The Oxymoronic Citizen Journalism

17 Comments

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This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

17 Comments

Aleem Bawany

> First, would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t.

That’s an absurd analogy.

Journalism is not the same as engineering or medicine. Nearly everyone can give a speech and write. That’s why you have millions of Bloggers but not millions of hobbyist surgeons. In fact, citizen neurosurgeons don’t exist and they never will.

Martha Lorini

I don’t know about all of you commenters, but I don’t have the time to investigate whether or not CT Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has been lying about his military service in Viet Nam, to cite but one recent example of the important service performed by good journalists. I don’t have time to crowd source the Gulf oil spill and separate wishful thinking from fact. So I rely on particular sources of information that have tended to produce reliably and accurately the news that is most important to me. This is what Huffpo has done, too.

If the businesses that support original reporting fail, what will Huffpo and other useful aggregators use for content?

ElSmeds

@JD – I agree wholeheartedly. It’s strange. A seemingly democratic, anybody can write anything, from the people for the people, system, should surely be a good thing. Only the portents are there, as you say, that it is a hellish, algorithm ruled-beast. Yes, the current media is far from perfect, and people like Murdoch hold far too much power. But there is also differing views and debate within, say, the UK’s Times newspaper – it supported the Conservatives in the recent election, yet staff writers happily also wrote in support of the other two main parties. I’d rather an uber-rich Aussie sugar daddy, to a mindless SEO-driven, swaying whichever way the advertising turned media, any day.

@Adrian Short. I see where you are coming from. But you allude to the problem in saying “When that gets sliced away, the rest goes too.” This is one situation where baby and bathwater and inextricably linked. If throw away paid for media, you end up with only bathwater.

Also, you are right to say that many educated people could do a journalist’s job. Of course they can. But the point is it is a job. Or at least, it currently is. You can take many other educated people and plonk them into many other skilled jobs and, with a bit of training, expect them to do a competent job. But… oh, there’s so many points to make here but am aware my replies are getting a bit long… but a profession is something that attracts people, that can inspire people, that people can aspire toward. There would have been no Bob Woodward without the Washington Post. How else would you fund months of secret investigation? There may not have been any Watergate – just Nixon happily in post for a full term, the citizens non the wiser.

And also, to put it emotively, these are people’s jobs that are being lost. Now, plenty of professions become obsolete under the march of modernisation and technological improvement. But I don’t see how journalism is one of them. Filloux’s article make the point that quality is what is ultimately at stake here. Yes of course, plenty of journos also spend their whole lives churning out entertainment drivel. I would argue they’d still do it better than an unpaid writer without the contacts, training, and editing, but that’s by-the-by. But the journos with the time, money, energy, and skills to write incisive, informative, educational, revelatory, inspiring stories, are not moribund. They do not deserve to lose their jobs (nor, for that matter, do the entertainment journos). And if you don’t think they exist, then frankly you’re reading the wrong publications, because I read such stories, by such people, every week. Online, and on paper.

Adrian Short

ElSmeds writes:

“When a profession loses out to amateurs, it loses its quality, and all previous consumers/clients/customers of that profession lose out, and are left to the seek a confusing myriad of alternative services with no guarantee of quality.”

This is the “You’ll miss us when we’re gone” argument.

And in part, it’s true. But only in part.

There are some things that professional journalists do, with the backing of their publications, that probably could not or would not be done otherwise. Would we miss that if it disappeared? Some of us would. I’d be one of them.

But there’s the other side. There’s the fact that most of what “journalists” do isn’t speaking truth to power and doesn’t require a great deal of skill nor massive organisational resources. It’s simply passing on uncontroversial and easily-sourced facts, or it’s purely entertainment.

In this latter category, crowdsourcing and amateur content creators are perfectly able to compete.

The mountains of trivia and the relentless lack of quality across most media aren’t a consequence of the Internet. They were rampant long before its inception. And it turns out that people are more than happy to consume trivia and low-quality material in abundance. They were served it for years by professional journalists and now have no scruples about getting it elsewhere too.

The fact remains that the things that only journalists can do are actually done by them quite rarely. The rest can be done by pretty much anyone with a reasonable education and a computer. The threat to publications and journalists is that this “everything else” — the trivia and entertainment — is very often what pays the bills. When that gets sliced away, the rest goes too.

The answer to this problem doesn’t lie in claiming that what “journalists” do is out of reach to the rest of the population. It’s simply not true. Nor does it lie in attacking amateurs. They won’t go away, no matter what. You need to demonstrate and not just assert your value.

On comments: Some comments are elegant and insightful, some are not. But subject to some basic rules of civility, the nature of conversation is that it’s unmoderated. If someone’s observation extends no further than “This is rubbish”, well, that’s what you get.

If you want to moderate comments to include only those that are elegant and insightful, that’s fine. But you won’t end up with a conversation and you’ll lose all the people that are looking for one.

Richard Sharpe, ETC and UEL

Above typed in haste with usual typos. Does that make me unprofessional? Many editors told me so (and I am sure some subs believedit) but then I was paid. Perhaps it raises the questions of who holds the standards.

Richard Sharpe, ETC and UEL

Journalism is not a profession but a craft. And it has rituals which, just like bloggers and other UGC, which try to keep it and those who perform it on the straight and narrow. There is a strong role for journalism, by those paid or unpaid, in investigation and comment. Investigation is sadly lacking from most of “paid” journalism today: it has become PR churn with the dominant position won by the PR operations. I embrace all journalism which fits my three criteria: exclusive, not just another rehash; original, went to sources and written in an original way; and quality, fir for those viewers/listeners/readers.

I can’t agree that the value of the content is now in the hands of readers, or ever was. Bold statements about the liberation of media (see “We the Meida” by Gillmor, and other publications) have yet to see how the new media landscape results after the thrust of the old media into it.

Some old media willl be left standing and stronger, some new media will become established.

JD

Bravo Frederic. Your column is an excellent summation of the business and editorial challenges facing professional journalism. This is different than defending particular publications, brands or news networks. As usual though, the comments fit a familiar, tired pattern of “new media” snobbery.
Information wants to be free.

-The “establishment” is bad for trying to monetize their investment in news content, because of #1 above.
-New technology democratizes content creation, making professional journalists irrelevant.
-He “doesn’t get it,” and can’t deal with “change.”
-Editorial decision makers are unnecessary, anachronistic gatekeepers.

The process of acquiring information, and writing a news story is not, and never will be, cheap or free. Gotta pay for those costs, and make a little more too. The method can vary-a pay wall, subscription, monthly bill, ads or a combination. Professional editors and journalists do tend to have that irritating fascination with “important” stories. You know, the anti-crowd sourced ones that make advertisers shy away from a direct connection. Good luck selling a cross-platform ad package with stories about the widespread sexual abuse and institutional coverup in the Catholic Church. C’mon, step right up agencies! We’ll give you a great rate.

This is not a battle to “save” current stakeholders in the journalism industry. If you can replicate, or do a better job creating news content and information than what the AP or NY Times does, have at it, and best of luck to you. Blog away fellas, just without links to those dull, fact checked MSM stories, or sans a quick perusal of Google News to “read-in” before starting your work.

In some ways though, the comment crowd is winning. News content was just devalued again this week. Don’t believe me? You can get the info straight from the source, James Pitaro, Yahoo Media VP, who waxes poetic today in another Paid Content story on why they just bought Associated Content:

Now Yahoo can…
-round out content offerings within its own media sites.
-produce content directly in response to audience needs, “which is by the way something we’ve done historically but really will be able to scale now.’
-offering the the ability to get more local.
-providing the infrastructure to build content specifically for advertisers, allowing Yahoo to partner more easily, so the thinking goes, with advertisers and produce branded entertainment at a much lower cost with scale.

I’ll translate:
-Meet a business need
-Give the people what they want, more than Yahoo has ever been able to do before
-Meet a business need, to compete with Google and AOL
-Meet a business need, so we can maximize the ROI on ad packages with content that is plentiful and cheap to produce

Citizen journalists, bloggers, and all creators of content in methods still to be created, rejoice. You’ve achieved your goal. In this model, your work, if not free, is certainly not a profession, or a way to make a living wage. The algorithm will tell you what is popular, so you can crank out more of the same, because popularity=newsworthy. Yes, it always does seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til its gone.

ElSmeds

Initially I was surprised that all the comments left on here were negative about what seemed to be a very sensible, level-headed and well-reasoned article. Then it made sense. The writer’s allusion toward the carelessness of comments left under articles. The hint toward the fact (for it is fact) that the majority of online comments below articles are negative. We hate the media’s ‘build em up, then knock em down’ mentality, but then we – via the ‘peoples media’ of the internet – with a greater ire and bile that would put the UK’s ‘The Sun’ to shame.

I applaud Frederic Filloux’s article. What he says seems obvious. Perhaps his only failing is in not hiding his exasperation that he is having to state the obvious, while many around him are clamouring to forget it. And here it is again, in shortened form:

When a profession loses out to amateurs, it loses its quality, and all previous consumers/clients/customers of that profession lose out, and are left to the seek a confusing myriad of alternative services with no guarantee of quality.

Yes, it’s taking it to far to liken the skill of a journalist to a doctor. But its merely exaggerating the point. Any professional is backed up, to a greater or lesser extent, by training, qualifications, pride in professional standards and ethics, teams, peer advice, management structures and – most importantly – pay.

Adrian Short makes the point, “Deal with that reality or be prepared to be very disappointed.” I repeat it back to you. In a world where the citizen journalist rules, you will be scrabbling round to find the standards of journalism you previously took for granted. All that would happen would be slowly the citizen journalists would have to form together, and collectivize efforts to separate the bad from the good, the more experienced would pass on knowledge to the less experienced, and standards written up to be adhered to, and… essentially, recreate the newspaper industry that took hundreds of years to carefully build up, and could take mere years of short-sighted enthusiasm to destroy.

Unpaid journalism can never reach the same standards as paid, because by the nature of being amateur it can only be fueled with those who have the time outside their normal work, or those who have the money to fund themselves. That is not an ideal world of democratic sharing of ideas and knowledge. That is the opposite.

Just because a journalist has a job at a publication does not give him/her any more right to believe their views are more important than anyone elses. Publications recognise that very fact – in fact, that’s why, in essence, they exist. Remove the publications, remove the professionalism, and we are indeed all free to air our views, all free to read anyones, all free from the tyrany of ‘the media’ – but be very careful what you wish for. It might just come true. At which point, discerning fact from fiction amongst the noisy clamour of amateur writers, would be very hard indeed.

mindctrl

“First, would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t. You would not trust a citizen dentist either for your cavities. Or even a people’s car repairman. Then, for information, why in hell would we accept practices we wouldn’t even contemplate for our health (OK, big issue), or for our washing machine?”

Information doesn’t always depend on a “professional”. Information wants to be free. Its freedom is often denied through the establishment that depends upon its obscurity and distortion for its own power. The establishment dictates the curriculum, what’s safe and what’s not, and the viewpoint one takes when reporting on a specific news item.

No worries though. The establishment is working every angle to reign in the information freedom that exists on the Internet. It’s being locked down with “traffic shaping”, DNS manipulation, application stores which control what people can install on their own devices, channelized content through apps and widgets, pushing for “standards” that are burdened with numerous patent issues, and so forth. The list goes on and on.

You’ll get what you want. It just won’t be what you expected.

milesgalliford

There are outstanding journalists, and very poor journalists. There are outstanding bloggers, and very poor bloggers. Outstanding citizen journalists and poor citizen journalists. The point about online media today is the reader gets to filter and choose what they want to read, and they are getting very good at this role. Quality blogs now have bigger audiences than many national newspapers, whilst poor blogs quickly wither on the vine.

The truth is everyone has a point of view, including journalists and editors, and they select the facts to support what they believe. This article is a good case in point. Today the internet opens that point of view to scrutiny and offers many alternative views. That can only be healthy. On this website, Paidcontent, the comments are often more valuable and insightful than the articles themselves.

Richard Gauthier

Sur l’ensemble des journalistes dans les salles de rédac, combien répondent à la définition du journaliste-filtre?

Alex

“First, would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t. You would not trust a citizen dentist either for your cavities. Or even a people’s car repairman. Then, for information, why in hell would we accept practices we wouldn’t even contemplate for our health (OK, big issue), or for our washing machine?”

To which i say

“Would a court allow a witness to be someone who only heard about the event from a friend, or from a company who has a vested interest in the case? No they wouldn’t, first hand input from a non ‘professional’ or even a child is still going to be a lot better than 2nd or 3rd hand information from a ‘professional’.”

Turi Munthe

I can deal with top journalists bemoaning their fate at the hands of the digital age (they tend not to, having seen how powerful it can be in their hands), and I can deal with real amateurs who claim that getting the idea out (however badly, inaccurately, inarticulately) is better than not.

This article is amazing for being both pompous and amateurish at once.

A single example of Filloux’ journalistic ‘professionalism’ and flair, he writes: “would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t. You would not trust a citizen dentist either for your cavities.”

1. The idea is wrong.

Dentistry is a profession. Journalism is a craft or a trade (with a long tradition of amateurism too – George Orwell, anyone?). I debated against Simon Jenkins, Matthew Paris and a host of the big UK boys last month on this, and even they shied away from talking of themselves as professionals. http://www.intelligencesquared.com/iq2-video/2010/the-future-of-news?SQ_PAINT_LAYOUT_NAME=chapter&start=5522&end=6205&sgmt=51798

2. and the idea isn’t even his!

Just a few examples plucked from the web in no order:
– “Citizen journalism makes about as much sense as citizen dentistry,” Leo Brody, founder of NowPublic.com
http://crowdsourcing.typepad.com/cs/2008/10/the-pitfalls-of.html
– “No one would pay money at a dentist’s office to have a root canal done by a citizen dentist.” Thom Clarke – http://www.ourblook.com/Citizen-Journalism/Thom-Clark-on-Citizen-Journalism.html
– “Morley Safer Trusts Citizen Journalism as much as Citizen Surgery”
http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/272915

But googling ‘citizen journalism dentistry/surgery’, I realise that these days you only really find the cliche Filloux spits out above, in the comments sections (not in real articles, by real professionals).
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2007/feb/15/citizenjournalismbullsht
and
http://techcrunch.com/2009/11/11/paul-carr-debates-jeff-jarvis-about-so-called-citizen-journalists/
and – this one Filloux will love – here a Tweet:
http://newcurator.com/2010/03/you-are-not-a-curator/

So, standards anyone?

The future of journalism, news gathering and publishing, is of course collaborative. From Eye-witnesses to editors, ‘pros’ and ‘ams’ are already working together in the most extraordinary ways to build new and more exciting ways of understanding and reporting news. While the Telegraph threw all their staff (and a reported £90,000 to buy the documents) at the UK’s expenses scandal and trickled out the news day-by-day, you all know what the Guardian did – they gave the reporting job to 27,000-odd ‘citizen journalists’ http://mps-expenses.guardian.co.uk/
Where do you think had the most long-term impact?

The problem with journalism today is obviously not the amazing extra tools now available to it (including ‘citizen journalists’), it’s the broken business models of publishers and editors. Filloux, of all people, should know that.

Adrian Short

As Clay Shirky says, we’re moving from a “filter then publish” model to a “publish then filter” one. It’s not so much about whether filtering occurs but where in the process it happens.

The act of being paid doesn’t cause good quality journalism and increasingly it no longer correlates with it either. It’s about integrity and talent, neither of which are exclusive to professional newsrooms.

Deal with that reality or be prepared to be very disappointed.

2imagine

@Ed Dunn. Agree with you. This article is also completely missing the point of blogging evolving in publishing; the expression of different opinions; platforms now available to express those opinions; the power of social media in breaking news; etc.

Ed Dunn

Looks like some of us cannot come to grip with the change in the air.

Sorry, no matter how you feel about the integrity of published content, the value of content is now in the hands of readers and not in the hands of some editorial department who thinks they can determine what we should be reading or hearing as news.

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