I just read an intriguing interview with Ray Hacke, Citizen Journalism Editor at the Bakersfield Californian -- an established print daily newspaper that has apparently made a strong commitment to fostering and showcasing citizen journalism.
SEE: "Narrative Journalism, CitJ and The Bakersfield Californian" (in Journalism Hope by K. Paul Mallasch, Jan. 31)
This excerpt, which opened the interview, caught my interest:
Journalism Hope: I like the fact you used the term "contributing writer." Did you consciously stay away from the "citizen journalist" term? If so, why?
Ray Hacke: Actually, we did choose to stay away from the term "citizen journalism." The reason was that we wanted average readers -- people who have little to no writing experience whatsoever -- to feel like they could have a voice in our paper, too.
The word "journalist" has some heavy connotations to it. We felt people might hear it and think they'd have to have some formal training or be thoroughly knowledgeable about grammar, spelling, style, etc., to write for us. We figured that might scare them off, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Our overriding mantra for citizen journalism is, "Journalism is a conversation," and we want people from all walks of life to sit down at the table and join in. So far, we've actually been pretty successful in that regard. We've gotten contributions from writers as young as 12 and as old as 90, from janitors as well as doctors.
That exchange really got my gears going on a whole lot of levels -- especially the concept of conversational journalism...
In addition to working with Adam Glenn on I, Reporter, I run or contribute to several other weblogs, including a new one focused on the fast-growing field of conversational media: The Right Conversation. Since many folks aren't yet familiar with that term, here's one quick definition:
CONVERSATIONAL MEDIA is when when we publicly converse with a writer/speaker and each other. This happens through media such as weblogs, online forums, e-mail discussion lists, wikis, podcasts, social software, call-in shows, creative participatory use of print or broadcast media, and more.
I must say, I really like the Californian's citJ mantra, "Journalism is a conversation." This mindset has helped (or perhaps even caused) that news organization to develop a fairly creative participatory use of its existing print and online venues. It also implies that the Californian views its audience as potential collaborators, not merely passive eyeballs.
In the mainstream news business, that insight is surprisingly revolutionary.
Is actively soliciting contributed writing a form of conversation? It can be, I think.
Conversation takes many forms. When we hear the word "conversation," most of us think first of the immediate, interpersonal kind -- like talking face-to-face or on the phone with your dad. However, the concept of "conversation" includes other kinds of discourse.
For instance, there is group conversation, which occurs in meetings and (in a more sustained fashion) via e-mail discussion lists or web-based forums. This type of discourse still contains conventional person-to-person linguistic cues, like "Mary, I agree with you that we can fix this budget, and..."
There is also distributed conversation, which occurs through discrete and generally public statements or articles that react to, respond to, or synthesize from each other. Different branches of the conversation may involve different participants or audiences. Each statement may appear superficially independent, but they all help build a web of conversational context through citations, quotes, and other kinds of direct and indirect cross-references.
Distributed conversation via conversational media has deep and ancient roots. Early examples include the "letters" books of the New Testament, the Islamic hadiths, the Federalist Papers, and the back-and-forth that occurs via articles and papers in scientific or academic journals.
However, the media-drenched nature of most societies today -- and especially the advent of widespread access to online media -- have given the distributed, public conversation new meaning and significance.
Smart publishers, like the Californian, are learning how to apply this to the news business. What the Californian has recognized is that news venues can be more than publishers. News organizations can re-envision their role as hosts and focal points of a public conversation.
This change of perspective and mindset can have profound implications for their long-term business model -- and even their survival potential.
It can mean more than offering topical discussion forums or allowing comments at the end of published articles. It can mean making a business out of amplifying a wide range of voices in the public conversation -- rather than presenting predefined and fairly homogenous or predictable slices of the total conversation. These voices have always existed, but the demand for their expression has largely been unrecognized or dismissed. Smart news organizations are learning to capitalize on this pent-up demand.
This is not meant to be a replacement of, but rather a complement to, traditional journalism and other aspects of news media.
...All of this leads me to understand and agree with the Californian's decision to invite "contributing writers" rather than "citizen journalists." And, to be fair, a quick persual of the "Your Words" section of the Californian's site indicates that most of the stories presented there are not very journalistic. They tend to be more observational, "slice of life" oriented.
Many of my colleagues in the news business and elsewhere disdain such content as "fluff," but I think its fine. Such articles serve to expand the picture of a community beyond what typically gets defined as suitable for a traditional daily paper.
Right now the Californian is working to nurture a culture of conversation through contribution. That's my interpretation, not Hacke's exact words, but it's an important phase in developing strong public discourse that includes vibrant, enterprising citizen journalism. In order to foster this cultural change, people need to feel welcome, valued, and competent to participate.
Yes, "journalism" is indeed a loaded term, with heavy connotations and lofty expectations. As such, it can be offputting.
In part, this barrier was deliberately erected by professional journalists and news organizations. We've built ourselves up to be a kind of anointed priesthood, when in fact we have only created organizations to perform communication and research tasks that anyone has the right to do. The skills, practice, and ethics of journalism are not rocket science.
(Marketing 101 flashback: To create a lucrative market for a widely available commodity, make some quality or delivery improvements and herald it with the hype of superiority.)
Good citizen journalism rarely springs our of thin air. It grows from a community and a culture. If you want good citizen journalism, you need to first create a culture where people are comfortable contributing. If that means initially downplaying "journalism" in favor of "contributions," fine. It's a means to an end.
It also can be the beginning of a very interesting and important conversation.