This is going back a few years, right about the time that the Internets were taking off, though in a very boring, text-heavy direction. (Care to join my listserv, anyone?) Meanwhile, a group of troubled news biz professionals were looking for new ways of covering their communities.
Civic journalists worried that ethics of media professionalism divided the reporter and editor from the ordinary citizen. “In fact,” wrote NYU professor Jay Rosen in the Civic Review, “The isolation of the press from our deepest needs as citizens is currently running the public trust, distorting the news product and corroding the soul of an important institution.”
Some were asking why editors and publishers should be able to set the public agenda instead of citizens themselves. Others lamented the increasing emphasis on celebrity, scandal and tempest-in-a-teapot controversies.
There were some impressive experiments back then in newspapers like the Wichita Eagle, the Charlotte Observer and the San Jose Mercury News. In some cities, local papers teamed up with one of the network television affiliates on ambitious civic journalism projects, combining small and large group community discussions with traditional newsgathering procedures.
The trend was warmly greeted by civic groups and philanthropists, but within the news biz itself there were deep divisions. Some old-timers referred to it dismissively as “civic booster-ism” and worried that public spirited “puff pieces” would take the place of hard charging, shoe leather investigative reporting.
In the end, it wasn’t civic journalism, or any other new idea that transformed the news media. It was technology. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the business model on which any sort of professional journalism—civic, investigative or otherwise-was predicated—was about to implode.
In the end, it wasn’t civic journalism, or any other new idea that transformed the news media. It was technology.
These days, you don’t need a journalism degree or years of experience covering Tuolumne County Water District No. 2 (as I had) to be a reporter or opinion writer. All you need is a laptop, a smart phone or access to a public library with computer stations, a flip camera or a fast internet connection. Mot of all it is the ability to adapt very rapidly to a changing technological landscape.
What economists refer to as the “entry barriers” to media work have been lowered. Not that the barriers have been removed. With new technology come new class divisions between those who do and those who don’t have the basic computer skills, familiarity with new technology and a broadband Internet connection.
At the same time, an increasing number of groups and organizations have formed to bridge the “digital divide” between technological haves and have-nots. (In fact, the fall 2011 issue of the National Civic Review will focus on some of these efforts.
In doing research for the issue, I talked to a janitor in Philadelphia who is learning how to use Windows Movie Maker and Final Cut software to edit videos to document her experiences with media training courtesy of the Media Mobilizing Project. She recently produced an online video about an SEIU local’s efforts to organize security guards. She has also hosted an online talk show on labor issues.
The Renaissance Media Center in San Francisco recently came out with its New Media Toolkit, an-easy-to-navigate website “design for beginners and pros” and “created especially for the ethnic/community media and nonprofits.”
ZeroDivide (formerly known as the Community Technology Foundation of California) has funded a number of projects designed to empower underserved communities with the “power of information and communications technologies.” Gen ZD, for example, is a network of “youth technology users” in underserved communities across the western states. The Tribal Digital Village Broadband Adoption Program is working with Native American tribes in Southern California.
In retrospect, the civic journalism idea may have been something of an oxymoron. It was bucking the trends of contemporary media markets—the winnowing budget for public policy reporting and the increasing obsession with celebrity trivia and scandal-mongering.
But with citizen journalism, we are only beginning to see its potential. It’s a brave new world, and no one knows exactly where it is going. One part of me worries about the blurring distinction between professional and citizen journalism. I have the usual questions: who is going to pay for local investigative reporting? How will ordinary citizens sift through the unmediated mass of true and false information appearing hourly on their computer screens?
Another part of me says, why worry?
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.