With Liberty and Bylines for All

Generally lost in the blog chatter and media pontification about the Internet’s impact on journalism have been the voices of actual media activists who are less concerned with destroying the corporate media than with building grassroots networks which rely on the voices of “citizen journalists” to tell the stories which affect their lives.

The first stirrings of this movement have begun popping up in various articles over the past few weeks. Taken as a whole, these experiments are in their own way beginning to alter news coverage at the local level — but it’s doubtful that reporters at the big papers will start looking over their shoulders any time soon.

The Wall Street Journal online covers the local angle today in a story about a number of small, regional newspapers that have begun allowing readers to submit stories and photos to be vetted by editors and posted on the papers’ Web sites.

More ambitiously, next month will see the launch of YourHUB.com in the Denver area. A project of the Rocky Mountain News, the site is to be “built by the people in metro Denver,” according to its current holder page. How it will work is this: Neighborhoods throughout the Denver metropolitan area will get their own YourHUB sites, “featuring stories, photos and events posted by others in their community.” Over the summer, a weekly “YourHUB.com” section will run on top of editions of the News and Denver Post, featuring editors’ picks of the best stories posted to the site.

More ambitious than even this project is the nationwide network of 6,000 local news sites, GetLocalNews.com, which recently announced that the company “will pay writers half the net ad sales their stories garner.” At between $2 and $5 per 1,000 page views, though, it’s unlikely anyone will be quitting their day job. (The top site in the company’s network currently racks up about 500,000 page views a month.)

While a look through some of the stories these outlets have run so far reveals that many read more like Penny Savers than newspapers, it’s a start. Some of the contributors, however, are convinced that they could replace professional reporters on a moment’s notice. The Journal quotes one Caroline Reid, a contributor to Bakersfield, California’s Northwest Voice, who “rejects the suggestion that readers can’t produce the kind of work that professional journalists turn out. ‘I don’t think there’s a reporter at the Californian that has any better skills or writing than I do,’ she says. The daily newspaper, she says, is riddled with ‘misspelled words, poor grammar and unflattering pictures of people.’”

The voices of citizens are a welcome addition to the public sphere, but there’s more to journalism than just proper diction and syntax, or running flattering photos. That, of course, is the essential foolishness of the bloggers vs. journalists debate — bloggers will never replace journalists, but they can add to the debate.

Citizen Internet journalism is in itself a bit of a chimera. The Internet is not yet the great leveler some might claim it to be. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, at the end of 2004, 120 million Americans were online — about forty percent of the total population. So while anyone can walk up to a newsbox, drop in two bits, and pick up the local paper, it takes a considerably larger investment to check the local news online — whether the content was written by a civic-minded citizen journalist or not.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.