Why citizen journalism?

Turn on the local TV news at 6 p.m. and you won’t find it. Flip through the pages of any local “news” paper, free or otherwise, and you won’t feel satisfied. Sit down at your computer, search for “Cleveland Heights Local News,” then sift through banners and pop-up ads, and you might get lucky. You would probably learn more while sipping a mocha at the local coffee shop, or walking down your sidewalk hoping to encounter a talkative neighbor. All you want to know is what someone (anyone) in your community thinks about the new housing development being built down the street, or when that new restaurant on Lee Road is going to open, or when that pot-hole riddled road around the corner is going to be repaired. None of this news is terribly important on a national or even regional level, but it is, perhaps, the information that is most relevant to your daily experience. And, it is information that has not been easy to find.

It is hard to select an event or moment-in-time that represents the birth of “citizen journalism.” At what point did it become possible for an average person, rather than a trained, compensated professional, to routinely spread information beyond their normal circle of influence? One can argue that the invention of the printing press gave everyday citizens the opportunity to disseminate their opinions and ideas to an extended audience. In the modern era, author Dan Gillmor acknowledges the increasing importance of video documentation by non-professionals. From JFK, to Rodney King, to YouTube, the steady rise of this form of non-professional participation cannot be overestimated (see www.pbs.org/mediashift/2006/09).

The interaction of two primary themes has largely been responsible for the growth of citizen based journalism: dissatisfaction with the content of traditional media and advancements in technology.

As the number of companies that control traditional sources of news and information continues to shrink, people (consumers) are beginning to grasp the limited and narrow perspective offered by this system. “A common goal of citizen journalists is to recapture journalism as a truly democratic practice that is thoroughly rooted in -- and thus directly serves -- the real lives and interests of citizens.” (see mcgillreport.org/largemouth.htm).

While the origins of citizen journalism can be debated, its real power is becoming evident to almost everyone, largely as a result of the proliferation and success of the internet. In the year 2000, a frustrated South Korean journalist launched a website called OhMyNews. As one of the first entities in the world truly dedicated to citizen journalism, anyone with a computer was allowed, and encouraged, to post a story online – this was their content. With only minor fact-checking and filtering by a staff of editors, the site became a popular alternative to the three “conservative” national newspapers and even helped influence the 2002 Korean presidential election (see zapboom.com).

With similar scenarios developing around the globe, traditional newspapers are also starting to realize the potential appeal, and possible financial reward, of hyper-local reporting. In Ft. Meyers, Florida, the News Press enlisted “the help of dozens of reader experts -- retired engineers, accountants, government insiders -- to review documents and data to determine why it costs so much to hook up water and sewer service to new homes in the area. The result: an investigative report that resulted in fees lowered by 30 percent and an official ousted.” In an effort to increase their visibility, the staff of the News Press adhered to one “guiding principle: A constantly updated stream of intensely local, fresh Web content -- regardless of its traditional news value -- is key to building online and newspaper readership” (Washington Post, 12/4/06)

Until relatively recently, disappointed news consumers had few practical options for participation in, or improvement of, this system. Currently in this country, as implied by the examples above, the average citizen with access to a computer has the ability to voice his or her opinions to both a worldwide audience and to peers with similar interests and concerns. The technology and the desire have converged at this point in history, and now, ideally, we are all in a position to benefit.

As noted in an earlier article on heightsobserver.org, the tools for citizen based journalism have also recently become more accessible to residents of Cleveland Heights and University Heights. With the launch of Heights Observer by the local non-profit FutureHeights, residents now have a citizen-generated source for hyper-local news. With both on-line and printed forms, content will be submitted, edited (if required), and distributed by local citizens for local citizens.

While FutureHeights is very excited about the Heights Observer project, its success is completely dependant upon generation of content by the public. As the Executive Director of FutureHeights, Deanna Bremer Fisher, stated in an earlier interview, “Civic media is the wave of the future for grass-roots civic participation and The Heights Observer looks forward to working with anyone who would like to participate in this exciting and important project”.

To read stories and opinions created by your community, and to submit articles, opinions, events, and photographs, visit heightsobserver.org or call (216) 320-1423.

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Volume 1, Issue 1, Posted 10:51 PM, 03.26.2008