People's journalism isn't 'citizen journalism'

In the past week we've seen an uprising of angry people, mostly women, offended by the Susan G. Komen Foundation cutting off funding for breast cancer exams at Planned Parenthood clinics. It's just the latest example of how the global news conversation is in the hands of people, not just "the media." And it's what I had in mind over a dozen years ago when I talked about the rise of a new kind of people's journalism.

Seven years ago when we launched a blog-centered community website in Bluffton, SC, there was a lot of talk about "citizen journalism." And there was a lot of disappointment in some corners because it didn't happen quite that way.

What many meant when they said or heard "citizen journalism" was a lay practice resembling professional journalism in the Walter Williams tradition, one where "citizens" "covered" "news."

But what I meant when I said "people's journalism" is not that at all. I meant something more organic, more natural, more spontaneous, more personal, less organized, less structured, less "newsworthy" and less ... well, less reliable.

This is where we are today. We have, through forums, story commenting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, G+, Tumblr and other venues a free-flowing conversation covering everything from today's lunch plans to the horrors of state brutality in Tahrir Square.

We can apply traditional definitions of "newsworthy" and "journalism" if we like, but there's really not much point. This new news will flow of its own accord, propelled by people's interests. There are no gatekeepers in this environment. Even brutal government supression will fail.

Professional journalism has had years to think about how to adapt to this new reality, and on the whole, it's failed. It's not a replacement. It's a new, complex model that obsoletes some of what pro journalism did in the era of mass media but creates new opportunities for adding value.

"The story" -- a slippery, ill-defined term -- can be a trap, or it can be redefined from the fire-and-forget missile of the last century into a networked living organism more suited for this one. Paul Bradshaw, a journalism prof at City University in London, has described some of the new roles in the context of an investigative team, but the process he's graphed actually applies on many less ambitious levels. It's worth a close look and careful thinking.

I think it helps to begin by understanding that community is a process of sharing, and conversation is its lifeblood. The role of the journalist in this century is to work with the forces unleashed by technology to lead to the same value outputs we've always sought: an informed public that can make wise decisions to govern itself.