The Failure of Citizen Journalism?

I’ve always been a champion of citizen journalism, but recently I realized that, when the chips are down — when it’s less than two weeks out from The Most Important Election of Our Lifetime — I always turn to the pros. For me, the best analysis of the election is being done by people who do it for a living.

Pros, of course, are a different breed now than they were five or seven or ten years ago. That category now includes folks like Talking Points Memo, the Politico’s Ben Smith, and Andrew Sullivan (whose widely-read blog is even more widely-read thanks to his über-obsessive need to take down McCain-Palin). Hour upon hour I am consumed with the need for new information. Restlessly, I turn to Josh Marshall, whose post-debate videos have become essential viewing, or Andrew Sullivan, who relentlessly pounds Palin for not submitting to a single press conference. To date, no amateur blogger — defined as someone who isn’t being paid to blog — has been able to fill this void.

Time was, the Marshall and Sullivan and Smith types were referred to as citizen journalists, since they were working in a new medium outside of the mainstream. But at this point they all run professional operations, and are paid (or pay themselves) to do nothing but write about the election. That’s the definition of a pro.

This all doesn’t mean that I don’t like, or believe in, citizen journalism. I’ve been a loyal reader of Off the Bus since it launched last summer, I’m a slave to the gospel of Jay Rosen, and I’ve sung the praises of my friend David Cohn’s Spot.Us project, which is using crowdsourcing to inspire and fund a new generation of independent journalism. But outside of exposing Bittergate to the masses (albeit a major feat), the citizen brigade hasn’t had much impact on the narrative of the race.

There are outliers, of course. Nate Silver’s is a major success story. Nate’s a professional baseball statistician and an amateur election analyst, but thanks to his wonky projections he’s made it to the big time, showing up on cable news, the Colbert Report, and hundreds of thousands of feed readers. For many, his left-leaning site has replaced RealClearPolitics as essential daily reading. In some way, he’s a citizen journalists. But again, he’s an exception rather than the rule.

So if election analysis is best left to the pros who are paid to blog for 14 hours a day, where are the little people in all of this? “The best citizen journalism is coming from email,” Ben Smith says. He gets more than 200 emails a day from readers offering tips and anecdotes, and it all helps fuel his blog, which he typically updates at least 20 times a day.

And Andrew Sullivan, who’s truly taken election blogging to new heights in this cycle, claims in his essential essay on why he blogs that his readers provide at least a third of his daily content:

If I were to do an inventory of the material that appears on my blog, I’d estimate that a good third of it is reader-­generated, and a good third of my time is spent absorbing readers’ views, comments, and tips. Readers tell me of breaking stories, new perspectives, and counterarguments to prevailing assumptions.

In a return to the halcyon days before comments, it turns out that readers — responding to blogs via e-mail, of all things — are the new citizen journalists. Rather than try to compete with the pros, they augment the work of people like Sullivan and Smith, and in turn get to actually participate in their reporting.

It’s interesting that Marshall and Sullivan’s blogs don’t even allow comments (though, to be fair, TPM has another side that allows for comments and other blogs). Are we entering a time when the comment — which, let’s be fair, is frequently an unhelpful expression of “participation” — is being overtaken by its predecessor, the email?

Maybe we’ve been going about this citizen journalism thing all wrong. I always chafe at suggestions that citizen journalists, or even self-made pros like Josh Marshall, somehow want to replace the mainstream media. That’s not true, I argue. They’re a counter-balance to the MSM; they keep ’em honest and make ’em better. But the same could be said about the smartest readers of the best blogs.

This will clearly be taken as a knock on the citizen journalism, but believe me, it’s not. There will always be space for amateurs in the world of blogging; indeed, they invented the medium. But in the case of this election, at this time, when minute-by-minute analysis served with a platter of spicy wit is sacrosanct, the amateurs simply haven’t been enough for me.



  1. This is a point I think may people miss about citizen journalism; it provides commentary and fact-checking for MSM stories. They rarely break stories of their own.

  2. it turns out that readers — responding to blogs via e-mail, of all things — are the new citizen journalists. Rather than try to compete with the pros, they augment the work of people like Sullivan and Smith, and in turn get to actually participating in their reporting.

    Citizen journalists, or free labor?

    I never saw Josh Marshall as a “citizen journalist.” He was a journalist, who figured out long before others how to crowdsource his reporting.

    Others have caught on.

    One other point: Citizen journalism is alive and well, but maybe less so in the blogosphere. Citizen journalism has evolved from blogs, out to YouTube, and Twitter, and maybe even wikipedia.

  3. I think one problem with this analysis is the bright-line distinction it makes between amateur and pro, between “citizen journalist” and professional. I think you yourself allude to the difficulties when you point out that “Time was, the Marshall and Sullivan and Smith types were referred to as citizen journalists, since they were working in a new medium outside of the mainstream. But at this point …” and so on. Doesn’t that mean that Nate Silver will probably be what you consider a “pro” in a couple months, or years?

    What if we took Jeff Jarvis’ advice and just dropped the distinction between amateur and pro, between citizen and something else, and just started talking about networked journalism?

    I wrote about this in some of my recent newsroom research. Instead of asking who is an amateur / pro / cit. j, etc, maybe we should ask:

    • What kind of work does this worker journalist do? Does she report? Add context? Give opinion? Reframe the story? Facilitate community conversation?

    • Where does he or she publish that work? Online? In print? With a formal media institution, or within a diffuse collection of networked journalists?

    • Finally, what is the formal contractual relationship between the worker journalist and their publishing entity? Do they work for free? Engage in piecework? Feelance? Or have they managed to obtain the kind of salaried work that was once more common in the world of journalism?

  4. Carlos and Chris – good points about the somewhat false distinctions between pro and amateur. The FiveThirtyEight example points to this problem, especially since Nate Silver does make his living analyzing stats, blurring the line between pro and am.

    And I definitely agree with the idea of just calling all of this “networked journalism,” whatever that really means.

    But the trend that I’ve been noticing — and that led me to this critique — is that almost ALL of the influentials this time around are much more traditional that I expected they would be. There isn’t a reliance on the network in the way that many of us expected.

    That’s where this emailers-as-sources thing gets interesting. Maybe, while we’re theorizing about the importance and usefulness of the network, this old school, two-way form of communication is actually more networked and useful than we thought, and newer, more consciously constructed forms like Off the Bus are proving to be of limited usefulness.

    This gets to another point, which is that, after a few years of preaching about the primacy of bottom-up activism, I think we’re seeing the resurgence of Web 1.0-like editorial control over content. That, combined with the grassroots stuff, is what makes things interesting and relevant.

  5. Citizen journalism is alive and well. I agree it may not have had a major impact on the presidential election, but it can and does have a more significant on local *political* reporting.

    The UpTake is providing unprecedented video coverage of statewide congressional races in Minnesota, for example – providing perspectives and stories often missing before.

    We have had some impact on the national scene though – we had one of the only interviews with the “Obama is in Arab” woman in Lakeville, MN who said she sends out letters telling the “truth” about Obama. Those stories aren’t game changers but they do enrich and deepen the existing MSM, etc. coverage.

    And of course, our RNC coverage was one of the few places you could get unfiltered look at what was really happening in the streets of St. Paul.

  6. Chuck – I agree that citizen journalism is a wonderful, necessary, and inevitable development. We’ve seen its influence on political reporting all over the place. But again, looking at the single instance of election coverage — which, for better or for worse, has been synonymous with “political reporting” for at least the last year — I’ve seen little impact beyond the examples you and I quoted.

    And to be clear, I love the work you guys are doing at the UpTake, though, like Chris Anderson wrote, I’d call it “networked journalism” instead. You’re a pro at this :).

  7. I was always curious what people thought of this…

    Where do journalists/reporters who get paid to do reporting for corporate paymasters, but also participate in Citzen Journalism because of the gaping abyss left by mainstream media work, actually fit in?

    The pleasure and frustration is that, in conjunction/and with the assistance of fellow CJ’s, we’ve essentially broken more stories despite giving the “one phone call is research to me” twits in the newsroom a chance to use materials collected.

    4 days later the msm weasels report on it like it’s their gospel and one sits there steaming as you hear yr own copy being read.

    It’s a curious thing.

    It’s also at the point where I’ll take something I put more work into to such places as TheUptake or DigitalJournal and not even waste my time with the so-called ‘real media’, excepting alt weeklies or network afilliate radio.

    As i like to say, most msm is where “press releases go to become news and news goes to die”

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