"I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would citizen surgery." - Morley Safer
News outlets are in a fight for their lives, and they're winning.
For at least the last four years, traditional news outlets have found themselves fighting a headlong battle for legitimacy with "citizen journalism," a fad and an ideology that states you don't need any special training to be a journalist.
The phenomenon has manifested itself in sites like Orato.com and NowPublic. When they first emerged, the sites won high praise for giving a voice to people who otherwise wouldn't find their perspectives reflected in the mainstream media. Articles proliferated about their contributions to public debate.
Today, however, those sites alone seem much in decline. Orato is criticized for betraying its principles and NowPublic has been the subject of speculation for a long, slow death after its purchase by Examiner.com.
I argue we're hearing the death knell for citizen journalism because just last week the Newspaper Research Journal released a study titled "Citizen Journalism Web Sites Complement Newspapers."
In it, professors of journalism at Michigan State, the University of North Carolina and the University of Missouri find citizen media do no better job of informing the public than do the respectable outlets we have already.
Surveying 86 blogs, 53 citizen sites and 63 daily newspaper sites, the study asks four questions: do citizen blog sites publish content on a daily basis? Do citizen news sites publish content on a daily basis? How similar are citizen blog sites to daily newspaper websites? How similar are citizen news sites to daily newspaper websites?
In every case, the authors find that citizen sites offer nothing that you don't already get from daily newspaper sites. On the first point, they found that citizen sites weren't as timely as daily newspapers. On the second, they found that the "vast majority" of posts on citizen sites were slower than daily news in posting content to their platforms.
On the third point they argued that daily newspaper sites are more sophisticated technologically than their citizen counterparts, and on the final point they argued that they each linked to as many commercial journalism sites as the other. The citizen sites, they point out, linked to far more citizen sites themselves.
What we take away from this is that citizen journalism offers us nothing that we can't get from traditional sources - or "legacy media" as they were derisively called at a journalism conference I attended a year ago.
"Legacy media" was referenced in a panel on citizen journalism that featured speakers from NowPublic and Spot.us, a California-based website. "Legacy" referred to such outmoded platforms as newsprint, television and radio... and even more archaic concepts such as editing and facts.
The citizen model, said the NowPublic rep, dictated that content could appear unfiltered on his site but he still edited stories that appeared on his site's front page. It was just enough, I suppose, to testify to his site's credibility.
My main problem with the citizen model is that it simply isn't informative. Mainstream outlets screw up, no doubt, but they have avenues to fix their mistakes. They fool through hundreds upon hundreds of applications before deciding who they want out of the best that they've been offered. There, too, they have made mistakes but by and large they've made some great choices.
The difference with citizen media is that it's the journalism equivalent of a hack PR firm: it takes great content and repackages it in a form devoid of its depth and context.
The Huffington Post , for example, is a popular user-generated site that re-packages material it finds on legitimate news sites into smaller bits that make the reading quicker and easier. They don't make calls or analyze documents, leaving much of the gruntwork to the "legacy" outlets they aim to replace. Biased amateurs post content without much view to quality. They peddle mob-based logic, not information.
The report from journalism professors on the quality of content in citizen media is a welcome addition to the debate. We find now that citizen journalism cannot compete on a level playing field with the media it aims to supplant. It isn't informative, timely or helpful, and it offers nothing that we didn't already get from the platforms we have trusted for decades.
It's time to give up on mob logic. We're smarter than that. If we're to progress as a civilization then we ought to turn our backs on content that the wannabes could produce just as easily.