Public journalism 2.0: The promise and reality of a citizen-engaged press

Public journalism seeks to encourage a more citizen-engaged press that increases the involvement of ordinary people with issues of public concern. It draws on ideas from John Dewey, an educator and press critic, who in the 1920s argued that newspapers should do more to educate the public and facilitate debate on public issues.

Early proponents of public journalism such as Dewey, academic Jay Rosen, and James Batten from the Knight-Ridder Group, argued that newspapers should encourage greater audience involvement in news selection and promote dialogue on public issues.

The rationale for public journalism was that people who are more engaged with their communities tend to read newspapers more than those who are not. By reviving interest in public life, public journalism could help revive declining newspaper sales.

Despite the initial enthusiasm for public journalism which only emerged in the late eighties, within thirty years some of its own founders such as Lew Friedland, think that it has already run its course. It mostly took the form of special reporting projects by medium-sized newspapers which were very costly and time-consuming.

The consolidation of media companies leading to the scaling down of news operations, coupled with the recession, has made public journalism even less viable. But its founders, who sought a new type of journalism that encourages civic engagement and galvanises communities into solving public problems, see potential for its revival in citizen journalism.

The internet has provided ordinary people with free access to large amounts of information and the means to share this information and facilitate discussions on matters of public interest. Citizen journalism lies at the heart of a revolution in newsgathering where news organizations are no longer gatekeepers of news.

But it has faced the criticism from professional journalists that many people who operate as citizen journalists are largely preoccupied with personal, rather than public concerns and not necessarily an interest in supporting democracy.

They say that citizen journalists should be better organized and coordinated, should seek ways of generating revenue to fund their activities and develop a credible brand and set of standards.

However, public journalism enthusiasts still feel that public journalism and citizen journalism share a mutual interest in disseminating information to facilitate public debate and discussion. They see the two strands of journalism as ripe for a partnership that would better serve the greater good.

But judging by some of the views expressed in this book, the proposal sounds like less of a merger and more of a takeover. It sounds like a desire to redefine, re-organize and control what political journalist Jacob Weisberg [1]refers to as “a great cacophony of voices,” that echo across the web.

Rosenberry and Burton St John’s vision of a reinvigorated version of public journalism is one in which professional journalists take the lead, with citizen journalists working alongside them.

However, it is precisely the free-flowing nature of the web that has attracted so many individuals to engage in citizen journalism on their own terms and in their own way; coupled with the opportunity to decide what issues are of importance to them.

Professional journalists often say that citizen journalists do a great job of interacting with audiences but are less adept at getting people to be problem-solvers of public issues within their communities. However, citizen journalists, who are after all more connected with their communities, may see things differently.

In cyberspace, it is the view of the news-consumers-turned news producers that really count, and the audiences they serve. Together, they have created a new self-regulating environment, and as political journalist Jacob Weisberg observes, a new “political culture” that “encompasses bracing debate about everything that people disagree about.”[1]

Traditional journalism has been described as a lecture, with information being transmitted one way, from the journalist to the audience. But the new fragmented structure of the media has multiple audiences, some of whom are also producers of news.

During the process of its evolution, journalism has become a conversation, albeit a loud one, which Jacob Weisberg refers to as a “raucous clamour emanating from cyberspace” that the former gatekeepers of news may find “uncomfortable.”[1]

The ideology of public journalism as a more public-spirited form of journalism, though admirable in its aims and objectives, was doomed to a short shelf life in a highly commercialized media where audiences are mostly valued in terms of their lucrative link to advertising revenue.

But a marriage between public journalism and citizen journalism is not necessarily one that is made in heaven. Despite the terminology, public journalism is led and controlled, not by the public but by news organizations and professional journalists.

Citizen journalism is as Dan Gillmor proclaims “by the people, for the people.” By its very nature it is a form of resistance to mainstream journalism practices and any attempts to redefine that nature is surely doomed to failure.

[1] As quoted in The Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz – Regulating Cyberspace?

ISBN: 9780415801836

Publisher: Routledge

Published: Jan 2010

Editors: Jack Rosenberry & Burton St John III