PART I: Rick, read more blogs.
Rick Edmonds, a buddy of mine and Robin’s, takes the nascent “citizen journalism” movement to account in an article for Poynter Online. I’m rather disappointed. Where’s Rick’s typically razor-sharp, data-heavy commentary on the outlook of the journalism industry? This seems like Yet Another Meandering Rant Against Blogs. How could someone so smart produce something so wrongheaded?
I can’t blame Rick at all. His rant reflects how other folks from Big Media — including CitJ triumphalists — have come to view participatory media. And it gives me the opportunity to launch my own rant(s). Sorry, Rick.
Here’s the boldest sound bite from Rick’s piece:
Consistently breaking significant stories is tougher. Sure, there was Rathergate. But what reporting coups have you scored lately, blogosphere?
Well, let’s see what’s up in the blogosphere this week! How about exposing Sony’s distribution of malicious software to millions of unwitting customers? On October 31, a security researcher posts his discovery of Sony’s copy-protection malware on his blog, Sysinternals. The link is e-mailed to Cory Doctorow, who posts it on the über-popular blog BoingBoing, and starts aggregating all the information reported on other blogs about the malware. Before long, Wired magazine’s Dan Goodin calls for a boycott of Sony until the company makes amends, and several parties launch lawsuits to force the company to change its behavior. Amazon.com recalls all the infected CDs, offering full refunds to customers.
Maybe Rick hasn’t heard of this. Maybe most people haven’t, given that it’s been picked up rather half-assedly by the big dogs. But it’s a story with very real consequences for millions of people, most of all Sony, which will have to pay at minimum tens of millions of dollars to deal with the fallout. It’s a fantastic thing that bloggers caught onto this before malicious hackers did. And unlike Rathergate, this story wasn’t even started on blogs, then advanced by the journalism industry. All of the significant reporting in this case took place on blogs.
But you’d never know this if the only blogs you read are political blogs or blogs about the media, which I suspect may be the reason for Rick’s blind spot:
It is hardly original to observe the deep affinity of the blogging form with let-me-vent opinion riffs and back-and-forth, so’s-your-old-man exchanges.
It’s also hardly accurate and hardly perceptive. I follow about 170 feeds in my RSS reader. (Oh, be quiet. My 170 feeds are more informative and more manageable than that giant, ink-besmirched newsthingie you have coffee with every morning.) Perhaps five of these feeds are from blogs prone to feature “let-me-vent opinion riffs” or “so’s-your-old-man exchanges” with any regularity. (Those would be the five political blogs that comprise my list, so for me, even that critique is valid only if you can apply it to the work of Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, Mark Kleiman or the folks at Crooked Timber or Arts & Letters Daily.) The vast majority of the blogs I follow feature commentary and reporting on the media, technology, and gay culture, or interesting briefs on places and people I care about. And the vast majority of blogs fall into that latter category.
PART II: Quoting people ≠ “citizen journalism.”
But none of that gets to what I think is Rick’s core argument, about the limited usefulness of citizen journalism. Rick describes several examples of what he considers “citizen journalism”: first-hand accounts from the tsunami in South Asia, photo-phone images of the London bombings and Hurricane Katrina, blogs by soldiers and others on the ground in Iraq.
Except wait a second. None of that stuff is actually new. At all.
For at least as long as newspapers have existed, they have incorporated material from non-journalists into their pages. Most commonly, this is done with spoken quotations, which appear in most articles and broadcast reports by professional journalists. Very often over the last century, news outlets have also included photos and video taken by non-journalists to complement their reports. This has become more common as the ability to capture and distribute multimedia has proliferated. It is, however, nothing remotely new.
Especially in times of war and other disasters, it has also been typical of news outlets to publish extensive first-hand accounts of ongoing events. This is at least a century-old practice, although having been freed from space constraints by the Internet, news outlets today can publish even more extensive accounts (e.g. with blogs).
Perhaps news outlets using people’s photos and videos and first-hand accounts is something revolutionary. But if so, that revolution happened a hundred-odd years ago. Slapping the term “citizen journalism” on it isn’t doing these age-old practices any favors. Especially if it’s just giving you license, as Rick does, to conflate these practices with efforts that have very little in common with them.
What Cory Doctorow and the folks at BoingBoing did with the Sony rootkit story isn’t remarkable because it’s “citizens” doing journalism. It’s remarkable because it’s distributed journalism. It is the work of dozens of people, each committing a few small acts of journalism — one person reporting one fact, another person reporting another fact, another person verifying those facts, and yet another person pulling that work into a concise account.
Wikipedia, as we all know, works entirely on this model as well, and that’s why it’s so awesome. (Although sure, it’s got a few years left before it’s quite as awesome in some respects as the Encyclopedia Britannica.) This is the model behind Rathergate, Thurmondgate, and every other giant “citizen journalism” phenomenon we’ve heard about.
As Dan Gillmor said, distributed journalism isn’t new either. It’s just that the Internet is hands-down the best platform we’ve ever had for accomplishing it. But Big Media has absolutely not caught on to that. Which leads to points like the one Rick makes here:
This was to be a breakthrough year for citizen journalism. It is the subject of deep-think conference after deep-think conference.
Was Cory Doctorow at any of the deep-think conferences Rick’s talking about? Has Rick ever met Jarah Euston? Hell, no. They were too busy incorporating deep, useful journalism into their everyday lives and interests. All this “breakthrough year” and “deep-think conference” hooey has been, by and large, the same old big media bigwigs blabbing at each other about how to appropriate quasi-participatory impulses for their purposes. “Let’s harness the wisdom of crowds!” they say. “Let’s take this rising chorus of scattered voices and bring them all together to … each write their very own news story!!!”
Up next: PART III: In which I agree with Rick.