosaurs among us and all hailed digital -- a lot of baggage got stuffed into this term. And, as a result, the term became amorphous and misunderstood.

Flash-forward: Today's citizen journalism is a specific, good thing -- rooted in the best practices of journalism and the promise of sophisticated media convergence. Never has the environment been so primed for citizen journalism proving its worth.

By this concept, we're not talking about independent, unsanctioned blogging or roughshod user-generated content. Nor do we see sanctioned news organizations hiring armies of random feet-to-the-street contributors without editorial protocols in place. I'd like to share two examples of what citizen journalism looks like at its best. These are journalistically sound and technologically advanced ventures that are going to make a difference.

The Banyan Project
The first is what got me questioning our industry's tainted take on citizen journalism, a year ago: the Banyan Project.   As its project site states:  "We are a group of 27 senior journalists, academics, web developers, sociologists and researchers, business and financial strategists, and advocates for strengthening democracy..." The community-based model stations Banyan bureaus with professional journalists working collaboratively within communities. The goal is to deliver "useful news tailored so that [a] specific public finds it relevant, respectful and trustworthy... Banyan's professional editors and reporters will work in close, accountable relationship with readers as co-creators of its journalism."

I talked to veteran journalist and founder Tom Stites about the collaboration mechanics and the concept of co-created journalism. How does it work? Stites backs up to the principle that makes good citizen journalism work at all: shared passion. "The only ones that work without intervention work in niches where people share passions. These are self-governing, because people share passions," he says.

"But, to continue in an enduring fashion, mediation is needed. There is a misconception that citizen journalism can be applied to anything. It's not a sweeping thing. If you don't have mediation, means of engagement, even with a significant number of people who form a shared culture, you're likely to be disappointed if not heartbroken."

So, the Banyan Project devotes itself  to engagement. The bureaus' professional staffs will be small but cover much ground because of efficiencies of collaboration. "It does not just invite people to call themselves or be designated citizen journalists, but involves people in all kinds of ways in the journalism," says Stites. The continuum spans from basic social media participation like sharing and liking, to responding to morning Banyan alerts by adding content, to being a full contributor of what Stites calls finished editorial goods.

The staff monitors the conversation and feeds the call-and-response, further adding to the story as the week goes on, something Stites likens to blues being sung in the plantation fields: one worker delivers a lyric, is answered by another, and so on, as the lyrical narrative builds. To me, this flavor of call-and-response best captures the spirit and communal iterative contribution of the Banyan Project.

Corwin Connect
The second project on my radar also brings that essential passionate focus, along with smooth use of social and multimedia. A couple weeks ago, a cross-channel initiative in "global citizenship" came to life at Harnessing Jeff Corwin's cause-driven celebrity brand to address global themes of conversation, sustainability, green and eco-topics, the founders have created a very focused, progressive community contribution model.

Corwin had been focused on wildlife and ecosystem conservation since childhood. He and his partner, Anurag Agarwal, knew there was a global community to be assembled in a new way.  "It's past the point of questioning whether people care about the subject matter. But, it's a subject matter that requires intelligence from people beyond the front lines of journalism," Agarwal will tell you. These founders had been compelled by the growing influence of user-generated content,  but recognized that even the very concept of user-generated content had come a long way. So, there was plenty of room to create a state of the industry media environment for contribution -- rich in video, social tools and dynamic content -- while building awareness for the imperative of global citizenship.

The community experience today on the site reflects causes from all over the planet. Through  alliances with prolific bloggers and lines into different communities, including youth organizations, the site's founders expect the environment to flourish, organically, on a basis of global human interest.



In short, citizen journalism is an inspiration. At its best, it neither violates journalistic principles nor unleashes haphazard blog-storms. Unchain your media minds: Today's citizen journalism is the productive cooperation of true-blue journalism, converged media platforms and keen human passion.

3 comments about "The Goodness Of Citizen Journalism ".
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  1. Rosanne Gain from Gain - Stovall, PR, April 26, 2010 at 1:50 p.m.

    Good article, with great examples. Locally, our daily paper has a vehicle for average citizens to talk about their passions (overseen by professional journalists). Articles range from stories about the history of the area, art openings, stories of good deeds by students, service organizations and the like. It's a great way to create a hyper-local venue for neighborhood news. Actually, I'm a contributor and I write on occasion about cool things my Rotary Club does locally and internationally. I also write slice of life articles on things that suit my fancy.

  2. Ron Ross, April 27, 2010 at 11:36 a.m.

    Good article. I tweeted it and facebooked it. We love people who love citizen journalists. That's why we wrote the book on citizen journalism: "Handbook for Citizen Journalists."

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 10, 2010 at 12:46 p.m.

    The balance also lies in how the whispering down the lane state doesn't corrupt the truth.

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