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.