I read that William Hazlitt warned of the danger, with the advent of the popular press, that:
“every one, high and low, rich and poor, should turn author”
(I think this is from ‘The Influence of Books’ New Monthly Magazine, 1828).
For the many who concern themselves with the rise of Internet publishing, a constant worry is the possibility of good and informed writing being diluted by the virtual reams of chatter and crap. When Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC, unveiled his plans for an online “revamp”, the cry from many quarters was that the corporation site would degenerate into a glorified MySpace, with each page winning a readership of only one or two.
I’m not worried, however. Many others have written on the importance of dedicated journalists and analysts providing news and comment for the rest of us to consume. I take the term ‘citizen journalist’ to mean someone who has other commitments – a day-job, perhaps (if not, then they’re simply an unemployed freelancer). The ‘professional’, on the other hand, can make the time to do their reading and research which leads (we hope) to better articles.
One of the reasons why I love the BBC is the sheer breadth of information it provides. For example, the quantity of obscure, conference-league football matches that are covered by the corporation is to be applauded. Part of the point of public service broadcasting is to provide information that the market will not. I’m not sure the commercial stations could or would provide the same level of coverage.
It is in this realm that the ‘citizen journalist’ becomes useful. These people can provide the information that the professionals cannot – local and niche news. Why stop at conference-league football results for example? Why declare 1000 fans as the cut-off point for relevant sports news? Why not 100? Or one? To labour the example: There are thousands of other football matches played every day – sub-conference regional leagues, pub leagues, university leagues, schools leagues, and youth football for every year-age group from under 8. Citizen journalists can provide the information, and the BBC provides a public service by creating an ordered place for that information to be filed, and then found. Sure, only one person may be interested in the Crookham Rovers vs Hadley Town U13 bottom-of-the-league mud-fest… But if that one person is a grandpa, under arthritic house-arrest, who reads (and even sees digital images) about grandson Bobby’s goal-mouth scramble… then I would say the public has been served.
Remember, we are concerned with online news here, where the marginal cost of providing this data is near-zero. For ‘football matches’ you can read any other sport; or local produce prices; support-groups and voluntary organisations; amateur arts; or street- and tenement-level local politics.
The operative word in ‘citizen journalism’ is not the latter, but the former. It is not about the army of Hazlitt wannabes, talking to themselves. It is not about reaching the global, but the local instead. It is an integral part of what Michelle Kasprzak calls the ‘Smallweb’. It is about the stregthening of civil society, catalysing those unseen and unreported interactions between people, forging and reinforcing bonds, those that the ‘professional’ journalists keep telling us we have lost.