Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has announced he will launch a major citizen journalism site within the next three months. As quoted in The Guardian:
The American public has lost a lot of trust in conventional newspaper mechanisms. Mechanisms are now being developed online to correct that.
…It was King Henry II who said: ‘Won’t someone rid me of that turbulent priest?’ We have seen a modern manifestation of that in the US with the instances of plausible deniability, the latest example of that has been the Valerie Plame case and that has caused damage.
Can a Craiglist approach work for Washington politics? It’s hard to imagine a million worker ants distributed across the nation cracking Plamegate. You’re more likely to get results from good old investigative reporting, but combined with a canny postmodern sense of spin (and we’re not just talking about the Bush administration’s spin, but Judith Miller’s spin, The New York Times’ spin) and the ability to make that part of the story. Combine the best of professional journalism with the best of the independent blogosphere. Can this be done?
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo fame wants to bridge the gap with a new breed of “reporter-blogger,” currently looking to fill two such positions — paid positions — for a new muckraking blog that will provide “wall-to-wall coverage of corruption, self-dealing, and betrayals of the public trust in today’s Washington” (NY Sun has details). While other high-profile bloggers sign deals with big media, Marshall clings fast to his independence, but recognizes the limitations of not being on the ground, in the muck, as it were. He’s banking that his new cyborgs might be able to shake up the stagnant Washington press corps from the inside, or at least offer readers a less compromised view (though perhaps down the road fledgeling media empires like Marshall’s will become the new media establishment).
That’s not to say that the Craigslist approach will not be interesting, and possibly important. It was dazzling to witness the grassroots information network that sprung up on the web during Hurricane Katrina, including on the Craigslist New Orleans site, which became a clearinghouse for news on missing persons and a housing directory for the displaced. For sprawling catastrophes like this it’s impossible to have enough people on the ground. Unless the people on the ground start reporting themselves.
Citizen journalists also pick up on small stories that slip through the cracks. You could say the guy who taped the Rodney King beating was a “citizen journalist.” You could say this video (taken surreptitiously on a cellphone) of a teacher in a New Jersey high school flipping out at a student for refusing to stand for the national anthem is “citizen journalism.” Some clips speak for themselves, but more often you need context, you need to know how to frame it. The interesting thing is how grassroots journalism can work with a different model for contextualization. The New Jersey video made the rounds on the web and soon became a story in the press. One person slaps up some footage and everyone else comments, re-blogs and links out. The story is told collectively.