Citizen journalism: a rethink needed?

Couple of fascinating posts on citizen journalism on BeetTV and Phil Bronstein on thoughts around citizen journalism. It has not, says Bronstein, taken off on a large scale. He also sums up the current position neatly:

"The whole concept of citizen journalism is still floating around waiting for a good example wave to carry it somewhere, and user-generated material has yet to be a huge hit within the media world unless someone with a Flip catches Brangelina running into a lamp post."

Let's up a quick recap first with the Condensed and Possibly Not Entirely Accurate History of Citizen Journalism According To Gary.

So, in the beginning there was the media who had journalists who produced news. There was also the people, and the people generally watched or read the media and the media thought this was largely very agreeable indeed and nobody knew what the people thought because it wasn't deemed important and those people who did speak were usually retired colonels.

Anyway, then the internet came along and some of the people realised it gave them a chance to say what they thought and a very small percentage of the people tried their hand at journalism and a few of them were actually quite good at it.

Then the media discovered that the internet was important but weren't quite sure how to handle it because while they were telling because that it was important, they'd noticed a few people were also telling the rest of the people that the internet and other stuff was important. Or, more commonly, telling the media where they'd got things wrong.

Some media tried to engage, others refused but gradually there was a realisation that the people could be useful to the media and that's roughly where we are now.

The term Citizen Journalism is definitely a little misleading. It conjures up images of wannabe hacks slaving away all day at the internet trying to beat newspapers to the scoop and perhaps for a very short while this was the case. There was even a brief mad scramble by traditional media to sign these bloggers, much like the moment Electroclash was briefly musical genre of the moment and saw Fischerspooner signed to Ministry of Sound for £1m, nearly taking the whole thing down the pan.

That's passed now, largely (and thankfully). Now the boundaries are a lot less clear. What's the difference between a journalist and a blogger? Take Shiny Media. These are blogs, but essentially they're a journalistic outlet that isn't published in a newspaper or broadcast on the TV. Then you've got journalists who specifically work on the web but because it's on a traditional media's site it's classified as journalism and not blogging.

Then you've got the bloggers who are definitely not journalists but know more about a specialist topic than journalists and have great contacts, so are essentially out-journalisming the journalists without even intending to.

Then you've got the bloggers who aren't journalists or specialists but once in a while write something newsworthy or happen to be in the right place at the right time (or wrong time, depending on the event) and have something to say which is of interest to everybody.

This is without even touching on the likes of Flickr, Twitter and YouTube for newsgathering purposes. Often these are better than anything traditional media can gather, not because the journalists are bad at their job, but because they happen to be on the ground when the event starts. Jemima Kiss's post on Twitter and the California Earthquake illustrates this nicely.

Right, so this is where we're at. Journalism and the web as if painted by Jackson Pollack. Nobody really knows what they are any more, the whole system's in some kind of blogistential crisis and really, we'd all probably be better off heading home for a cup of tea and a biscuit and forgetting about the whole thing.

But it's not entirely shot and there a few levellers. Firstly, Citizen Journalism hasn't killed the media, as was predicted a few years ago. If anything it's enhanced the quality of news coverage. A Tweet or Flickr picture direct from the scene is invaluable no matter where you're getting your news from.

Secondly, although you'll get the odd person trying to make a living out of citizen journalism from the web, the majority of citizen journalists are a one-off. They happen to be by a newsworthy event, they take a picture, Tweet, make a blog post or take a video on their mobile phone. It's news, and news organisations recognise it as such, even if the person behind it never does another newsworthy thing in their life. 

That its not yet successful on a large scale is not unexpected or necessarily a bad thing. While people appreciate that they can interact with journalists and submit their own 'newsgathering' not everybody's going to want to do it all of the time.

Secondly, although there will always be bloggers and Twitterers writing around breaking news, although they're not hard to search, it's easier and less time consuming for the average person having it in a place they regularly visit and, largely, trust. Which is usually the website of traditional media.

Anybody who Tweets or blogs or posts photos about a newsworthy event they've seen or are part of are being citizen journalists, yet the term doesn't quite fit them. They're involved with the journalism process even if they don't necessarily know it at the time.

For me, traditional media and citizen journalists have, for the time being, reached a reasonably happy medium. It will change. Things always change, especially when the web's involved. Who knows, perhaps it will move closer to the traditional view of a citizen journalist. Perhaps it'll shoot off in a completely different direction. Perhaps not.

But for the time being, we're all now part of the newsgathering process, whether we like it or not, a journalism s a lot better of for it.