Citizen journalism is the refreshing bouquet that traditional newspapers can give to readers who increasingly say the fire has gone from our romance with them. It’s a way to say, “We’re sorry,” but also a promise to do better. For the last year and a half, with the launch of MyMissourian, we at the University of Missouri have tried to demonstrate how a newspaper gives this gift without abandoning its role in the community or the ethics of good journalism. Wooing our audience back with something they really want is no easy task, but our efforts to do so appear to be paying off with dividends.

Read “Journalism as a Conversation,” a story about OhmyNews »
Our foray into citizen journalism started with two news reports. In 2000, Oh Yeon Ho launched a Korean journalistic and social revolution with the battle cry “Every citizen is a reporter.” His Web publication, OhmyNews, used stories submitted by volunteer citizen reporters, edited by paid journalists, to successfully challenge the dominant conservative newspapers and contribute to the electoral defeat of that nation’s conservative government.

We followed Oh’s progress with detached interest until The Bakersfield Californian announced it had Americanized Oh’s concept. Mary Lou Fulton, a former Associated Press (A.P.), Los Angeles Times, and AOL journalist, created The Northwest Voice as the Californian’s combined Web site and suburban newspaper edition. The Northwest Voice used Oh’s concept of citizen journalists but had a much less political tone than OhmyNews. A key difference in The Northwest Voice approach was a link to the free-circulation, market-shopper product of its parent newspaper, The Bakersfield Californian. Fulton used The Northwest Voice to gather content that could then be published in the free print shopper, thus tapping into a proven revenue stream and the resources of an established publication.

A flurry of reports in journalism journals and online bulletin boards in spring of 2004 caught the attention of the faculty at the Missouri School of Journalism. Mizzou is a very practical school—our students staff a community daily newspaper, a network television station, and several Web sites. While we pondered how best to approach the new concept, I casually offered to revamp my online journalism course to create a trial citizen journalism Web publication. When word of this idea spread, more than a few of my journalism colleagues came to me with concerns. “Why in the world would a hardball journalist who dedicated his career to the scrappy community newspaper business be willing to turn over control of the ‘presses’ to amateurs?,” they wanted to know.

Fortunately, Dean Mills, the school of journalism dean, was not among the doubters, and he wasted no time in taking me up on the offer. “Can we proceed with all deliberate speed? I’m in no hurry. Next week would be soon enough,” he e-mailed. Although he might have said it half in jest, his comment became the impetus for innovation. With Online Editor Curt Wohleber, we assembled a team of graduate students and worked through the summer on the procedures and technology needed to launch a site. By fall, undergraduate students in the online journalism class were contacting community sources for content. By October 1st, was online.

Research and Results

The key to the success of MyMissourian turned out to be the summer planning session. By taking a hard look at the task ahead, we answered many of our critics before we even heard from them. Traditional journalists are wracked with fear about untrained “civilians” dabbling in their domain. How could we have credibility without fact-checkers? Citizens won’t have a clue about the A.P. stylebook or standard spelling. This is a college town, so count on a lot of swearing. What if they want to write about trivial events or “tabloid trash?”

I was equally nervous, but we approached the challenge with a balance of cold-blooded research and warm-hearted humanism. Earlier research on our daily newspaper, the Columbia Missourian, had shown that many people thought it and other newspapers were both arrogant and oblivious to the requests of the reading public. When we boiled that reader attitude down to its simplest factors, we ended up at “No.” In the public’s eye, newspapers are a world of “No.” Our space constraints, high “quality” standards, and often-inexplicable traditions create more reasons for not accepting material than John and Jane reader can imagine. Format and timeliness rules may be forgivable, but try explaining why we don’t publish Little League results. Or why we will publish a 25th wedding anniversary but not a 27th. We’re leery also of any story that might “promote” a business, and we don’t allow authors to show emotion about anything—even the death of a loved one.

As we resolved to eliminate most of the “No” in MyMissourian, we bumped into a few longer words like decency, literacy, commercialism and outright banality. Fortunately, we found that journalism had faced up to these issues. Fear of regulating indecent language is more of an issue within the die-hard Internet culture, and most newspapers already have checks on profanity that are seldom cited as reason to cancel subscriptions. Literacy was somewhat tougher since we pride ourselves as guardians of the language and protectors of the correctly spelled word. But newspapers helped solve that problem by their advocacy of better writing education in the 1980’s and 1990’s and, thanks to Silicon Valley, people have spell checkers. We found, too, that Americans are much better writers than we’d been willing to credit them. Commercialism in print is nothing new to readers. Pick up almost any magazine, but also look back in the old issues of newspapers, and they reveal that we once had less defined lines between news and local business promotion. The issue for us was not commercialism but dealing with it without abandoning our journalistic ethics. That just left the banal to cope with, and we concluded that in light of some of our own actions, journalists are not great judges of what is dumb or boring.

We require original work from our citizen writers, but we managed to cut our litany of “No” to just four:

  • No profanity
  • No nudity
  • No personal attacks
  • No attacks on race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.

Editors work closely with authors who ‘share’ information rather than ‘cover’ stories. We edit for readability and civility, not A.P. style and newspaper tradition. We know how to keep our reporters out of libel court, so this responsibility doesn’t change because our authors are not on the payroll. We let writers get trivial and let them talk about what interests them. Each submission is edited by a trained journalist before it is published. Editors work closely with authors who “share” information rather than “cover” stories. We edit for readability and civility, not A.P. style and newspaper tradition. We know how to keep our reporters out of libel court, so this responsibility doesn’t change because our authors are not on the payroll. We let writers get trivial and let them talk about what interests them. No one is anonymous and, if we have questions, we get back to the authors by e-mail or phone before publication. Editors also do much more than edit; they encourage and they actively seek out community members eager to speak their minds. What they say—not what we think—is what counts.

A Viable Economic Model

We could have stopped there, but we had another gift bouquet to deliver—this time to the newspaper industry. On the first anniversary of MyMissourian, we launched what we believe will be a viable economic model for online news products. Up to that time, none of our effort had gone into building online readership but had been focused on building “writership.”

Like almost all newspapers, the Columbia Missourian gets a big share of its revenue from a free Total Market Coverage (TMC) edition. Although we try to avoid the label “shopper,” historically the newspaper received the second-rate attention that name implies. It was filled with old stories, syndicated entertainment news, and games. Newsroom veterans told us the strategy was to use the TMC to give nonsubscribers a mere taste of the Columbia Missourian, but my staff thought that approach was similar to a bakery handing out stale bread as samples.

Now 23,000 homes in Columbia receive a unique newspaper. Six days a week, journalists deliver “our” paper. Now, on our normally dark Saturday, we deliver “their” newspaper—a print edition containing what citizens produce online. Probably we should not have been surprised that interest in MyMissourian has exploded since the print edition hit the streets. In the first months of this effort, 200 new citizen writers registered, and page views increased similarly. Perhaps more important to my staff is that we now receive many stories submitted by citizens who we didn’t even know were out there. Advertisers also have good reason to be excited. Fewer copies of the TMC are left out in the rain, and merchants can play to the “just folks” theme of MyMissourian.

The print edition does not represent an end to our project, just a way station. In the next several years we will focus on defining the role of the trained journalist in this citizen variant and on training them in the skills that role will require. Giving up the power to craft a story is probably the toughest assignment I hand to young journalists who have been well trained to observe closely and translate those observations into must-read prose. I am working to convince them that the basic reporting skills will not go away, but will be supplemented by the skills of becoming the journalistic “guide.” As we continue to publish a good newspaper, we’ll also give citizens their voice in MyMissourian.

The bouquet MyMissourian sends its readers is a sincere invitation into our world. By embracing citizen journalism, we have conceded that it doesn’t take a journalism degree to have something worthwhile to say. To help them say it, we’ve become colleagues, mentors and good partners.

Clyde H. Bentley is associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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