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 FiveThirtyEight.com 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.