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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Are Citizen Journalists Just Serfs on the Web?

With mainstream journalism in the throes of downsizing and consolidation, many people, including myself are turning to blogs and other web sites for news.

A few years back, some "new media" entrepreneurs have attempted to harness the volunteer enthusiasm of bloggers to an electronic version of the "old media" newspaper. The result was something they call "citizen journalism".

One example of citizen journalism is Korea's Ohmy News.

One problem overlooked in all the hoopla about citizen journalism... what rights do citizen journalists have? How is working for free, not having your article fact-checked and edited, not being protected from angry readers, not being represented by a union and having no control over your work more desirable than being a paid, professional journalist?

Is the "new media" boss any better than the "old media" boss?

The Twin Cities Daily Planet is a local experiment in citizen journalism. In 2006, I was asked to be the Transportation Editor for the TCDP by former TCDP editor Craig Cox. I didn't actually edit anything because the TCDP is mostly a web portal through which articles from other publications, written mostly by paid, professional reporters were recycled.

I was asked to contribute articles (for free) that would appear in the mix of article produced by paid journalists. For that reason and others, I eventually ceased writing for the TCDP after writing many articles.

I was also asked by Craig Cox to "recruit" other citizen journalists to contribute content to the TCDP. I was reluctant to ask other people to volunteer their time and effort under conditions that I was uncomfortable with. I recruited only one person to contribute content for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.

I was shocked to learn many months later that the one person I recruited was being cited by Craig Cox... by name in a journalism review as an example of what had gone wrong with the TCDP's experiment in citizen journalism.

You can read Craig Cox's article in Harvard's Nieman Reports.

It starts off this way:

Late in July, when a former member of the Minneapolis City Council went on trial in a high-profile bribery case, I received an e-mail from a local community activist alerting me to a woman who was determined to sit through the entire proceedings and describe the finer points of a trial that was headline news in the Twin Cities media.

The former member of the Mpls City Council was Dean Zimmermann. The "activist' is me and Cox fails to mention that I was an "editor" at the TCDP. Failing to mention Zimmermann and myself by name, Cox goes on to name Liz McLemore:

I dashed off an e-mail to the blogger, a south Minneapolis political activist named Liz McLemore, and asked her if she would allow me to publish her courtroom chronicles for our Daily Planet readers.

...what follows is a bizarre, vicious attack on Liz McLemore that reads like a stereotypical 19th Century factory boss complaining about his workers:

The McLemore "scoop" is an object lesson in the way citizen journalists can captivate and confound editors trying to build and maintain the credibility of their publications while encouraging ordinary citizens to tell their story. Captive to the vagaries of personal schedules, political biases, and reportorial limitations, these amateur reporters can require delicate handling even as they bring greater passion than many veterans.

... Cox didn't contact either me or Liz McLemore before he wrote his screed. Liz McLemore and I contacted the editor of the Nieman Reports and she apologized for allowing Cox to slime Liz McLemore and posted McLemore's response on the Nieman Report site. McLemore sets the record straight and concludes with this:

But what of Cox's own lapses in the very article in which he reports mine? Cox explains that for many people, "the media remains a monolithic, authoritarian machine that holds little interest or importance in their daily lives." Perhaps this is one reason that so many have turned to bloggers. To regain a position of importance in our lives, the media must earn it. At the very least, the public has a right to demand that professional journalists adhere to the standards of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, and fairness. I expect nothing less from Craig Cox. Too bad he has failed to deliver it.

Craig Cox is no longer the editor at the TCDP. Cox cross-posts political gossip from his Minneapolis Observer Ballot Box blog to his TCDP blog.

The new editor Mary Turck has taken over Cox's job of recruiting citizen journalists for TCDP. Turck recently yanked and re-wrote an article (after it was criticized by Mayor Rybak's flak-catcher).

My advice to anyone contemplating a career in citizen journalism is to stick to blogging where you are your own boss.


knappster said...

That's a great story.  And the letter by Liz McLemore is excellent.

knappster said...

From my perspective, an essential part of the conflict is scale.  Craig Cox appears to embrace the speed of the modern industrial world, while Liz McLemore does not.  High speed is an extension of large scale, which is the sine qua non or even the raison d'être of industrialism.

McLemore summed it up when she wrote, "I believed it was more important to get it right than it was to get it out on time."  In other words, craft is more important than high speed.  Bravo!

Maybe I'm reading too much into the incident, but it seems like a classic clash of values between a conventional modern and a cultural creative.  And I note that such boxes don't need to be rigid to be useful tools for understanding.

Avidor said...

Thanks, Knapster...and Liz McLemore's notes on all 8 days of the trial are archived at Minneapolis Confidential.

Mary Turck said...

When Eva e-mailed me about the Greenwashing article on 9/12/07, I responded. I was not aware that the se accusations were made on the blog, or I would have given the same response:
1) The inaccuracies in the original article were primarily in names and dates. For example, a 2002 lobbying trip was described as a 2003 lobbying trip. Brad Pass was misidentified as Alan Pass. There were enough mistakes of this sort, and general criticism of the article's tone and substance, that I pulled the article for review and revision.

2) In reviewing the article, what I considered the substance of the article was verified. The rewrite made the article substantially longer. Some parts that were less central to the article were cut. The paragraph regarding the lawyers was one that I regarded as peripheral to the main points of the article.

Avidor said...

The article could have been corrected without removing it from view.

The removal (after the Mayor's office complained) suggests that there was something terribly wrong with the article.

I don't think mentioning Louis Smith (council of Kandiyohi) was "peripheral" since Smith has had a hand in promoting other projects opposed by neighborhoods such as the Access Project and the Lake Street Reconstruction.

But, more important is the opinion of the author of the article. How does he feel about the way his article was treated?