I am writing today in response to some discussions I have been having recently regarding journalism, citizen journalism, and technology. For the most part I am unsure of the stability of the interest in this topic, or more succinctly, if you care about this or not. But, I wanted to write about it, and hope to do more in the future.
What do I think citizen journalism is?
The key to that is the word journalism, and that is important. Journalism is important to this process. When we started CW, we beat on the process for quite some time. Our worst episode happened when we acted outside of our agreed upon checks and balances, and we never did that again.
I have said from the beginning, as have others like Bill Coady, that we want YOU to have the voice. More than that, you do have the voice right now. Right now there are countless places to self publish on the internet with no editorial control, you can just simply hit publish and you are rolling. If your ideas get traction, if you promote, you will find readers. That is what we want for you.
Initially we built a platform that allowed you to have your own blog, your own space, etc. We used a product from WordPress; the product that we developed had a shelf life with the WordPress community, and it was slowly taken offline. During that time we created a plan for what was to come next.
So, after the individual blogs were done we had to come up with an idea. The idea being that we would open the front page up to you. But, with limits. Here is where I get to citizen journalism.
We wanted to have you write, to put your name on things and have you post articles. We wrote blog posts, hit up social media, and all the rest, but we got very little traction. Any time someone came to us I had the same conversation about my expectations. We can do whatever you want, topic wise. But, you are going to work with an editor, you are going to prove it to me, and I will protect the source of the information the same way I hoped you would.
Yes, that is not free. That is not unfettered access to publication. We had that discussion early on as well. I do not mind that we made the decision to have and enforce expectations on you the writer. But, not too many expectations. If you want to write something, if you have a passion and a desire to say something, we are going to find a way to work with you to get that out into the world. We will work with you. Every step of the way.
I put myself through the same process. I work with our editor, who is in fact the greatest editor of all time, to decide what is acceptable for me to say. Not as a protection of me as a person, I do not think she minds when I make an ass of myself at all, but rather if what I write is worth publishing or if it should just remain in Google Drive for posterity and proof of my bad ideas. This has happened at least 10 times, based on the idea I wanted to talk about. She has also made me change things regularly. And just so we are clear, and to be a little bit proud, I do not have to go through with this. I could hit publish without oversight. And I have done that, on a few occasions, but I think for the most part those were time sensitive, and I usually sent her an email. So, I do not have free reign. Ours is a partnership, and I am glad she is strong and capable like she is.
[Even on this article, she sent it back to me for revisions.]
To be honest, hardly any of you went through the process. I used to lament that, and honestly blame it on sorts of conspiracies, used it as another reason to boost my self loathing, and at one point I was actually blaming it on the northern European roots of most of central Wisconsin’s ancestors. I felt bad for a while. The site has floundered. It really has become just me writing stuff, and honestly for a while there I was scared of writing anything at all.
But, we have audience. We have some small influence. I regularly get emails from elected officials, and community leaders about this or that topic or idea. I used to get them a lot more regularly, I still get them but it is a lot less.
When we publish something, it finds traction. It gets a reaction. Sure, the perception is that there is a small, tiny, niche of people who read this page. That is true, and false. If you look at our facebook group, you will see we posed the question about people wanting to get together to discuss the future direction of the city of Wausau, and central Wisconsin. I was surprised at how many people jumped at that opportunity.
But, in the last three weeks a lot of people have spoken to me about citizen journalism. It came out of a media discussion, it has come out of some J school forums, and years ago I wrote a couple of large research pieces about the topic and its history.
Here is what I think, or do not think. I do not think Twitter is journalism, not even citizen journalism. Does Twitter, or really any social media outlet, contain news? Probably. Is there any expectation of anything on social media to be true, or reliable, or anything… no. It exists, words on the screen, on the phone, etc. And those words can be true, or not true, powerful or mundane. They can in fact change the world. But, it is not journalism, I don’t think.
When I started this one of my guilty pleasures was reading great stuff. A secondary pleasure was learning some stuff before anyone else knew it. I do not think I am ever going to lose the love of the scoop.
But, citizen journalism must be journalism. And in my opinion a crucial part of journalism is editing and oversight. Not a lot of us consider the great craft that the trade of editor is. We just see a byline, and assume that is how it burst forth from the mind of the writer. But, few people have that sort of ability, and they tend to be poets or novelists.
What I want from journalism, and citizen journalism is truth and trust. I want to trust that someone knows that what I just read is true. I need to trust it. I trust it because of the editorial process. The subjecting of ones work to prior review. That is what builds trust in me.
Do I believe that things like tumblr, or wordpress, or whatever else are bad? No. I do not need this to be a binary this or that. The reality is that social media drove world change in my lifetime. It continues to do so. Do I think social media lives up to the original idea? No, not even close.
But, I think that you have an opportunity to have a voice. There are outlets who want to work with you as a writer, reporter, etc. They want to foster your voice. We are one of them, to be self serving. But, I think that I want to know somehow that you had to pitch an idea, then you showed it to someone, you could prove it to be true, and you are off and running. You will, over time, earn my faith.
The New Republic is in the front of my mind these days, as Chris Hughes and his crew of people dismantle a storied historic icon. What they hope to accomplish, I have no idea. But, they are clearly interest in reaching an audience.
I am too.
We have always hoped that more people would want to submit stories to us. It has not worked out so well really, but so be it. We are going to keep going as long as we like. Holding out hope that you will want to say something. And, you will choose us to work with. I still hope you do.
So, if you have a passion to say something, to write something down and put it out into the universe for discussion. We want to help you. We will hold your hand every step of the way. Sure, it will not be a piece of cake, but we will stand with you, and help you put it together.
Citizen journalism is not going away; it is just getting better.
Editor’s Note: I’ve been with CW for many, many years, and often I’ve wondered why. It has spent months in dormancy; it feeds on drama; I do not personally have a soapbox. I keep coming back to the idea that Citizen Wausau is a great idea, and I want to be involved in the conversation going on in the community I love deeply.
My purpose as editor is to nurture passion, not temper it (although I do that quite a bit sometimes). I’m disconnected and a little detached from the issues, but I can spot a good or bad argument from a mile away. If you have something to say, I want to read about it. And I’ll help you craft your argument so that it can be as influential as possible.
I’ve learned not to be surprised by the scope of influence that our little blog has on the movers and shakers in the community. Publishing something on CW has more clout than an angry monologue in the WDH comment section that goes away as soon as the buzz dies and a new story is published. The lifespan of a comment is an hour or so. A blog post sticks around longer as is read by more people with more power. That is significant, and it leverages social media in a powerful, less “troll-ish” way.
I hope more of you will connect with us to publish. It’s a process to be sure. An angry fit of keyboard strokes will not be instantly readable by everybody, because that’s not what we’re about. We are not reactionary – we are revolutionary. Please write. Please change what you feel is broken in the Wausau area.