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'Journalism Without Journalists'

A Shorenstein Center Fellow sheds light on what’s working in the booming area of citizen journalism.

Blogs and other citizen journalism projects are allies of traditional media, says a European publisher, and shouldn’t be feared by professional journalists.

One of the biggest challenges facing the nascent publishing form is not the lack of experience of citizen amateurs but the “condescension” on the part of their professional counterparts unwilling to offer guidance or cooperation, former Shorenstein Fellow Michael Maier writes in a report from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy, "Journalism Without Journalists: Vision or Caricature?"

This “professional arrogance” is due to both ego and economics, Maier says.

"They feel a vocation for what they do, a mission,” Maier says of journalists. “They want to be — and often are — the high priests of society: watchdogs, protestors, critics.”

With lower pay compared to other fields, “professional pride is almost a tangible part of their income,” he says. And in an era of shrinking circulation and budget cutbacks, they fear for their jobs.

Maier points to this attitude in the high-profile flameout of the Los AngelesTimes’ Wikitorial experiment, shut down only two days after its launch in 2005 when pornographic spam from outside filtered into staff editorials.

"Wikitorial had crashed not because of the character of readers, but because there had been a lack of control of reader input,” Maier writes. Editorial input can be improved only when “like-minded contributors are purposefully being gathered to do it,” along the lines of Wikipedia.

"Wikipedia's long-lasting success is based not on anarchy but rather on a rigorous hierarchy," he says.

While the Los AngelesTimes failure “acted as a deterrent for many papers in the U.S.,” other outlets seized on increased collaboration with the public. In his research, Maier concentrated on sites run mainly by non-journalists operating under the framework of “network publishing."

Networking with those who share a common goal appears to be crucial for those without journalistic training who wish to post journalistic work on the Web,” writes Maier, citing successful examples:

Global Voices Online, which features work from contributors in developing countries not regularly covered by the mainstream media,“a kind of virtual, national environmental newspaper,” written in a “collaborative blogging” style, purchased by Discovery Communications in August 2007

Network publishing is also attracting more locally focused entrants, such as Chi-Town Daily News in Chicago and Twin Cities Daily Planet. Both “are high-quality operations run by professionals,” Maier says.

Interestingly, a survey Maier conducted of bloggers debunks the view, held widely in mainstream journalism circles, that bloggers want to “destroy the old media.” Only 7 percent of bloggers thought that blogging was going to “replace old media.” The vast majority (83 percent) saw blogging as “complementary to old media.” Only 26 percent viewed themselves as a threat, while 74 percent said they “add value to the old media.”

However, 78 percent said they are “covering what old media misses.”

Likewise, a minority (37 percent) saw themselves as “journalists,” with most preferring to be identified as “commentators” or “analysts.”

Maier concludes that the big question facing upstart online journalism enterprises is financial: “Where does (money) come from and more important, who does it leave behind?” That may be why many new journalistic projects are nonprofit, such as the investigative enterprise ProPublica or this very site, Miller-McCune.

"Ultimately, readers and advertisers will show what they are willing to pay for,” Maier says.

Maier, the spring 2007 Shorenstein Center Sagan Fellow, founded Web-only German daily Netzeitung and its spin-off, Readers Edition, a "newspaper without journalists." With Netzeitung ’s sale in 2006, Maier now owns Readers Edition through his company Blogform Publishing.