New Tools for Citizen Journalism: #NCMR Reflections

This is the third in a series of posts reflecting on lessons I’ve learned through my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA at CAN TV and my time spent at the 2011 National Conference on Media Reform (NCMR).

One of the most fundamental questions “the media” face is how to meaningfully engage the legions of bloggers, YouTubers and other users who are now undeniably a part of the club. For many, the answer is giving these individuals the tools they need to convert from mere “bloggers” to true “citizen journalists.” Which begs another question: what the heck is a citizen journalist?

The answer offered by many of the panelists at the “Creating and Sustaining Citizen Journalism” workshop was that any amateur (as in unpaid) person engaging in an act of journalism- shooting video, gathering interviews, writing articles- can rightfully be called a “citizen journalist.” Instead of seeing these individuals as the competition, most outlets are searching for ways to bring them into the fold. One compelling model demonstrated by Jason Barnett of is “citizen-fueled news.” In The Uptake’s newsroom, citizen journalists are given different roles based on their experience level and individual interests. Entry-level reporters are given the  “witness” title, where their main responsibility is to gather raw information and stream video live from  newsworthy events. Then journalists in the newsroom and others watching the footage online make note of interesting clips from the video and turn those into stories. This can lead to some compelling front-line type coverage and can paint a more complete picture of events as they unfold.

For instance, the video below, from protests at the 2008 Republican National Convention, was streamed live even as protestors (and the producer) were hit with tear gas. Barnett added that this approach also has the added value that their videos can’t be confiscated by police- which is an issue in such scenarios.

In addition to providing the raw material needed for stories, citizen journalists can also help fill the gaps in media coverage that many communities face. Nicole Belanger of Cambridge Community Television said that her Cambridge has no local newspaper or television station so their access center established NeighborMedia,  a community-driven news website. By providing training in reporting and writing, CCTV works with citizen journalists to produce quality stories and cover the local issues that interest them. This support includes one-on-one training, access to equipment, and other services. According to Belanger, their goal is to “Provide citizens with the tools to be civically active,” and build a bridge between their public access tv channel and their website. NeighborMedia has been pretty successful, with people from the community submitting stories on a wide range of issues.

I think this approach also reconciles to a certain degree issues that the Huffington Post and other mainstream outlets fail to address: incentives and compensation. By offering free training and access to equipment, media access centers are investing in their people just as their reporters invest their time and effort into producing content. While in an ideal world they would be paid for their work, there is definitely a value to the professional skills that they can develop as a result.

Finally, an advantage of working with citizen journalists addresses a core issue all journalists face: access. Carlos Pareja of Peoples Production House pointed out that citizen journalists can often have access to communities that reporters don’t. Think of the kind of access a young person has in talking to their peers, versus a professional reporter talking to them. Obviously, they can get a more candid response. They also possess a deeper understanding of the communities they’re covering, and this can add a great degree of depth and background to their coverage.

All in all, I think citizen journalists are already contributing a great deal today’s “media” as it is, but in order to gain the most benefit from them (and mitigate any harms), it’s vital to provide them with the structure, know-how, and tools they need to contribute. This is a unique niche that I think many community media organizations are beginning to fill, and while there’s probably no one “correct” solution, we are already benefiting from their stories and passion.

Key Points:

  • Different levels of content contribution make it easier for users to “dip their toes in”
  • In distributing content, build different user profiles and ask with surveys, dedicate different content to each platform
  • While citizen journalism initiatives can be started by anyone, they gain access and credibility through affiliations with “mainstream” established journalistic institutions
  • The entire process should be transparent and distributive, sharing the work load with users


“Content is king but collaboration is Queen” -Susan Mernit, Oakland Local

“First ask the community what they want, and then build it,” Kwan Booth (@Boothism), Oakland Local


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Filed under Journalism, Non-Profit, Reflections, VISTA

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