Technology continues to have a profound impact on the future of media, and citizen journalism is increasingly becoming the elephant in the newsroom. Online news is crippling mainstream media and giving people the power to report the news as they see it.This article is the first in a three-part series discussing the future of journalism, and credibility of both mainstream and citizen journalism. Part 2 of the series, titled "In mainstream media we trust?" can be found here. Part 3 of the series, titled "Is there credibility in citizen journalism?" can be found here. You may also want to set a DigitalJournal.com News Alert for future coverage on citizen journalism
"I believe [the mainstream media] are scared," Stephen Dohnberg says bluntly. "They are still staffed by many who don't want to make the adjustment, and the economic meltdown perpetuates fear and blame. It's as simple as that."
Dohnberg is a journalistic hybrid, wearing one hat as a mainstream journalist and the other as a citizen reporter. He bounces back and forth in the day, from physical to virtual newsroom. One day he's doing a call-in show on CFRB, a large radio station in Toronto, and the next he's online writing about street protests in the United States. At a news event, he's the guy with multiple cameras, notepads and video cameras hanging around his neck.
Dohnberg is part of a growing segment on the Internet who have taken it upon themselves to report or cover the news. Whether you call it citizen journalism, participatory journalism or just plain blogging, the numbers show a growing trend. And the media industry is figuring out just what its future holds.
A magazine newsstand
Media, by the numbers
A recent report in the Wall Street Journal says more Americans are now making their primary income from posting blogs online than those who work as firefighters or computer programmers. In total, almost 1 per cent of Americans make at least some income online, and more than 20 million Americans are blogging.
While online media is growing, the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media 2009 report shows a grim future for mainstream outlets in the U.S. According to the report, newspaper ad revenue has declined 23 per cent in the last two years; some papers are bankrupt while others have lost 75 per cent of their value; and as many as one in five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 are now unemployed.
In television, local TV staff are being cut and revenue fell by about 7 per cent in an election year (2008), something Pew called "unheard of." In network news, revenues are falling despite climbing ratings for some programs.
So where is everyone going for their news? Online, according to the Pew Research Center. "The number of Americans who regularly go online for news, jumped 19 per cent in the last two years, according to one survey; in 2008 alone traffic to the top 50 news sites rose 27 per cent," the report says.
Furthermore, the Center for the Digital Future also reported (opens in PDF) that 22 per cent of Internet users said they stopped their subscriptions to a newspaper or magazine because they could get the content online.
Old media too slow to the action
Courtesy Dan Gillmor
Dan Gillmor is a citizen journalist's mentor: he runs the Knight Center. authors books on grassroots journalism and speaks around the world on citizen media
The print medium is slow to react to recent bad news. "I think technology and the democratization of media has changed traditional journalism not quickly enough for my taste," says Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, a joint project with ASU Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Gillmor is also director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University.
"It’s tragic, in my opinion, that they’ve waited so long," says Gillmor in a phone interview. "Separate from the business issues, but not completely separate, more could have survived had they evolved."
The new media expert said he's not sure why mainstream news outlets haven't incorporated more technology and the Internet into their reporting. He guessed that it's because the news market is often suspicious of its audience rather than recognizing it can be integral to everything. "There’s been an arrogance built up over years of monopoly and oligopoly practices and many other factors," he says.
Paul Knox, chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, doesn't think new media is going to be the nail in the mainstream media's coffin. "[Mainstream reporters] have to figure out a way to make social networking applications and tools part of their newsgathering system and to really deal with whatever comes down the pipe in terms of new applications and incorporate it," Knox says in a phone interview. "The other challenge is to maintain the standards of fact checking and verification, writing and editing and presentation that have really stood the test of time."
When asked if Ryerson's journalism program teaches anything about citizen journalism, Knox laughs. "It’s a bit of an oxymoron, teaching citizen journalism to journalism students," he says. "By definition they’re not any old citizens. I don’t know how one would go about designing a course on citizen journalism. I personally think there’s a lot that is not new about citizen journalism. The only thing that’s new is the part that’s not really journalism."
Photo by DigitalJournal.com
Students leave the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto.
While Ryerson's journalism program doesn't teach citizen journalism specifically, students are taught about trends in the news media, which include social networking and blogging. Students are also encouraged to incorporate them into reporting projects; Ryerson's master's program in journalism included a project where students covered a news story as it would be reported in the digital world.
"They used the Mumbai terror attacks and saw how they could use crowd-sourcing and social media tools to cover an event like that," says Knox. "Some of the applications would be described as citizen journalism. They had effectively tried to set up a model whereby you could aggregate as much chatter on an event as possible, but set up quality-control mechanisms to identify what had been independently verified and what hadn’t been."
Not everyone believes new media has the power to kill off or slow down the Fourth Estate. In an article published by Canwest News Service, William Wray Carney argues the opposite, saying "new technology does not replace existing technology, it actually seems to stimulate its growth."
Carney gives the example of computers: They were supposed to create a paperless office but instead they increased paper consumption. Carney also points out newspapers have reasonable room for future optimism, saying "...their financial troubles relate to high debt, not lack of profit, and once the recession ends, they can reasonably expect to increase profit."
Carney says surveys show newspaper readership increases with age. "Who else but a retired senior has the time to read four to six newspapers every day?" he asks.
Future of media about more than just technology
Photo courtesy Mathew Ingram
Mathew Ingram is a blogger and Communities Editor at the Globe and Mail.
In addition to harnessing the power of the Internet, Mathew Ingram, blogger and Communities Editor at the Globe and Mail, says traditional media outlets need to include content from third parties to beef up coverage of news events.
"I think 'citizen journalism', or what some people are calling 'participatory journalism', can be a very powerful tool, particularly when it involves eyewitnesses to a news event," says Ingram in an email interview. "I'd like to see publications like my own make it easier for people to submit eyewitness reports of all kinds particularly from mobile devices."
Ingram believes eyewitness reports and other methods of citizen journalism have the potential to expand the breadth of journalism that can be done, particularly when the media industry is cutting back on staff. "The more people there are reporting a story, the better picture we will get of what is actually happening," he says.
But with third-party content from citizen journalists comes skepticism and the issue of trust, as not all professionals and readers are receptive to citizen media.
Ryerson's Knox says, "I feel that news, to be useful to people, has to be subjected to best-practice and quality-control measures like independent verification, fact-checking, precision accuracy. It has to be written well." He adds that citizen reports shouldn't be motivated by anything other than the audience’s need to know what’s going on in their society. "Who knows if citizen journalism is that, or something else."
David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun writer and the creator of the HBO series The Wire, is wary of the credibility behind citizen media. He told a Senate sub-committee recently "I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes that American institutions as insulated, self-preserving, and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures, and chief executives can be held to [account] …by amateurs, pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information."
Ingram said that knee-jerk reaction is expected. "Many journalists feel threatened already by the fragility of the industry, and see 'citizen journalists', rightly or wrongly, as competition."
While some mainstream reporters remain skeptical of citizen journalism and its participants, the flip side is also true, especially in the U.S.
“The State of the News Media 2009”, an annual report on American journalism, has just been released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism of the Pew Research Center, a nonpolitical, nonpartisan research institute.
According to the report:
The public retained a deep skepticism about what they see, hear and read in the media. No major news outlet – broadcast or cable, print or online – stood out as particularly credible. There was no indication that Americans altered their fundamental judgment that the news media are politically biased, that stories are often inaccurate and that journalists do not care about the people they report on. And, perhaps paradoxically, a public that said it relies to a large and growing extent on the Internet for news gave it particularly low marks for credibility.
A decade ago, more than 40 per cent of Americans said they believed most or all of the reporting from mainstream sources, according to the Pew Report. That figure has been declining since then.
So what is the future of media when citizen journalists remain skeptical of the mainstream media, and mainstream media remain skeptical of citizen journalists?
This article is the first in a three-part series discussing the future of journalism, and credibility of both mainstream and citizen journalism. Part 2 of the series, titled "In mainstream media we trust?" can be found here. Part 3 of the series, titled "Is there credibility in citizen journalism?" can be found here. You may also want to set a DigitalJournal.com News Alert for future coverage on citizen journalism