It is hard to ignore the realities reshaping journalism. In many parts of the world, the global economic crisis is shrinking newsrooms. The reduced ranks of professional journalists now find themselves in serious competition with an ever-expanding crop of citizen journalists and bloggers. This new breed of reporter is getting scoops and breaking big stories once thought to be the exclusive domain of the professionals.
“We are at a critical junction,” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Asia program coordinator Bob Dietz said recently, referring to the convergence of the global financial crisis, the dissolution of traditional media, and the growth of online media.
Speaking last week on a panel in Washington D.C. organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) – which oversees the U.S. government’s international broadcasting – Dietz and fellow journalism experts discussed how journalists will survive in the new media model.
The journalists likely to succeed, they said, are those racing to become tech-savvy by learning video and audio streaming, podcasting, Facebook and SMS.
And because it is easier to distribute information through multiple channels, Dietz said, “the whole mechanism of getting ahead has completely changed.”
In China, for instance, news often surfaces on grassroots bulletin boards. It is then aggregated by bloggers and subsequently brought to the attention of newspapers in Hong Kong, he said.
In recent weeks, the social networking service Twitter made headlines as a new journalistic tool after citizen journalists on the scene of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai used their cell phones to blast a steady stream of “tweets” of the events.
In fact, more and more, foreign reporting cannot be done without citizen journalism, speakers agreed. Even large mainstream media outlets such as CNN, Reuters and Al-Jazeera, among others, are now promoting citizen journalism and offering headlines through Twitter and Facebook.
Throughout the war in Iraq, “some of the best reporting [has been] from Iraqi bloggers,” said Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor at the U.S.-based National Public Radio; such as the award-winning blog Baghdad Burning, launched in 2003. The blogger, a young female reporting through a fake name, often discussed complex cultural subjects as well as firsthand reports such as road closures or the grocery selection at the street vendor.
In a sense, citizen journalism and mainstream media complement each other, said Patrick Meier, a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. In a recent study, Meier compared the coverage patterns of mainstream media and citizen journalism during the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008. While mainstream media tended to focus on body counts, Meier found citizen journalists more often reported the incidents that led to conflict.
Yet, some journalists, such as professor and senior writer at the American Journalism Review Sherry Ricchiardi, are concerned the new media environment threatens the fundamental principles of the profession – accuracy, balance and fairness.
“We know from surveys that the public holds us in fairly low disregard,” said Ricchiardi, referring to the media’s low credibility.
But, Meier countered, bloggers as concerned about their reputations as well. They know false information can make readership go down, he said.
To stand out in the blogosphere, Dietz recommended reporting from a place where few others are working. From there, “pick up a few strings for the Associated Press and BBC,” he added.
With luck, it may become an international journalism career. “Or perhaps it will be just the most engaging time of your life,” he said.