Catching up with the citizenry

I’ve been a bit lax in keeping up with the latest developments in what most of us are still calling ‘citizen journalism’ when we really want to say ‘civilian journalism’ to keep the amateurs and the professionals in distinct buckets. Too late.

The pros and the amateurs are partying together, every time a newspaper editor starts paying attention to Dan Gillmor, or a reporter reads We The Media, or a newspaper company reorganizes its newsrooms to point its staffers at the thousands of sources (often referred to as ‘readers’) just waiting to be asked a simple question: What do you know?

Pay attention to this part, pullquoters: I’m not talking about bloggers doing original reporting or ‘civilian journalists’ calling in stories from a disaster scene, I’m talking about journalists who get paid to report the news working together with people who have enough time on their hands to make a few calls, look up a few public documents, or chase down details on a story in their own neighborhood, because they care enough about the topic (or the neighborhood) to lend their time to news gathering.

That’s right, this isn’t about Joe Camera’s snaps of the London Underground getting evacuated, it’s about a thousand Joe Notebooks taking notes in a thousand Underground stations, then reporting back to a group of professional editors on the conditions, the smells, what’s broken and what’s fixed, and how long they had to wait for a train.

Welcome to distributed journalism, as it’s being put into practice at places like Assignment Zero.

When it launched, I quipped that a crowdsourced project on crowdsourcing was ‘a bit meta for my taste’ but it’s working. Hundreds of people are signed up, getting assignments, filling in the pieces of the puzzle, doing interviews, talking to media companies and bloggers and startups and users and readers about what’s working and what isn’t.

I’m not even going to ask where the ‘reader assignment desk’ is at your newspaper. You don’t have one. You should. We all should. When does it start? What’s the first step? If you’re going to get into it gradually, start by allowing reader feedback on news stories. Someone who knows something will say something, and someone else will dispute the point, and before you know it, someone makes a phone call to gather a fact to settle an argument. Hey, that almost sounds like reporting.

Much, much more:

  • Jay Rosen in a short interview with Leonard Witt : “I should not say 700 people are needed to do a simple trend story. We have strong indications that this many are interested in participating. But supposes we wanted to find out what the actual results of No Child Left Behind were. Would you say 700 is too many, or too few?”
  • Knight Citizen News Network launches, with a primer on ‘Principles of Citizen Journalism’: “Professional reporters try to learn as much as they can about a topic. It’s better to know much more than you publish than to leave big holes in your story. The best reporters always want to make one more call, check with one more source.”
  • The next step? New Assignment + Huffington Post = Pro-Am reporting on the 2008 campaign: “So instead of one well-placed reporter trailing John Edwards wherever he goes (which is one way of doing it) some 40 or 50 differently-placed people tracking different parts of the Edwards campaign, all with peculiar beats and personal blogs linked together by virtue of having a common editor and a page through which the best and most original stuff filters out to the greater readership of the Web, especially via the Huffington Post.”

How long will it take newspapers to catch up with this curve? How long will it be before a hyperlocal community site launches in your circulation area and starts asking readers to participate in projects like these at a local level? How long can you afford to wait?

3 thoughts on “Catching up with the citizenry”

  1. I think there will always be print media but it will need to become specialized for Local news only.


  2. Ryan,

    have you ever checked out ePluribus Media ( They do some great stuff!

    Also, take a look at the Daily Hampshire Gazette (–they have most of their stuff behind a paid wall nowadays, but the reporting is, for the most part, and for lack of a better term “hyperlocal.” We *always* know what’s going on, the day it goes on, why and when. and there’s usually follow-up by the same reporter. They’re perhaps the only paper in this region that’s actually *hiring* reporters. And, you know what, the people actually *like* that there are reporters writing the stories. The people just don’t have the time in their days to take on the task of journalism and shouldn’t be compelled to do it.


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