The OJR gets it wrong on citizens media

Tom Grubisich at the increasingly detached (IMO) Online Journalism Review takes a tour of ten grassroots journalism efforts, a.k.a. citizen journalism, a.k.a. community news sites, and decides he’s not very hopeful about the future of the idea.

Many Internet prophets now see their early vision being fulfilled. And so it seems on the surface. But when you take a closer look, what you see, apart from a couple of honorable exceptions, is the Internet equivalent of Potemkin villages — an elaborate façade with little substance behind it.
This article is an insult to the people working — often with no payback — to develop new concepts for journalism using the disruptive technologies of the personal media revolution. Rather than asking for the creators’ criteria for success, Mr. Grubisich uses his own barometer to judge the value of the ten efforts he chose. And you can’t get a more pejorative reference than Potemkin villages.

The sad thing about this kind of “story” is that it presupposes the motivation of citizens media efforts is the same as those of the mainstream. Moreover, people who think this way are stuck on the idea that these efforts seek to somehow replace the mainstream, and that is simply untrue.

The jury’s still out, Tom. Go look down your nose at somebody else.


  1. Ka-Pow! You took this round, Terry.

  2. So “citizen journalism” is already above a little constructive criticism? Wow, the field has matured!

    Actually, such a reaction isn’t surprising — the newer the concept, the more defensive its practicioners tend to be. That’s human nature. But it shouldn’t keep us from taking an honest look at what’s working and what isn’t.

    The OJR piece may be a little snarkier than you’d like (though far less so than most of the feedback directed at journalists), but it gives us a good framework for discussion. Grubisich thinks editing and navigational common sense create better sites, and he makes a strong case.

    My impression from reading his mini-reviews is that most of these sites have little appeal to a casual browser. Even Brattleboro, which he calls one of the successes, requires readers to wade unaided through 50 pages on one topic. A few hard-core readers may do so, but someone who just wants a quick read on the topic probably wouldn’t. If that doesn’t matter, fine, but I’d imagine it matters to some people.

    Perhaps it’s simply easier to do citizen journalism around niches, not around geographic communities. That’s the point OJR editor Robert Niles made on the Online-News list, and it matches my experience in covering soccer alongside volunteers from and, both of which are edited and organized as well as — even better than — many professional sites. The volunteers saw soccer as an undercovered niche, and they’ve gained full pressbox access in many cases.

    But even those sites demonstrate a problem lurking beneath the surface of this discussion — volunteers are drawn more readily to punditry than to reporting. Everyone wants to be a columnist; few want to report.

    None of this means citizen journalism can’t work. They’re just pitfalls. Build the rope to swing over them.

  3. Calling citizens media efforts “Potemkin villages” is hardly constructive, Beau. And you’re going to have to define what you mean by “what’s working.”

    Why does any journalistic effort require a “business model” to be considered valid? This is what I mean by viewing new media through old glasses, something Mr. Grubisich has done in this article.

    Talk to me again in a year.

  4. It is interesting that there does seem to be some parallel between the dot commers who ignored profit, instead aiming for market share, and people investing in and developing aggregated online communities. It often backfired, but not in every case.

    But somehow, this (the blogosphere) feels different. Positioned correctly, through efforts like Terry’s, organizations stand the chance to gain through developing networks of dedicated people who are self sacrificing for nothing much more than the satisfaction of doing a good job of sharing what they know. The fact that there might be a paycheck for some of these self sacrificing writers is icing on the cake for them.

    To assume that old think business models are necessary in this environment might be missing the fundamental point of why this new medium of democratic expression is so successful.

    let me put it another way. Is the constitution of the United States a business plan? I like to think of it as more a framework for an open society.

    The blogosphere corner of the internet is more of an open society, where frameworks and not rigid business plans might be what proves flexible enough to adapt to ever changing and evolving realities.

    I guess we’ll see. Like Terry says above, let’s talk in a year.

  5. Terry,

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Mr. Grubisich applied a narrow definiation of sucess. I left a comment on Mr. Grubisich’s article that explains one of the sucesses he missed.

  6. I’m sorry, and I hate to disagree with Roch, but I don’t see how your response is any more constructive than the OJR piece. After 15 years in journalism, believe me — “Potemkin Village” may be the mildest insult I’ve ever heard. And any site that opens the floodgates for contributors and commenters is going to hear far, far worse than that. I mean, Grubisich has a respected media theorist yelling “Ka-pow!” at him in the first comment on your post.

    In fact, we journalists are often the ones who are told we have to deal with it. This is how “real people” speak outside our ivory towers. (Most journalists I know shrug off insults far better than “real people” — we’ve heard ’em all.)

    I didn’t mention a “business model.” The OJR piece only mentioned it in passing, and only because some people actually do intend to make money from this. (Many don’t, and more power to them.)

    I didn’t get the impression that Grubisich was defining “success” in business terms. He was defining it in terms of engaging activity at the sites. A couple of them had it. Others were noticeably struggling.

    In a year, I think some of the now-struggling sites will be vibrant. But not if they maintain some sort of blind faith in doing things exactly as they are now. They’ll figure out ways to improve … however they define “improve.”

    If anyone (my money would be on Roch) can provide a counterargument that says these sites are indeed more successful in engaging people than Grubisich says, I’d rather hear that than the same old “MSM don’t get it” line.

  7. To follow up on Roch’s site — I could easily argue that Greensboro101 is more “successful” than Grubisich suggests, in part because the nature of the beast is to aggregate blogs. Perhaps there weren’t many comments on the site itself, but the blogs aggregated therein seem quite lively, as you’d expect from Greensboro. (And to think I lived there in the pre-blog days!)

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