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Where Did "Citizen Journalist" Come From?

I had a call last week from a researcher for a big-name journalist, asking a question about the expression “citizen journalist”:

I am primarily interested in finding who coined this term and when it
entered the mainstream media. If you are not sure of the exact timing of
the coinage, I am still interested in when you first heard the term “citizen
journalist” or any other relevant information on this topic. Any insights
you have would be greatly appreciated.

It’s a great question. I don’t have a great answer.

I sent out a Twitter Tweet asking for ideas. One person shot back, Ben Franklin. Certainly Franklin was one of the first to *be* a citizen journalist…

There’s a lot of history, including recent history, to examine. Let’s look, for example, at some newspaper databases — keeping in mind that most newspaper archives went online in this way only in the 1980s. (This has led to the modern journalistic failing, exhibited in this posting, of imagining that the world began roughly in 1980…)

A query on “citizen journalist” in NewsBank turns up a piece by the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Klobuchar, “Work won’t be as lively without her,” dated October 12, 1988. Writing about a colleague, Barbara Flanagan, he said:

As a newspaperwoman, she been a welcome guest in hundreds of thousands of homes for a quarter of a century and as a citizen-journalist she has been a force for good in her community just as long.

I like that. A “force for good in her community” is a high achievement for any journalist.

Jumping ahead to 1995, NewsBank turns up an AP article about Sarah McClendon, who said:

“I’m a citizen journalist ,” she explained. “It means I am trying to do my journalism with the idea in mind I am seeking to give more information to the people of this country for their own good.”

I like that a great deal, too, even with the eat-your-spinach element, because in the end journalism is about giving each other more information for our collective good.

Some people have conflated “civic journalism” with “citizen journalism.” The expression “civic journalism” (also called “public journalism”) was coined in the late ’80s and early ’90s, by Jay Rosen, Jan Schaffer and several others. It connoted the idea that media organizations would help set community agendas in more explicit ways than in the recent past. In a sense, today’s citizen journalism is the outgrowth of this.

What became known as citizen journalism is the result of the digital era’s democratization of media — wide access to powerful, inexpensive tools of media creation; and wide access to what people created, via digital networks — after a long stretch when manufacturing-like mass media prevailed. Blogging was one of the first major tools in this genre.

As I noted to the researcher who asked, not all citizen media is citizen journalism. Most is not.

As to who coined it first in its current, digital-age meaning, or at least came closest, I’m not sure there either. But I’d start with Oh Yeon Ho, founder of Korea’s OhmyNews, who said back in antiquity (2000) that “Every citizen is a reporter.” Mr. Oh is one of the real pioneers in this arena, as we would all agree.

Again, I suspect someone else was ahead of him, even in this context, because I’ve learned never, ever to say someone was first, at least not when I don’t know for sure.

Of course, there’s a debate about whether “citizen journalism” is an expression we want to use in any case. I strongly believe we do, even though non-citizens of specific places can do journalism and participate in media — and they should — just as much as anyone else. My view of it is citizenship at two levels. I am a citizen of the United States, and proud of that. My journalism will, I hope, help fellow Americans. I am also a global citizen, as in one of the dictionary definitions of the word: “an inhabitant, or denizen” — of planet Earth.

That debate is really a topic for a separate post. The most important thing to remember is the democratization that makes it possible for anyone to be part of the journalistic ecosystem. Increasingly, I believe it’s a civic duty, if such an idea still has meaning.

Meanwhile, if anyone has citations of “citizen journalist” prior to 1985 — surely there are lots of them — post them below or shoot me an email. Let’s try to track down the earliest references.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen is trying to nail down a definition for the expression “citizen journalist” here.

10 Comments on “Where Did "Citizen Journalist" Come From?”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jul 14th, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    From the Web 2.0 “Devil’s Dictionary” for “citizen journalist”:

    definition: “unpaid freelancer”

    Note the 1988 and 1995 citations are NOT using “citizen journalist” in this “unpaid freelancer” sense of the term, but as “civic-minded professional” (as opposed to “stenographer” or even “muckraker”).

    Conflating these meanings would be emotionally manipulative marketing, but then that’s what drives hype 🙁

    Other definition: “person who wants to have things both ways, by claiming all the privileges which attach to the role of “journalist”, while disclaiming all the responsibilities and rules which constrain that role, saying they are a “citizen””.
    [And let’s not be stupid – socially, all of those privileges and rules exist]

    Citizen-journalism’s rulebook

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Jul 14th, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    If this was Slashdot and I was a comment moderator I’d rate that one a 5 (Funny)…

  3. #3 Jon Garfunkel
    on Jul 14th, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    yeah, “mega-dittos” to Seth! Well said.

    I’ve tried asking Jay before about drawing a line from the “public journalism” of the 90’s to the “citizen journalism” today. As in the BBC interview (which he links to in his blog post), he’s hesitant to connect these dots directly. Yes, they both are journalism reform movements, but I think that the PJ movement had been about journalist-as-citizen and not the other way around.

    And it’s another question whether CJ is any better than PJ at mitigating the “horse race” narrative in political journalism. The highlight of CJ during the primary campaign was Mayhill Fowler’s taping of Obama’s “bitter” remark. Which, when you think about it, was just another gotcha moment– one around a comment asserting that some segment of the citizenry described as a stereotype.

    I heard David Remnick defend the cover of The New Yorker on NPR this afternoon. He weakly explained that this was a nod to journalistic “balance” (think of all the anti-Bush covers!) But if he (or the illustrator, Barry Blitt) wanted to knock Obama, they could have tried to make some visual pun about his wiretapping vote and his apparent tone-deafness towards his supporters who opposed said vote. But wait… isn’t that still rather obscure? In 2008, meme of Obama-is-Muslim (fanned by cable news) is vastly more well-known than any CJ-inspired work on FISA.

    so it goes.

  4. #4 The Citizen of Citizen Media « gonepublic: philosophy, politics, & public life
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  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Jul 16th, 2008 at 8:44 pm

    Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week 🙂

    By the way, Google News archive shows an 1851 New York Time citation for “citizen journalist” in the sense of professional journalist who is civic-minded.

    But the answer is, fittingly, … Matt Drudge!

    There’s lots of 1998 citations like:

    “The show will include weekly commentaries by self-described “citizen journalist” Matt Drudge.”

    That’s obviously the have-it-both-ways sense.

    And it’s clear how the unpaid-freelancer sense evolved out of that , with blog-evangelism, though there’s no obvious source in the news archives.

  7. #7 Delia
    on Jul 16th, 2008 at 10:45 pm


    Some people (French) thought the two concepts were pretty much the same, that “citizen journalism” is just “public journalism” in the internet age… I suppose not particularly flatering to Jay:)


    P.S. Here is a translation I did for Jay (and his readers) back in 2006:

    P.P.S. his blog was pretty decent in terms of topics, just a bit much to take on the personal level (way to much pointless bickering…) D.

  8. #8 sheri
    on Jul 25th, 2008 at 2:33 pm


    i’m not sure of the origins of citizen journalist, but if you are creating a timeline of citizen journalism, i would place indymedia, the global grassroots media network (, in your chronology before ohmynews. wikipedia includes it as part of their entry: one important distinction for inclusion in this history is that indymedia was one of the first to take citizen journalism to the movement level. that in and of itself is news. adbusters did a big story in early 2000 about indymedia and everyone being a journalist. be the media! indymedia also brought together the streams of independent media, citizen journalism, open source and open publishing. this convergence preceded blogging and launched a powerful movement and inspiration for other projects to flourish.

    thanks for the good work.


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    on Jul 29th, 2008 at 1:38 am

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    on Aug 14th, 2008 at 2:00 am

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