As citizen journalists begin to create their own news in the vacuum left by mainstream media, experts say journalism students need to prepare for a reality in which members of the press are not the sole purveyors of news.
“This isn’t going away. It’s not a fad,” said Clyde Bentley, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Bentley spearheads MyMissourian, a successful citizen media project.
Throughout the country, pioneers are working to realize the look and feel of journalism’s future. These experiments are alternatively exhilarating and exhausting for the lack of a road map. The projects are attempts at creating inroads connecting news that consumers actually want with engaged readers, and in doing so, they seek to make paths that other media outlets can follow.
Some of the projects are affiliated with university journalism programs; many are not. Some are better funded than others. Some publish online, others in print, some in both. Partnering citizens with professional journalists to create a media product that focuses on hyper-local news and events has many names — citizen media, user-generated content, citizen journalism. But all have at their core a new concept for modern mainstream journalism: the consumer as contributor.
This fall at the University of Kansas, journalism students are enrolling in a novel class in which they will spend time exploring and understanding a small neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan. They will partner with master’s students from the KU School of Social Welfare to learn about the Rosedale neighborhood and how it works. In addition, the journalism students, both undergraduate and graduate, will work with eighth-graders at Rosedale Middle School to create a Web site that tells about the community from the youths’ point of view.
Peggy Kuhr, the Knight Chairwoman on the Press, Leadership and Community at KU, is designing the course. She sees experiments at sharing the information stream with citizens as lessons to students of how critical journalists are.
“Those of us in universities have a responsibility for training for flexibility in the future,” said Kuhr. “What has changed is not that journalism has lost importance; it’s that journalism is so important that in communities that don’t have it, people are creating their own.”
Citizen journalism is so important to the future that the Civic Journalism Interest Group of the Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication voted to change its name to include “Citizen Journalism” in its title.
“These are tried and true ideas that students need to know about. A lot of good journalism is rooted in citizen journalism and civic journalism,” said Jeff South, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and head of the interest group.
“Students need to know about these trends, they need to know the elements of citizen journalism, how these things can further good quality traditional journalism, and how they challenge traditional journalism and raise problems. The students we send out in the real world will be dealing with those kinds of issues.”
However, teaching something that is so fluid and flexible inevitably leads to all sorts of important questions from educators: How do you ensure that lessons to students about accuracy and credibility are not contradicted when opening up the news to untrained citizen contributors? Where do students fit in the newsroom hierarchy of the future? How do you handle an opinion-saturated citizen report on a city hall meeting?
All of these questions are good fodder for class discussions on journalism ethics and good practice. They also force students to broaden their understanding of their own media roles, say citizen media leaders.
Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland, a spin-off of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. She and a selection committee award New Voices grants of up to $17,000 each to launch citizen-engaged media projects. This spring, 46 journalism schools applied, and six of the 10 recipients have university affiliations.
Schaffer envisions many tiers of journalism in the future, with citizen reporters doing “small j” journalism such as meeting coverage, and professional journalists doing the “big j” journalism that involves trend stories and enterprise stories based on ideas perhaps culled from those citizen reports. To round out the layers, add an “elite corps” of opinion writers, narrative writers and investigative journalists.
“It doesn’t mean you don’t cover teaching the police beat. You might think about teaching a grad how to cover it and how would you teach a citizen to cover it,” Schaffer said. “In his next job as editor … he might be doing outreach in the community to recruit community writers and train them.”
Equally important to teaching the basics is the development of entrepreneurial thinking in students, says Schaffer.
“How do you add value? How do you help students scope out a way to provide journalism so you’re not part of the pack? You’re zagging instead of zigging and finding real opportunities to report things that people don’t already know,” Schaffer said.
More than 70 citizens have taken workshops in Madison, Wis., to learn reporting basics such as fairness, accuracy and interviewing as part of the Madison Commons Project. Led by Journalism Professor Lew Friedland and doctoral student Christopher Long of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the project launched a Web site (www.madisoncommons.org) featuring neighborhood news stories written by the program’s students and edited by Long, as well as by journalism students in Friedland’s advanced reporting class.
Both local Madison daily newspapers, The Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal, run neighborhood articles written for the Madison Commons Project in a special joint edition every Sunday.
“The fact that citizens will be doing journalism is the wave of the future,” said Friedland. “This is one among what I hope will be hundreds of experiments that will be emerging toward the end of opening up discussion about public life.”
The lesson to students is clear, says Friedland.
“We’re saying citizen journalism is one current important expression of the way that large-scale access to the Internet is changing the media ecology,” he said.
“The center of thinking within journalism is not completely within the newsroom anymore. The center of thinking about public life — which is essentially what good journalism is — is moving out to hundreds of thousands of people. The Web makes it possible for citizens to think in public together. That is not a fad. That is the underlying reality of the news industry for the next 30 to 50 years.”
Bentley echoes Friedland’s comments that citizen involvement in the information stream is here to stay. So part of teaching citizen media is teaching students to see the role of tomorrow’s journalist in a different way — citizen journalism doesn’t detract from the role of professional journalists, it augments it.
“We as journalism educators have to recognize there is a role in there for trained journalists to facilitate citizen journalism, to monitor it, to use it, to make sure it has a place in the lineup of media outlets,” said Bentley. “Unmoderated, it has some societal challenges — credibility and issues of viciousness. But with the use of journalists, you have closer to what we would call legitimate journalism.”
MyMissourian offers residents of mid-Missouri the chance to write stories about life in their communities with editing help by student editors from the Missouri School of Journalism. The stories are published online and in a weekly print edition that is free to nonsubscribers of the school’s daily newspaper, the Columbia Missourian. The total market coverage edition goes to 23,000 homes.
Bentley’s elective course involves 21 students, mostly seniors. When Bentley asked students for feedback, the top recommendation was to offer the course to underclassmen instead.
“They said it is unfair to teach us all these traditional rules and then say there’s this other way of doing it that doesn’t involve AP style or double fact checking — all these things we push very hard. What they said was this would be better … if we had learned it earlier, and it was one of the tools in our journalistic tool box.”
The students also told Bentley that they learned to talk to people in communities, to find out what is important to them. Developing an appreciation of local news instead of seeing it as trivial is one of the key lessons of citizen journalism projects, say project leaders.
“Students almost had no sense of community. They’ve never owned a house, never taken a kid to a Little League game,” said Bentley.
Barbara K. Iverson and Suzanne McBride of Columbia College Chicago are launching a project to recruit and train neighborhood journalists in central Chicago. Columbia journalism students and citizen journalists will cover everything from school councils to police districts, and their content will be edited by Iverson and McBride as well as staff at a new citizen media start-up called Chi-town Daily News (chitowndaily
“We need to make students aware of what hyper-local news is; we need to sex it up so they see it’s a vital and important part of the traditional journalist,” said Iverson. “We want them to see the stories right in front of them.”
Columbia has more than 600 undergraduate and graduate journalism students. McBride, director of news reporting and writing in the journalism department at Columbia, said the collaboration will give students a publishing outlet as well as providing local news that the large major dailies don’t offer neighborhoods.
While Columbia’s project intimately involves students, the Route 7 Report from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University in Athens, initially is crafted around faculty instead. The school will recruit and train citizens in three rural areas in Southeastern Ohio to produce a monthly newsletter and a Web site to be updated weekly on local news.
But Bill Reader, an assistant professor at Ohio University, says the project will influence students through their instruction.
“This helps us bring back to the school that just because you get a journalism degree and a job with an established media company doesn’t mean you are the only conduit for information. There are different ways for you to get information out to people.”
Dave Poulson is launching the Great Lakes Wiki this fall from Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism in East Lansing. The New Voices grant description sums it up well: “The center will create collaborative wiki entries that describe the problems, cleanup strategies, contaminants, industries, people, health impacts and other issues related to the 43 toxic hot spots in the Great Lakes region. Student reports and research will initially populate the wiki.”
Poulson added that, “The success of the effort depends on how citizen journalists augment and perhaps even change what the students create. Soliciting and nurturing that collaboration is part of the students’ task.”
Poulson, the associate director of the Knight Center, says that even if students aren’t enamored of citizen journalism, they are learning transferable skills for whatever journalism’s future brings.
“We’re going to teach them how to dig out information and how to communicate, and those are good skills in any kind of industry,” says Poulson. “We’ll teach them to be fair and that the world is really complex, and we’ll give them some technical skills.
“I’m not sure I know what’s next in journalism, and I’m not sure I can even conceive of it, but my role is to push budding journalists to think differently so that one day they come up with — ‘Ah! This is where we’re going. This is the next big thing.’”
Sue Ellen Christian is an assistant professor of journalism in the School of Communication at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich.