Hanging with the Citj-New Pamphleteers/New Reporters

I had the pleasure of attending a two day gathering put together by Journalism That Matters. This gathering of “new pamphleteers” numbered well over a hundred interested in, what is being called, Citizen Journalism.

Because of my interest in the subject and because of my work with this blog and Minnov8, I was anxious to learn from this passionate group of journalists and community members. In the past, I’ve never considered myself a journalist. However, as I now write more than I ever have, I find I have much in common with those that are members of the press.

This world does offer it’s own verbiage. Hey, no endeavor is complete without its own buzzwords. Citj=citizen journalism, Big J=mainstream journalists. Words that are good; aperture, community weavers, citizen, relationship, ethics, trust, quality, and sustainability. Words that are frowned upon; profit, consumer. Examples of Citizen Journalism include Twin Cities Daily Planet, the St. Louis Beacon, Hometown Focus, The Uptake, and Political Chowder.

This is no ragtag group of ultra liberal, “Hey, the man is keeping us down”, don’t trust big brother types fixated on pushing a similar agenda. These are smart, thoughtful, committed, strategic, insightful journalists concentrating on serving their communities with in-depth stories on the topics that impact those communities. They seek to be a source for the type of journalism that has been replaced in large part by the “nothing but the hits” approach to news that the Big J companies have adopted.

These journalists think nothing of spending days, if not weeks,
researching and reporting on people, places, and things that could have
nothing to do with Iraq, the Presidential race, or Britney. Topics like
the local mayor’s office, a landfill project, or expansion of a local
airstrip are covered just as thoroughly and from a more “how this
affects you” point of view.

The challenges they are willing take on are many. First and foremost,
finding those that want to be part of and use this kind of journalism.
It’s a challenge every service must face…finding an audience. Those
citizens willing to dedicate more of their time to actually learning
from, and participating in, what goes on around us, regretfully, are
fewer in number than their hurry up and just give me the headlines
counterparts. Second, getting that already smaller number to pay
something to be part of it, extracting some form of compensation for
the journalists who seek to serve their communities, is enough to
discourage anyone. Not his group.

The topic of sustainability was always right behind the dedication to
purpose. Right now that sustainability is being satisfied in large part
by grants and private funding. There are those that are finding success
with the business of community journalism, Patrick Phillips of The
Vineyard Voice
in Martha’s Vineyard was happy to share his business
model with all, but in large part the answer isn’t yet apparent.

In fact, Leonard Witt of Kennesaw Sate University, has received funding
to test his Representative Journalism model just south of me in
Northfield, Minnesota. Together with Griff Wrigley and Locally Grown
they hope to be rolling it out within weeks.

An advertising model still presents many challenges. The first is
overcoming the advertiser’s insistence on “tonnage” of audience. There
is still much to be done to convince an advertiser that more is not
necessarily better. The addition of content that may even smack of
being outside the mainstream tends to keep advertisers at arms length.
There are other sustainability systems afoot. They include the obvious
donation and subscription models as well as micro-charging.

What I found most refreshing and compelling is that no matter how many
times the topic of money came up, and it was a lot, it wasn’t long
before the mission of “real” journalism returned to center stage. The
desire to return journalism to its place as part of the checks and
balances that make up a true democracy is the real desire. I even sat
in on a session entitled Democracy 2.0 where we discussed topics like
the crafting of legislation via wiki. Incredible!

Event organizers tell me that these gatherings continue to grow. In
fact, this gathering alone nearly doubled the expected attendance. The
internet is allowing for many industries and endeavors with the allure
of becoming big business to sprout up. The Citizen Journalism movement
is quite satisfied with providing information that the public at large
needs, being that “free press” that sustains a democracy. I for one
would love to see them able to make a living doing it…though I think
that those in this movement aren’t going to let that stop them.