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What if citizen journalism is just a mirage?

What if citizen journalism is just a mirage?

Let’s look into the abyss for a minute — just as a thought experiment.

As many critics have noted, it’s easy to point your browser at a placeblog, or a pol-blog that sometimes does news, look at it for fifteen seconds, and say, “What a crappy newspaper!,” and hit the Back button.

But to do that obscures almost everything we could learn about placeblogs and pol-blogs, both of which – pol-blogs especially – are having a major impact. (Kossacks raised $56M for these twelve candidates alone).

Question: Are we only interested in placeblogs and pol-blogs to the extent that they mirror traditional journalism? Are we interested in “citizen journalism” in the abstract only to be disappointed when confronted with actual weblogs?

If so, there might not be much to learn. Comparing and contrasting blogs and traditional media might be an intellectual dead end. Judging by the staleness of the conversation surrounding citizen journalism — as exemplified by the repetitive articles on the subject and the small number of examples that are consistently recycled — I’m beginning to believe that it is.

As a placeblogger myself, I don’t look at the site I run and judge it based on whether I think it would be a good newspaper. Placeblogs are about the lived experience of a place, and if we are fortunate to live in a place that isn’t riven by war, famine, or crime, most of that experience isn’t news. One of my favorite illustrations of this is a post that appeared on the community website that I’m the host of. A blogger kept hearing a beeping noise coming from a local elementary school. He wrote, “Does anyone else hear the beeping, or am I crazy?”

Now, it’s hard not to look at an item like this one and not either consider it cute, or sneer at it. After all, if it appeared in newsprint (“Man hears disturbing noise, calls on neighbors to investigate”) it would be pretty embarrassing.
But blogs aren’t newspapers. Cherrypicking the items out of blogs that are pleasing to a journalistic mindset, or sneering at the ones that aren’t, doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding them.

What’s important to understand is that to a placeblogger, such an entry isn’t filler, or fluff: it’s precisely why the placeblog exists – that is, to connect people to each other and to reduce, even a tiny bit, the black-box aspect of our daily life, where we see and hear things and never really find out what’s going on. We’re looking for a connection, with each other and with the world we encounter when we step outside our front door.
Within the hour he had an answer. (He wasn’t crazy, or at least, others were sharing his delusion).

After systematically going through each of the 50 states and finding placeblogs and state-level politics blogs in all of them, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

1. Placeblogs and pol-blogs are not newspapers, and will not evolve into functional equivalents of newspapers.

2. Placeblogs will continue to use the tools of journalism on occasion when it offers a way to create a greater connection to a place or community that couldn’t be attained any other way.

3. Pol-blogs will continue to turn to the tools of journalism to settle arguments by injecting new information into a conversation.

(I’m not a political blogger and I welcome the input of my fellow bloggers for their theory on what motivates some communities surrounding a political blog, or individual political bloggers, to pick up the tools of journalism).
Many people who are serious thinkers about journalism have aired their concerns about placeblogs and pol-blogs. Placeblogs are trivial, it is said, and we are enjoined to be wary of the political bias of people who describe themselves as activists picking up the tools of journalism.

Can bloggers be reformed? Can placebloggers be prodded out of what seems like lassitude into covering serious issues and having a publication schedule? Can political bloggers embrace objectivity?

This is, of course, the kind of thing that drives bloggers mad, because it presumes that bloggers feel that they’d be trading up if they did. One problem: they don’t feel that way.

I think placebloggers and pol-bloggers aren’t going to change; they aren’t going to become more like journalists in mindset, even as they become more skilled in using the tools of journalism.

I think that we (and who do I mean by we, here? I’m not a journalist, haven’t been to j-school, I’m not a journalism professor. I’m hoping that there is a sort of provisional we, between you and me, between we blog kind and you journalist kind, that we have shared interests that may evolve into shared aims. Between flamewars, that is)…I think that we can only learn about these new entities — big thriving online communities aimed at political change or tiny solo blogs devoted to the changes in a rural county over time — by approaching them on their own terms.

Not as “bad newspapers,” but as themselves.

7 Comments on “What if citizen journalism is just a mirage?”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Aug 30th, 2006 at 1:42 am

    Lisa, essentially this piece is going back and forth on the two-step between “hobby” and “revolution”. Here’s a long comment I wrote out elsewhere about a similar two-step:

    For whatever insight it yields, the sort of “Is it a floor wax or a dessert topping?” (both!) argument is one of the aspects I find so frustrating.

    There’s a path which runs:

    1) Blogging is your own unedited voice, your personal spin, the perspective you, yes, you, bring to the universe …

    Well, who in the world cares about my little spin or perspective, beyond a few friends or fans? Why should I spend so much time writing, except as a hobby? And if it’s just a personal hobby, in the same sense of train-spotting or bird-watching, why should anyone care outside of the other offbeat hobbyists?

    [Then we go to]

    2) Blogging is *citizen journalism*, it is We The Media, it is Emergent Democracy, it is the reworking of society itself …

    But it sure looks like the same-old same-old crowd of A-list’ers having the audience, and why should I care that a few pundits and want-to-be-pundits are fighting over the very few available spots? Either you’re part of that network, with all its incestuousness and rivalries, or you’re the equivalent of a guy standing on a soapbox ranting to passers-by, for all the effect you have.

    [Switch! Go back to #1]

    [Eventually, jump out of the loop, to]

    3) Blogging is undefinable, ineffable, outside of time and space. No judgment can be made, because there are no rules to it besides the rules we each make.

    One large reason for this dance is a deep issue as follows:

    a) Many evangelists of blogging want social credentials for the activity as important or significant, and hence appeal to journalism or reporting

    b) When it’s pointed out that very little journalism or reporting is done, the reply is “It’s not journalism or reporting, it’s *blogging*, so none of that applies”.

    c) Given this contradiction, then we go to, if you don’t like it, don’t read it – which is not an answer to the problem.

    No matter how many times this is analyzed, the imperatives above still drive more go-arounds of the issue.

  2. #2 Lisa Williams
    on Aug 30th, 2006 at 9:21 am

    Hi, Seth:

    I love this part: “Lisa, essentially this piece is going back and forth on the two-step between “hobby” and “revolution”.”

    I agree with you that both of these poles are wrong. Do you think the problem is one of capital (social and actual money)? That is, we have a hard time categorizing and examining things that don’t make money (or have agreed-upon “merit”)?

    I’m interested in looking at placeblogs just as placeblogs. Whether they are journalism or not, or whether they are moneymaking enterprises or not, is interesting but not central to me.

    You also say “But it sure looks like the same-old same-old crowd of A-list’ers having the audience, and why should I care that a few pundits and want-to-be-pundits are fighting over the very few available spots? Either you’re part of that network, with all its incestuousness and rivalries, or you’re the equivalent of a guy standing on a soapbox ranting to passers-by, for all the effect you have.”

    I’m most interested in local weblogs. Generally, these aren’t connected to and are almost unknown to the A-list blogosphere, with the exception of about a dozen well-worn examples. They are, if they’re successful, a local A-list. I would agree that such local blogs are gatekeepers in much the same way traditional media are, in fact, I even notice a “dog in the manger” phenomenon where there’s a well-known placeblog that’s done poorly but has established enough barriers to entry that no one is starting up another blog to compete with it.

  3. #3 Josh Kenzer
    on Aug 30th, 2006 at 9:59 am

    I think an interesting point to make – and which you did in a subtle fashion – is that blogging tends to be more participatory. Journalists are always outsiders looking to report on whats going on. They are tasked with finding both sides of the story – at least the good ones try. They can not take a stance, have an opinion and shouldn’t introduce bias. Bloggers can be journalists from this perspective, but they don’t have to be. They are participating in the environment, in the event or in the story. They can give their side of the story, their perspective or their opinion. This is still news worthy. This is still compelling and this is still interesting.

  4. #4 Karl
    on Aug 30th, 2006 at 1:09 pm

    Great post Lisa, fellow placeblogger you 🙂 Good to kick up some discussion here.

    I’m mostly interested in local weblogs as well and I think the questions you posed here are hard to answer definitively. Probably for reasons that Seth suggests.

    I’m under no illusions that Philly Future can be held up as some kind of example where regular citizen journalism takes place. We have interviews posted here and there. Sometimes commentary on the state of affairs in our city. But rarely an indepth piece of writing pulling together a story with context and background.

    Mostly, we serve as a community hub. To surface local conversation and members of the local blogosphere to each other.

    I think it’s for believing that we *don’t* compete with our local papers, that I have been able to act as a bridge in certain conversations involving journalists and bloggers in our town.

    Web media – any web media – is different from static newspaper or broadcast media in some fundamental ways.

    I really do believe that the moment something static, something broadcasted, becomes participatory and networked – it changes into something else – it *becomes* community.

    The very best newspapers have a real relationships with their readers. And if they are to survive in this realm, they will need to translate that relationship here – on the web – and in the process – become thriving online communities in their own right.

    Something to consider here is the big question, “What is journalism”?

    Adrian Holovaty, in a recent interview, broke it down to three things: 1. Gathering information, 2. Distilling information. 3. Presenting information.

    If that is the case, then you will see acts of journalism occuring all over the web, including Placeblogs and Pol-blogs.

    Blogs, whether placeblogs or pol-blogs, shouldn’t be judged as ‘bad newspapers’ – because they are a different animal from them all together.

    And newspapers won’t be simply newspapers anymore once they embrace the web again – as they did back in the mid to late nineties before the crash. There is good evidence here and there that this is already taking place.

  5. #5 Lisa Williams
    on Aug 30th, 2006 at 7:58 pm

    Hey, Karl:

    Yeah, I don’t really feel as though I’m competing with our local paper. It’s not like we’re fighting for market share. My conception of the people who read and participate in H2otown is that there’s two distinct types: people who are local politics junkies and absolutely subscribe to the newspaper, and read H2otown in addition and use it as a watercooler to discuss stuff; and people who have never subscribed to the paper, didn’t grow up in Watertown, and are busy and largely disconnected from the town; H2otown allows them a very easy on-ramp to get more out of the place where they live. These are the people asking the “where can I find a good plumber” or “why is it like this?” or “what is that funny building” question.

    Actually, I suspect some of the latter become subscribers to the newspaper BECAUSE of H2otown, which is a very weird form of competition, if it can be called that at all.

  6. #6 Lisa Williams
    on Aug 30th, 2006 at 8:01 pm

    Josh, I agree that what’s on local blogs is compelling if it’s done well, even if it’s not news.

    There’s also a place on local blogs for static information. One of our most popular items is a series of posts that explain how to deal with trash, recycling, and how to get rid of stuff like furniture or air-conditioners that can’t be left at the curb.

  7. #7 » Blog Archive » links for 2006-09-14
    on Sep 14th, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    […] Center for Citizen Media: What if citizen journalism is just a mirage? “Placeblogs are about the lived experience of a place, and if we are fortunate to live in a place that isn’t riven by war, famine, or crime, most of that experience isn’t news.” (tags: bloggosfären deltagandejournalistik journalistik center_for_citizen_media) Sparat under: Omvärlden/Delicious […]