Everyman Can — Or Can He? The Limits of Citizen Journalism

Stenciled pamphlets, mimeographed manifestos, photocopied fliers — maybe even chunks of clay or scraps of parchment; citizen journalism has no doubt been around, in one form or another, for a long time. The idea of private citizens writing the news or venting their opinions has especially flourished during the past two centuries in the USA, with the right to free expression anchored in its governing documents. But the movement has truly come into its own on a global scale only during the Internet age.

Check out this list of “participatory news sites,” where you can find what is surely just a fraction of the English-language Internet sites set up by the vast grassroots news force.

Almost all of this is done by amateurs, although there are a few sites that actually compensate contributors. Sometimes the writers are activists or even heroes, calling attention to abuse or injustice in places where other news channels are muzzled. More often, though, citizen journalists are bloggers, more-or-less ordinary people who like to write about nearly anything that comes to mind. Some specialize in politics, others in fishing, a few in the fine arts, and a seemingly disproportionate number in heavy metal music and NASCAR. Since the Internet's scope is limited only by the number of computers that can be linked together planet-wide, “All the news that's fit to print” has long since morphed not just into “All the news that fits,” but “All the news.” Period.

Nearly every major news site has something akin to CNN's “iReporters,” people otherwise in the audience who upload video clips, often made on cell phones, that chronicle news events as they unfold, or who log on to describe some happening they're witnessing or have just lived through, whether it's a tsunami in Asia, a mass strike in Paris, a bushfire in Australia or a snowstorm in Chicago.

And who hasn't given in to the temptation to fire off a comment in response to a news story or online column? In less time than it used to take to insert a sheet of stationery into your typewriter, you can use your personal computer and Internet connection to straighten out that nitwit news reporter, fix that misplaced apostrophe or, as is more often the case, let the guy two posts prior to yours know where he can put it.

Meanwhile, as we amateurs — not a few of us fools — rush in, the pros are being put out to pasture. Witness the layoffs at nearly every major news organization in the past six months alone. Mourn the recent passing of venerable newspapers like The Cincinnati Post, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News. The presses at those three papers had been running for 126, 146 and 150 years, respectively. It's obvious that we're living at a hinge moment in history, at least as far as the news media are concerned.

Besides iReporters and the BBC's “Are you there?” online volunteers, some media companies are coming up with interesting hybrid solutions, combining, for example, professional journalism with semi-pro efforts by citizen journalists who are paid something for their efforts. South Korea's OhMyNews.com site has been a pioneer in this. A recent snapshot of this fast-growing website had about 20 percent of its content produced by professional journalists, with the remainder coming from “professors, police officers, students, housewives, business people — everyone.” The semi-pro journalists are paid between $5 and $20 per contribution, on average. The innovative website was actually bringing in a big haul in advertising revenue, at least for a time, although reports lately suggest that its business model may need to be tweaked for it to continue to do so. Anyway, its real significance may be more social than economic, as OhMyNews.com is credited with radically altering the conservative Korean media scene and, in so doing, changing the country's political climate.

Should professional journalists, then, be looking to apply for some of the retraining-retooling money that the economic stimulus bills are supposed to include? There'll always be a need for bartenders, right? And, from what I've seen, at least some newspaper people have some prior experience when it comes to mixing drinks.

Certainly the tremendous shake-up that's affecting the world economy right now, and especially the newspaper business, will leave a lot of people struggling to find their way, at least for a while. And yet I can't help but believe that there'll always be a need for the pros — experienced, bright, tremendously hardworking people who know how to find and cultivate sources, who know how to play the game of give-and-get when it comes to information, who can tease out a coherent storyline from a notebook full of tidbits, rumors, speculation and hard data — and who, under deadline pressure, can put it all together in a reasonably understandable form. Then do it again the next day, or even later that same day.

Take a look at this March 19 story, “A.I.G. Uproar Is a Test for Geithner,” by Jackie Calmes of The New York Times. Ms. Calmes manages to describe, day-by-day and even hour-by-hour, the evolution of the current brouhaha over the taxpayer-funded AIG bonuses, with an emphasis on who-knew-what-when. How in the world did she manage this? Well, probably not by sitting in her pajamas at her laptop, as I'm doing right now (actually, I'm in my pajamas, not hers).

Ms. Calmes had clearly worked her sources on this one, no doubt tracing memos, e-mail messages, lunchtime conversations, phone calls and who knows what else through the twin labyrinths of the U.S. government and the American financial industry.

She has been able to do this because she knows the right people to talk to, and she has evidently earned their trust through years of honest dealing and careful reporting. She's got enough experience and worldly wisdom that she knows how these myriad economic and political factors affect another, and she must know a good bit about how that most complex factor of all — human nature — plays out in public policy.

She has also paid her dues, first picking up undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism, and then, sometimes plodding, occasionally pole-vaulting, her way through the trade for 31 years. (In the midst of this, by the way, she's raised two daughters.)

Read Ms. Calmes's play-by-play of just five days of the AIG crisis, lifted from the middle of her story:

On Tuesday last week, as he prepared for a meeting in London of the finance ministers of the Group of 20 nations, [Treasury Secretary Timothy] Geithner learned that A.I.G. by Sunday would send out the bonuses to employees at its financial products unit, which developed the risky derivatives now blamed for the global credit crisis.

With few senior political appointees on hand, the word came from one of the numerous career civil servants who keep the Treasury functioning through changes of administration, according to an official.

Mr. Geithner consulted lawyers. They told him the government could not override the contracts that the insurance conglomerate had signed in early 2008, when its financial products unit was fast losing money.

On Wednesday evening, Mr. Geithner called Mr. Liddy, and demanded that he renegotiate payments. The next morning, Mr. Geithner informed White House advisers. Later that day a senior adviser, David Axelrod, informed the president.

On Friday, Mr. Liddy said he could not block the bonuses; he did agree to reduce executive bonuses set for July 15 and Sept. 15. With Mr. Geithner in London, Treasury officials tried to manage the potential criticism by leaking word to news media on Saturday. On Sunday, the economic advisers went on TV.


Your friendly blogger at www.whatsonmymind.com, however much he may have picked up by scavenging the Internet and however serious his intentions, will not be able to produce this kind of reporting. Ever.

So: what to do? Buy two copies of your favorite newspaper every morning instead of one? Commit to clicking on at least one banner ad each time you log on to that paper’s website? Pick a byline at random and send that reporter an anonymous cash gift?

I honestly don't know. But I do know that, if there's any truth to the free-market principle that says quality rises to the top while inferior goods eventually fall away, reporters like Ms. Calmes will always be around — and will always be desperately needed — however they're plying their trade when the chips finally stop falling.