The history of the term citizen journalism is closely associated with the rise of the Internet as a medium of news and public information. Citizens have certainly participated in news-making from the start of modern news, but journalism’s industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century and later its professionalization marginalized that involvement. It was with the rapid growth of the Internet in the 1990s that attempts to conflate the categories of journalist and citizen gathered force. This article discusses three versions of that young history: (1) a cyber cultural history; (2) the perspective most common in news organizations; and (3) a socio-cultural account.
The first history is one written on the Internet, largely in the US. Commentators looking back from the early 2000s explain the rise of citizen participation in journalism online by pointing to an ethos of open collaboration espoused by early Internet users – largely US-based academic and military researchers – which led to an open, nonhierarchical Internet structure. UseNet newsgroups’ experiments in online community, such as The Well, offered up “a new cultural narrative based in collective self-determination” (Rushkoff 2003, 27). Strongly libertarian and anti-authoritarian ideologies have shaped this account of a free and open Internet. Key texts here include Dyson et al. (1994), which proclaimed the end of conformist mass society, and Barlow (1996), which told industrial society’s institutions, “You have no sovereignty among us.” The utopian desire for citizen participation in public life has thus been closely connected with the rise of cyberculture.
The rise of weblogs, from 1997, was strongly shaped by such a history of citizen sovereignty, with talk of wresting control of public debate back from the “mainstream” or “old media” common, or recreating the liberal pamphleteering culture of eighteenth-century Britain and America. The diary-like genre, often characterized by sharp-tongued and fast-moving public debate, soon produced the term “fisking” to describe right-wing bloggers’ attacks on what they saw as “liberal” media, symbolized by British journalist Robert Fisk. By 2002 US bloggers celebrated the first instances where they had led the “mainstream media” in their job of monitoring power. The Indymedia network has drawn, in part, on similar anti-authoritarian ideas. Since its dramatic birth at the 1999 World Trade Organization in Seattle, the alternative news network, staffed by “volunteer journalists,” quickly gained in web traffic and reputation on the political left, and by 2004 had grown to an international network of 142 sites in 54 countries.
To many journalists and academic commentators, this first history has a little too much of the fable to it. The second history which they construct, then, points out that bloggers and other citizen journalists depend largely on the mainstream they critique for their agendas and information (Haas 2005). Indeed many bloggers themselves feel uncomfortable with the label “journalist.” It is also true that much citizen participation in journalism is facilitated by news organizations and is a story of collaboration or co-option, tension or accommodation. San Jose Mercury News technology journalist Dan Gillmor’s experiments with using readers of his weblog as expert sources for his newspaper column provides the model for one influential school of thought, which argues that citizen participation in digital media is leading to instances of journalism as “conversation” between journalists and citizens (Gillmor 2004). From 2004 on, in France (Le Monde), South Africa (Mail and Guardian), the UK (Guardian), and elsewhere members of the public were invited to write weblogs within the news website. Many journalists expressed concern at these moves, citing in particular dilution of the newsroom’s control over its sources and the absence of editing as lowering news quality. Indeed, the dominant practice has remained consistent since the early news websites of tucking away citizen contributions deep inside the site, firmly subordinated to the professionally produced news content, and usually unread by those journalists. Yet, from 2003, with each major news event and with each crisis where existing journalism practices seemed unable to sate the public appetite, the use of citizens’ eyewitness accounts, photographs, and video has increased, opening the way for further blurring of the lines between news producer and consumer.
The third, largely academic, history places citizen participation in the news within a much longer time frame, tracing the weakening of institutional society, with its homogeneous nation-state, its specialization of work, and its hierarchical structures. Industrial Anglo-American journalism took on a role on behalf of the public, holding government to account on behalf of citizens, recording civic life on their behalf, upholding society’s values. Sociologists and cultural geographers (e.g., Castells 1996; Harvey 2001) argue that contemporary social power resides more in networks of power and in global cultural forms. Wellman (2001) talks of the rise of a networked individualism, in which individuals in western culture move relatively freely among social networks and reflexively make their own identities as they do so. Jenkins (2004), building on fan theory, theorizes a “cultural convergence” to describe a growing expectation from media consumers that they can change and add to media content. In this view, the mass audience for twentieth-century journalism appears part of a departing historical moment. In its stead has emerged what Deuze (2005) calls “a perhaps over-zealous faith in ourselves” and a loss of trust in and dependence on professional storytellers such as journalists. For these reasons, some former enthusiasts for citizen journalism were beginning in 2006 to adopt the term “networked journalism” instead.
- Allan, S. (2006). Online news: Journalism and the Internet. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Barlow, J. P. (1996). A declaration of the independence of cyberspace. At www.homes.eff.org/∼barlow/Declaration-Final.html, accessed September 15, 2006.
- Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
- Deuze, M. (2005). Towards professional participatory storytelling in journalism and advertising. First Monday, 10(7). At www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_7/deuze/, accessed September 15,2006.
- Dyson, E., Gilder, G., Keyworth, G , & Toffler, A. (1994). Cyberspace and the American dream: A Magna Carta for the knowledge age. At www.pff.org/issues-pubs/futureinsights/fi1.2magnacarta.html, accessed November 21, 2006.
- Gillmor, D. (2004). We the media: Grassroots journalism by the people, for the people. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly.
- Haas, T. (2005). From “public journalism” to the “public’s journalism”? Rhetoric and reality in the discourse on weblogs. Journalism Studies, 6(3), 387–396.
- Harvey, D. (2001). Spaces of capital. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
- Jenkins, H. (2004). The cultural logic of media convergence. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 7(1), 33–43.
- Rushkoff, D. (2003). Open source democracy: How online communication is changing offline politics. London: Demos.
- Wellman, B. (2001). Physical place and cyber place: The rise of personalized networking. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 25(2), 227–252.