The Challenge That Citizen Journalism Presents To The Future Of Commercially Driven Journalism

This essay will discuss the challenges that the medium of commercially driven journalism faces in the future. It will present the evolution and practices of both professional journalism and how it has become entwined with citizen journalism. The essay will also juxtapose the historical context with the contemporary relevance of citizen journalism and how commercially driven journalism will have to find a way of accommodating the practices of citizen journalism, whilst at the same time, staying commercially viable and of a quality and integrity that the medium has traditionally strived for.

There is a natural suspicion of time-served journalists to the ever-expanding genre of citizen journalism. What has been custom and practice for centuries in the relationship between journalists and their readership is changing irreversibly. “Many journalists have resented the increased notoriety of bloggers as reporters and they caution us to be careful with the news we read in blogs” (Warlick, 2007: 14). That the general public and indeed anybody with a layman’s knowledge of online technology, can now source their news from outlets away from the mainstream is one significant challenge. More worryingly and perhaps gallingly for established journalists, the same public can now become journalists themselves, without having a fraction of the training or grounding that they have had. The other challenge and arguably the greater threat to journalism, in the form that we know it, is the amount of written content that can now be accessed free of charge on the internet. However, not only is the profession of journalism looking at a dramatic change, the world of publishing is as well, through the obvious side-line of self-publishing through the medium of Citizen Journalism. “The definitions of journalist and publisher [has] become skewed. Legally, anyone who posts information on the World Wide Web is a publisher; the people who compose the information are journalists”. (Osborn 2001: 13)

The Guardian, a paper that at the time of writing, charges £1.40 for its daily print edition, can be read entirely free of charge on the internet. The parent company, Guardian News & Media “cut its annual loss to £30.9m to the year end of March 2013. This is a dramatic improvement on the £75.6m loss reported in 2012” (Sweeney, 2013: 1). With the Guardian Media Group losing a combined total of £106.5m over the last two years of reported trading, questions must be asked to the long term viability of what is an extremely popular media outlet. There are also the concerns of the future of professional journalism with this business model. The quality of content that the Guardian is giving away could, potentially, have a domino effect on the bargaining leverage of high calibre journalists in general.

The worldwide success of MailOnline, which like The Guardian, gives its content away free of charge, shows that traditional print media can co-exist and indeed thrive with its online equivalent. “The digital offshoot of the Daily Mail attracts a growing audience of more than fifty million unique monthly visitors across the globe, trouncing China’s People’s Daily, the New York Times and the Guardian” (Steel & Edgecliffe-Johnson, 2013: 1). While it can co-exist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will. As the faux pas that News Corp made with the purchase of “Myspace in 2005 for $580m” (Rushe, 2011: 1), proved, a media conglomerate can be only one deal away from a potentially devastating loss. MySpace was “sold to an online ad company for around $35m” (Rushe, 2011: 1) in 2011. News Corp were able to absorb that loss but it is debatable whether many, if any, other media group could.

The recently concluded trial involving personnel from the now defunct News of the World is the most recent and prominent example of journalism and blogging working in a complimentary capacity. Peter Jukes, “A blogger who secured more than £6,000 in funding from donors on the internet to live-tweet the hacking trial raised another £14,572 via a second crowdfunding appeal”(Boyle, 2013:1). Mr. Jukes, a published author with one book released and another imminent, tweeted live updates from the Old Bailey to over 14,000 followers (at the time of writing) on a daily basis. These followers include David Conn from The Guardian, Award-winning freelance journalist Debbie Manley and former Daily Mirror journalist Alastair Campbell. Having raised over £20,000 via crowdfunding, Mr Jukes is a firm advocate of the medium.

“I couldn’t stay covering the trial producing one or two freelance articles a week and afford to operate in Central London. It is interesting that people have paid for me to continue at the trial and provide my Twitter stream. They don’t get it exclusively, it is available to everyone. I guess they appreciate that for a service to be delivered, it requires funding.” (Boyle, 2013:1)

Another potential source of chagrin to established journalists is the comparative lack of regulation that bloggers have. The potential for dumbing down of content as well as possible legal problems, libel, ignorance of sub-judice etc. In 2007, editor of Le Monde, Eric Fottorino, lamented that “blogs and citizen journalism were ad nauseum conspiracy theory, orchestrated by people who have no regard for accuracy and fact checking” (Russell & Echchaibi, 2009: 17). Whilst Monsieur Fottorino was clearly unimpressed with the practice of bloggers, “a few weeks after this editorial ran, Le Monde started its own official blog, lepost.fr. Le Monde’s contradictory move could be read as a desperate measure by an old newspaper to make a transition into the new world of interactive news content”. (Russell & Echchaibi, 2009: 17)

A lot of established writers and journalists now write blogs. The medium gives them the freedom to expand on a thread of an idea without a word limit or time constraint. In the medium of blogging, they can also cover more esoteric stories and subjects that would be of a personal interest to themselves and a more niche audience. Clive James, a hugely respected and experienced multimedia journalist, now writes blogs for the New York Times. Mr. James also has his own website with an abundance of subsections allowing internet users to view his vast array of writing. Andy Mitten is a freelance journalist who has written for Fourfourtwo, magazine  the Manchester Evening News, GQ magazine (amongst many others) and he has authored eleven published books. Mr Mitten is also paid to write a regular blog for Yahoo sport and ESPN, which specialise on the minutiae of Spanish football and less well known aspects of the sport respectively. The commissioning of writing like this on a regular basis for a predominate Anglo Saxon demographic would have been unthinkable before the blogging medium became more popular.

Whilst the increasing ubiquity of the internet has seen a relative explosion in the medium of Citizen Journalism, the concept of its practice is not a new phenomenon. It could be argued that the use of town criers as a medium for news conveyance, is the earliest known way of freely distributed news and subsequently, a form of citizen journalism. This practice can be traced back to 1378 when “only the town crier was to announce the death of Pope Gregory XI” (Vincent, 2010: 661). Town criers were a trusted source of news distribution and ‘While the town criers were not recorded, they were a rudimentary form of journalism’ (Rutland, 1973: p. xii). The fundamental difference is that there was no mechanism of a lasting authoritative record for what the town criers actually said, something that there is an abundance of in the modern era.

The dawn of modern citizen journalism can possibly be traced back to when the first commercially available mobile phone became available which, “was marketed in 1983 and retailed for £3995.00” (Darcey, 2012: p13). Whilst mobile phones were beyond the means of most people in their earliest form, it was only a matter of time before they became accessible to every conceivable demographic of age and social background. The introduction of mobile phones combined with the metaphorical castration of the trade union movement by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s, aided both the growth of citizen journalism and, crucially, the ability of media outlets to utilise their product. “We’re all journalists now, today the majority of individuals who call themselves journalists are not full time employees of traditional news media” (Black, 2010: p103). For obvious reasons, this idea was anathema to time served and recognised journalists, but due to the ease that newspaper proprietors could find the product of citizen journalist and the positive economical impact that it had on their bottom line, the rise in the use of citizen journalist was inevitable. Due to this development, it became apparent that “not every person is a journalist, but any citizen can become one” (Carpenter, 69, 2010).

The introduction of the Freedom of Information Act (2000) by the Labour government, made the practice of citizen journalism even easier. Information that was previously privileged to the “hunting ground of informal press briefings and pooling of information between journalists” (Barnett & Gaber, 130: 2001), was now theoretically available to anybody and everybody who requested it. This legislation was, according to Tony Blair, “one of the domestic legislative measures I most regret” (Blair, 304: 2010). It is arguable that due to relative ease that citizen journalists can now access information with, predominantly due to what is colloquially known as an FOI request, professional journalists share the former UK Prime Minister’s consternation. When the act was finally implemented in 2005, “its first year of operation had enabled journalists to produce more than five hundred articles, none of which had originated from the traditional off-the-record contacts” (Horrie, 2008: 132).

Paul Staines is a prolific blogger who writes under the nom de plume of Guido Fawkes. “In a decade, Guido Fawkes moved from being a lone character on the fringes of English political journalism to being a global brand. Mr Staines website has employed a news editor and reporter since 2010” (Patching & Hurst, 2014: 203). Mr Staines has since 2004, become an influential and indeed feared writer amongst parliamentarians. “Since Guido’s Order-Order blog went live in 2004, it has exposed MPs’ petty expenses fraud, forced Peter Hain to resign from his cabinet post over undeclared campaign donations and most spectacularly, brought down Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s political enforcer, in the Smeargate affair. (Sherwin, 2010: 1) The success of the Guido Fawkes brand is something that has influenced journalists into working alongside Mr. Staines. Guido Fawkes “is also a useful resource for newspapers, since he is freer to air unsubstantiated allegations which they can then report. Guido’s instant response to Alan Johnson’s resignation – a post alleging an affair with a civil servant – was reported by the Daily Telegraph. That was before an affair between Johnson’s wife and his protection officer came to light” (Sherwin, 2001: 1). Mr. Staines also releases “Stories with a particularly high value which are farmed out to Sunday newspapers for a price, to help fund the business” (Sherwin, 2001: 1). With this amount of influence, Guido Fawkes is a beacon of the future potential for collaboration between bloggers and established journalists. Another way that bloggers and journalists would be able to collude in future will be due to the fact that bloggers were to be granted exemption to the Leveson proposals with “amendments in the Lords to make it clear they will be excluded” (O’Carroll & Wintour, 2013: 1). The potential through this exemption for an increase in journalists exploring the medium through an increased freedom is obvious, even if they may have to write behind a pseudonym.

Susie Boniface, also known as Fleet Street Fox, is a prolific blogger and experienced journalist who writes with a wry and acerbic humour. Miss Boniface has (at the time of writing) over 68,000 followers on Twitter in her Fleet Street Fox persona. “A freelance journalist who has written for The People, Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun. She is also the author of the book The Diaries of a Fleet Street Fox(Daily Mirror, 2014: 1). Due to a professional frustration of never being able to write in her own voice, Miss Boniface used the medium of blogging as a cathartic outlet to write in her true and natural vernacular, initially behind the Fleet Street Fox alias. “After years of working as a reporter on papers where rank-and-file writers do not interject their own opinion, writing a blog was also a way to let her own voice through. “Not having a voice at all, having to shut up for eighteen years,” she says of a job that demands toeing the editorial line first and foremost. (Boniface & Magnanti, 2013: 1).

Paul Staines and Susan Boniface are both prime examples of the future collaboration between the practice of blogging and journalism and how the practices now juxtapose. They both approached each other’s media from opposite directions. Mr. Staines was first a blogger then, by selling his content to mainstream newspapers, he effectively became a freelance journalist whilst at the same time, establishing his blog as a media outlet with a substantial financial annual turnover. The Guido Fawkes blog has reached a respect and political leverage, equivalent in a contemporary sense to legendary figures such as Sir Ludovic Kennedy, Sir Robin Day and Brian Walden were in their respective era. Mr Staines claimed that “Politicians don’t have to talk to me, I pummel them until they start begging for mercy and then they become more helpful” (Sherwin, 2001: 1). On the other hand, Susie Boniface is a journalist who felt constrained by editorial control of her prose. The original raison d’etre of Miss Boniface’s anonymous alter ego of Fleet Street Fox was to give a vehicle to her own style of writing which in turn, blossomed into a thriving blog. Miss Boniface is still a practicing journalist and also still blogs for her Fleet Street Fox website.

The Al Qaeda attacks of July 2005 were not the first bombs to ever explode in the centre of London, but they were the first to be predominantly reported via the medium of citizen journalism. The internet provided a platform for which people could constantly update the events around central London that day. This was information that not even the mainstream news broadcasters were able to immediately access. The reliability and credence of the reports were dramatically variable but these sources were certainly, for the first time in the UK, being taken seriously on a masse level. “In journalism circles, the London bombings of 7 July 2005 are now seen as a watershed moment for what has become called ‘user-generated content” (Luft: 2006). Public-generated camera aided mobile phone technology came to the fore in the journalistic field. “The BBC received 22,000 e-mails and text messages about the London tube and bus bombings. Fifty within an hour of the first bomb going off and several video sequences” (Douglas: 2006) The proliferation of user generated content lead to what Peter Clifton, head of BBC News Interactive, describe as “our busiest day in history” (Allan, 2006: 145)

BBC relying on citizen journalism in London after the synchronised bombings in July 2005

Soon after the London bombings in August 2005, a disaster which came to be known as Hurricane Katrina, devastated the American state of Louisiana, most famously, the city of New Orleans. The Gulf of Mexico, where New Orleans is situated, has always been vulnerable to hurricanes or other elemental extremities, but never had one been as graphically recorded as the disaster of 2005. This again was due to the ease that citizen journalists could provide content where professional journalists could not access. “Bloggers and other citizen journalists have once again proven the growing importance of the Internet in covering the first-person descriptions of relief efforts, looting and flooding in New Orleans” (Gonsalves: 2005). Hurricane Katrina along with the London bombings was the first mass collaboration between Citizen Journalism and professional journalism. Contemporary Executive Producer for CNN, Mitch Gelman, said about the coverage of the hurricane that “Traditional journalism is the outside looking in” (Dooley, 2007: 83)

Citizen Journalist Mike Theiss with his self filmed and self narrated documentary of his personal perspective of Hurrican Katrina in August 2005

Citizen Journalism has been a crucial assistance in exposing malpractice by people in authority who have a fundamental duty of care. The most famous example in recent times, was the truth regarding the attack on Ian Tomlinson in April 2009, by Police Constable Simon Harwood, which lead to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Maxine de Brunner, apologising to Mr Tomlinson’s family in August 2013 for “issuing misleading statements in the immediate aftermath of his death” (Taylor, 2013: 1). Unbeknown to the Police at the time, the incident was filmed on a mobile phone by Christopher La Jaunie, an American investment fund manager, which sharply contradicted the Police’s version of events. Mr La Jaunie had now inadvertently also become, a citizen journalist. Six days after Mr Tomlinson’s death, “The Guardian published video footage shot by Mr La Jaunie, showed a police officer – later identified as Harwood – in riot gear striking Tomlinson on the leg with a baton before shoving him violently to the pavement, minutes before his final collapse” (Taylor, 2013: 1). It is inconceivable that without the aid of a Citizen Journalist, the truth about Mr Tomlinson’s death would have ever come to the attention of the world at large.

Footage by Christopher La Jaunie of Ian Tomlinson being hit with a baton and pushed to the ground by P.C Simon Harwood on April 1st 2009. In May 2011, an inquest found that Mr Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed. In July 2012, P.C Harwood was cleared of Mr Tomlinson’s manslaughter but later dismissed by the Metropolitan Police for gross miconduct.

Overall, the future could see journalism and blogging not so much complementing each other as to being indecipherable from one another. This could particularly apply to a forthcoming generation who will have no idea or care for the original lines of demarcation between the two practices. With newspapers like The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail having regular bloggers on a whole variety of interest and subject, blogging will eventually become another genre of written journalism. However, it is not just written journalism that will become entwined with blogging. With the advent of YouTube and podcasts, the general public and by extension bloggers, can now effectively make television and radio shows with the correct technical knowledge and expand their media repertoire from the written word into sound and vision.  The next five years are to be the most crucial in the future of mainstream journalism and its commercial feasibility. User generated content that is read for free on the world wide web will expand. The great challenge for media conglomerates is to stay relevant to the next generation of computer savvy youth, as they come through. The prime example of this would be the faux pas of News Corps purchase of MySpace, alluded to earlier in this essay. The fear could be that any media conglomerate could buy into a presently popular social medium like Facebook or Twitter, only to see it fall into near obsolescence due to the ruthless and savagely fickle nature that young people have historically possessed. Citizen journalism is simultaneously, the purest and crudest exercise of democracy.

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