On citizen journalism

Before I start, I just want to share my favorite journalism story.

Back before Al Gore invented the internet, a young writer named Kurt Vonnegut (maybe you’ve heard of him) got a job at Sports Illustrated. His first assignment was to write a story about an equestrian event. Vonnegut thought and thought and thought, wracking the brain that would later bring us Slaughterhouse Five, but for about an hour, he could think of nothing.

Finally, he punched a few words into the typewriter and stormed off.

The editors and others in the newsroom hurried over to see what Vonnegut had written:

“The horse jumped over the f—ing fence.”

I really do love journalism, and I felt I had to share that story. I recently decided that I will leave the biz, at least temporarily, in the fall to go back to school for a teaching credential. This was a very hard choice. Journalism is something I have loved my entire life, since the first time I picked up a paper to check the NFL scores way back in my childhood. There’s just something magical and enchanting about a newspaper. It’s handing you the events of the entire world, neatly folded and with pictures.

Even if you saw a game or was at a politician’s speech, there’s some sort of Christmas present-like anticipation of “Hmm, I wonder what (writer) will say?” At least, for me. I loved reading stories to experience what I didn’t see on TV. To hear what I couldn’t hear on radio.*

*Yes, I know, this is starting to read like “Old man Lafferty shakes fist at…” Just go with me.

The final paper I wrote before I left San Diego State University was somewhat of a medical diagnosis of the journalism industry. The prognosis? Grave.

I paid $7.98 for my lunch a while ago — three zesty chicken strips, fries and a Diet Pepsi at the on-campus “Sunset Strips” restaurant. For nearly that same price, I could’ve bought a ticket on the sunken ship that is journalism. At the close of the market on December 17, 2008, the stock of media giant Gannett Company, Inc. (which owns USA Today and many other daily newspapers) was worth an unlucky $7.77 per share. In February 2004, Gannett closed at an all-time high of $88.14 (NASDAQ.com). Gannett, the largest media-based holding company in the United States, is not alone. Numerous publishing companies have seen revenue declines over the past years.

The McClatchy Company, which owns papers such as the Sacramento Bee and the Miami Herald, is at a 16.4% loss this quarter (Yahoo! Finance). Locally, the Copley Press-owned San Diego Union-Tribune has endured continual employee layoffs and buyouts as CEO Gene Bell searches for a buyer. Lee Enterprises, another major media company, almost has the same stock value as a gumball — 30 cents.

The biggest killer to newspapers has been the Internet. In the early days, newspapers struggled with adapting to the online world. They gave their product away for free through the computer, something which makes absolutely no business sense.

For example, take the car companies (people in a comparable position to newspapers right now). It’s like if they would’ve been making hybrids 15 years ago, and then just gave them away. Oh, but that Chevy Tahoe tank? Pay up for that. It seriously boggles my mind how just giving away a premium product which comes with all the bells and whistles while charging for the dinosaur of a print paper was thought of as a good idea.

To quote former journalist David Simon, of The Wire fame:

The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin – namely the newspapers themselves.

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

And the people who made these decisions aren’t the ones paying for it now. It’s the journalists who get paid for 40 hours but work 60 and then get laid off who are the ones really feeling the hurt.

I feel the need to say this once again, but I do still truly love journalism. We were high school sweethearts growing up in small town America. I just think we need some space right now.

So now the problem is that we’ve got all this information out there, but fewer and fewer employed, trained journalists to report it. So let’s do the American thing and outsource it!

“Citizen journalism” is a term that makes me sick to my stomach. Journalists have had schooling, training, practice. Many of us hold to a generally accepted standard of ethics. “Citizen journalists” or bloggers or whatever you want to call them, usually, have not. For some reason, that’s endearing to the public. For the same reason that we love seeing reality TV, it’s like, “Hey! That’s me!” or “Hey, that guy’s just like Jim from the bar!” Americans have a distrust of corporations such as journalism. They think we have a liberal bias or are trying to practice yellow journalism (see if a blogger even knows what that means). They’d rather hear it from someone like them.

Let’s apply this to other fields, shall we?

Say your house is on fire. Do you want someone like you manning the hose, or would you want someone who has been trained and knows what they’re doing?

Say you’re on trial. Do you want someone like you on the defense, or would you want someone who’s at least passed the bar?

Certainly you can find someone non-qualified to do these things for free, but at what cost?

NASCAR and the NHL have allowed “citizen journalists” or bloggers the same access traditional media has. Sometimes, this is great. But what good does it do for anyone to read “The Penguins won 3-2 and Sidney Crosby totally talked to me after the game. Oh man, that was awesome!”?

Last month, my colleague, Tracy Press columnist Jon Mendelson wrote a column about a grumpy old man in Stockton trying to start a citizen militia.

He’s been quoted in the Stockton Record saying “Who’s going to stop us?” arguing it’s his constitutional right to form a militia. He’s even intoned that his group could oust the elected City Council and impose martial law upon the city, should he be sworn in along with the 270 people he claims are interested in his concept,

A semi-organized collection of volunteers taking the law into their own hands and launching a possible coup while armed with high-powered rifles. What could go wrong?

What scares me is this man is laughed off as insane, while the concept of a citizen journalist is becoming more and more accepted.

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3 thoughts on “On citizen journalism

  1. Justin:
    This is wonderful, truthful and sad. It sounds like the rough draft of an obituary.

    I am not against change. I believe in it. I also feel sad when something of great value dies. That is not good change. Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

    I wish you the best in teaching.

    – A citizen journalist seeking to be a professional

    1. Oh, Mike. You are not one of the “citizen journalists” that I’m talking about. You’re above that. We aren’t relying on you for news, nor are you trying to take my job… right? Thanks.

  2. Such a well-thought-out commentary, Justin. I look forward to reading your next post .I’m so proud of whatever you do. If you became a teacher, you’d have so much to impart to your students.

    – jenn 🙂

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