Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Journalism comes full circle with civic/citizen movement

Boston, where AEJMC will convene in 2009, is where it all started 318 years ago.

In Boston, arguably, was America’s earliest journalism practiced. In Boston lived the earliest printer-editors, two Benjamins and two Franklins: Benjamin Harris’ quirky, chatty Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick (1690), of which only one issue was ever published, was a veritable coffeehouse in newsprint. James/Ben Franklin’s wry New-England Courant (1721-23) frequently offered Ben’s pseudonymous byline, “Silence Dogood.”

The early printers were citizens first, community activists second, and editors if at all. They weren't J-school trained in any nuance of reporting, pagination or ethics (why, Ben Franklin published his own letters as if sent by readers).

Their work was not to be measured by Siebert’s theories or Hutchins’ norms.

But in all of American journalism’s history – the Revolution, the penny decades, the Civil War, Pulitzer/Hearst, the muckrakers/Progressives, the age of broadcasting – if successful editors had a common denominator, it was a finger on the readers' pulse.

A function of that finger on the pulse is the reporter’s craving to connect to an audience, to decide the news, to influence public opinion. It's the craving that makes journalism; the rest is literature.

Any surprise there’s a reflection of democracy in journalism?

But does journalism’s quid pro quo with democracy offer a frame to decipher the newspaper industry’s current travails? Perhaps institutionalization shields the journalist from the reader’s pulse? Perhaps pulse journalism can by itself guarantee profits? Or trump sound economics? – even if the one really a subset of the other? If news and advertising are the two sides of a piece of toast which side is buttered? Ah, that last was a joke.

From small-town Lansing State Journal to venerated New York Times, the urban newspaper's holy grail lies in finding a structural cure for falling circulations (ibuprofen won't cure a Migraine).

Can civic/citizen journalism offer that grail?

Look at the expectations. From the Times to CNN, America’s loftiest media organizations are welcoming the obscurest iReporter, the lowliest blogger, for his or her proactive journalism, a phenomenon which J.D. Lasica has classified in some detail. They are clearly trying to touch communities – in a reflection of David Perry’s call to use journalism to enhance social capital, or Buzz Merritt’s cry for a public journalism.

Perry's and Merritt's work, of course, is too famous to elaborate here.

As is Philip Meyer's call for newspapers to focus on a "leadership audience." Or Leonard Witt's pitch for a “representative” journalism, the idea of using not organizational but communal resources to subsidize the cost of journalism. And Jeff Jarvis' now ancient postulate: “Don't give the people control of media, and you will lose.”

Clearly, scholars and journalists alike are feeling a sharp excitement. Inevitably, it seems, America's legacy media must accept that a YouTubization – allowing the collective intelligence of the “former audience” (to use Dan Gillmor's gravid lexicon) to distill the news – is the sexy new way to keep news accurate, cheap and exciting.

Has journalism come full circle from the era of Harris and the Franklins, or what?

Nikhil Moro, Ph.D.

2 comments:

jd said...

Hi, Nikhil, I'm researching a study of civic media initiatives/training sessions that are taking place across the U.S.

Let me know if the Civic & Citizen Journalism Interest Group is involved in sponsoring any educational workshops or the like.

Thanks much!

jd lasica
jdlasica@gmail.youknowtherest

jack said...

By next month I will have publshed a how-to book on community group publishing, a field I have been involved in for 15 years since I left as Editor of the Boston Globe. It's geared toward grassroots non-professionals and could be part of a panel or workshop. Jack Driscoll, editor-in-residence, MIT Media Lab