Lots of people walk through the doors of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism every day. Just this past month, some of them have included Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter Ian Johnson; Mark Halperin and John Heileman, co-authors of the best-selling non-fiction book Game Change; Steven Berlin Johnson, co-creator of the hyperlocal site Outside.In; and John Ciampa, a thirty-seven-year-old former cement truck driver who is trying to remake himself as a professional blogger and citizen journalist.
Ciampa makes ends meet by working side gigs as a stagehand, and he was on Columbia’s campus recently setting up the massive tents, bleachers, stages, and video screens for the university’s graduation ceremonies. He stumbled into the journalism building during a break, looking for someone to interview for professional journalism tips to publish on his forthcoming Web site, which will be dedicated to teaching people how to be—in Ciampa’s words—“street journalists.”
Here was a real, live citizen journalist: a guy full of ambition, enthusiasm, and, it turns out, pretty good news instincts; creating his own media presence all without much formal training or outside help. In a building full of professionals who worry constantly about the future of journalism and their ability to carve out a living in it, he was practically a mythical creature—a sort of phenomenon everyone speaks about in hushed tones but that few had ever glimpsed up close before.
A Long Island native who now lives in Astoria, Ciampa walked in the door wearing black Adidas track pants, a black hooded sweatshirt, a baseball cap, and—like any good blogger—clutching a paper cup of Starbucks coffee. Online, he identifies himself like this: “John Ciampa is a professional Blogger, Citizen Journalist, self-taught marketing person and Eagle Scout. He is actually the perfect example of the American entrepreneur and inventor.”
Ciampa says he got interested in blogging after reading a CNNMoney story about how blogging was “the next big thing.” He took it to heart, and started a blog about snowboarding. In the days before FCC disclosure regulations, he parlayed that site into a stay at Whistler Blackcomb for him and ten friends, with a heli-skiing outing thrown in, all in exchange for writing about the experience. He then became interested in search engine optimization after starting a fashion blog for his twelve-year-old niece. “FashionExpert.com” was taken, so he called it FashionExpertGirl.com. Now when you Google “fashion expert,” his niece’s blog and her critiques of Disney Channel actress’s red carpet outfits, as well as her take on New York Fashion Week looks, appears on the first page of results.
Three years ago, he started Bloggersschool.com (Tagline: You have a voice! We teach you how to use it), a Web resource full of podcasts and blogging tips on everything from how to use Wordpress and keyword your site so it rises to the top of searches, to how businesses can take advantage of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. Using the Bloggers School name, Ciampa and his business partner/fiancée, Carolina Frederico, consult with other businesses—including a Greek gyro shop in Astoria called BZ Grill and a florist in Ozone Park called A Little Shop of Flowers—on how to cultivate their Web presence, for a fee. They also hold a real-life class each month to teach mid-career types, business owners, and hobbyists how to create an online reputation that promotes their brand or expertise.
Now his fiancée, a former journalist from Brazil, helps him run all aspects of Bloggers School. (It was her idea to start the citizen journalism site.) The two met when Frederico was waitressing at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen; Ciampa approached her after he saw her speaking to three different tables in three different languages. “He said, ‘I’m a blogger.’ I never heard anybody introducing themselves as a blogger, because a lot of people have blogs but don’t introduce themselves as bloggers,” Frederico remembered.
She checked out his blog, he checked out hers (written in Portuguese about sex and dating) and a bond was forged. Her first impression: “This kid has a lot of good stuff, but punctuation—and English is not my mother language—I was like ‘Wow, this could be much better.’”
But Frederico said she saw a spark of journalistic talent, and it was Ciampa’s excitement for finding stories that inspired her to create a Web site to teach everyday citizens the principles of journalism. “He has the eye for the story,” Frederico said, remembering a time when, on the way to the LaGuardia Airport, he pulled over to document the damage caused by a plane engine that fell from the sky onto an industrial area, and was able to interview people at the scene along with the professional journalists there.
To Ciampa, the difference between telling a story as a blogger or as a citizen journalist is that, “In citizen journalism it’s more street level—you have to have more accountability and you have to have your facts straight,” he said. “I always keep my eyes open to what’s going on.”
Back in November 2008, Ciampa saw an arrest happening on the sidewalk near his home in Queens. One young man was being subdued by a group of five or more officers. Upon interviewing neighbors and the young man’s mother, Ciampa later learned that the man had been stopped for driving without a seat belt and yanked out of his car. But first, Ciampa grabbed his video camera and starting filming the unfolding scene through his window. In the clip on YouTube titled “Police brutality at Ozone Park, Queens, NY”, he can be heard yelling to the police, “You guys are on the Channel 4 news tonight! Word up!”
The footage is shaky—and, because of the large cluster of onlookers and officers obscuring the view, it’s not clear that any actual police brutality is taking place—but it was because of his not-exactly-dispassionate shouting that Ciampa said he couldn’t get the clip picked up by Channel 4, or any local television outlets. He claims that another consequence of his less-than-objective take on the incident was that the arresting officers who patrol his neighborhood harassed him for weeks afterwards.
“I was really angry, which a journalist shouldn’t be,” Ciampa said.
In fact, despite his online claim to be a capital-letters “Citizen Journalist,” he now shies away from the label, though it’s anyone’s to claim. In his mind, he says he hasn’t earned it yet. “He has so many skills as a journalist, a natural journalist, but he doesn’t have the technique,” says Frederico. “You can blog about whatever you want, but only a journalist has a commitment to listen to the other side of the story, to check the facts.”
Ciampa walked into Columbia’s journalism school looking for a “real” journalist to interview about how to do just that. He wanted to get some guidelines on journalistic objectivity, so that he could publish them on his new Web site. Instead, his cell phone rang after a few minutes and he had to go back to setting up tents. He never made it to a public lecture that caught his eye when he walked in the lobby either – about media law on the Web, and whether, in terms of a shield law, bloggers can be considered journalists. Maybe they are and maybe they’re not. Maybe it doesn’t much matter.
In February, the local news outlet NY1 filmed a Bloggers School class held in Midtown, for a segment on how to improve your job prospects in the tough economy. In the news clip, the reporter’s voiceover intones, “While many bloggers are media professionals, experience is certainly not a prerequisite.”
Cut to Ciampa: “It’s leveled the playing field for people who are different levels,” he says. “If you had money back in the day when the printing press was invented, a select few were allowed to have that printing press because of the cost. Now with WordPress, everybody’s able to put out their own bits of news and that’s what makes it special.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified an incident involving a plane part that crashed to earth as a car crash.
Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.