Blogs, podcasts & citizen journalism

One of the more significant news reporting occurrences in the early part of the 21st century is growth of citizen journalism. Citizen journalism (CJ) is a term that encompasses several practices that allow ordinary citizens to contribute content to what would ordinarily be considered a news product. Thus we have non-journalists who would normally be considered part of the audience (readers, viewers) actually helping to create the news product. Two of the most visible aspects of CJ are blogs and podcasts. But there are other forms as well.

CJ in this regard is enabled by the Internet. Blogs by definition are delivered by and built within Web space. Podcasts are produced by various kinds of hardware and software and delivered over the Internet. A computer network technology known as "really simple syndication" (RSS) allows people to subscribe to their favorite podcasts, blogs, news feeds, and other Internet content.

The advent of CJ has inspired some controversy. Many people arguing from a traditional news organization point of view contend that allowing ordinary, untrained citizens to contribute to a news site cheapens the product and undermines the credibility of the "parent" organization. Others argue that news packaging should be an interactive process. A few examples will serve to illustrate the phenomenon. Unless otherwise noted, Web site reviews are by Connor Threlkeld, a 2005 TTU Mass Comm graduate now working for the Morris Communications Web operations. Reviews were written in the fall of 2005, so may be dated in some respects.

Some CJ site examples

Ohio University Speakeasy Magazine

Content News on a wide variety of issues and events that impact the lives of students and members of the Ohio U community. Articles on academics, sports, the arts, the campus community and profiles on people are all things people would be interested in reading. If someone’s not interested in everything on the site, they’ll certainly find something of interest. Obsessive blog readers might find a blog of interest since they’re about the lives of campus community members, so they can relate to what’s going on.
Layout Heavy use of frames and boxes to define and separate content. Visually appealing color scheme, and the tab-style article introductions allow users to check out an article before clicking. Easy to use menu bar at the top of the page makes navigation easy. Attractive look makes me want to return, even though I have no interest in the Ohio U community. Top graphic gives the site a rough, causal, grassroots feel.
Summary Attractive site that is very visually appealing. Excellent and rapidly changing content that college students are interested in.

The Dallas Morning News "Neighbors"

Content Mostly introduction to the concept, with actual news and useful local information in tables to the bottom of the page. Citizen-submitted articles edited and organized by editorial staff. Editorials and community calendar towards the end, with small sections for arts and entertainment. What’s going on in the community.
Layout Heavily graphical, lots of flash, most of the useful content is towards the bottom of the page. Mostly, the web site is to tell people about the print product and how to get information submitted. Embedded in the usual DallasNews.com web site, which combined with advertisements on the right, leaves only about 60 percent of page for actual site. Great local resources at the bottom of site.
Summary Excessively busy visual image, actual useful content is too far from the top.

The Northwest Voice – Bakersfield, Calif.

Content Most viewed and editor’s picks listings give the reader a quick look at well written news. Solid community calendar, wide variety of topics and categories of news and information. Login requirement a little disappointing.
Layout Bright, energetic look, a little too bright perhaps. Sections and main page well organized, calendar useful. Simple but effective look
Summary Login requirement for viewing is discouraging, understandable for addition of information, but for general use of the site is excessive.

My Missourian – Mid-Missouri Community News

Content Small town feeling given by the subject headings. It’s designed well for its target community. Limited content, including a lack of pictures, articles, video and other types of content.
Layout Plain, very basic design, though it is effective. It gets you where you need to go. Ugly grass top-of-page logo, really gives the site a country, unprofessional feeling. I don’t think I would be too interested in getting news from a site that looks like this.
Summary Very basic, minimalist design lacking in content and ability to maintain interest.

Bluffton Today

Content Tremendous variety of content, from blogs to news to an electronic print version to information about movies to pictures, podcasts, weather, job listings, yellow pages and lots of other things.
Layout Lots of graphics and a variety of ways to interact, but doesn’t really utilize the full width of the page. Actual news section looks very nice, but the large obtrusive graphic at the top of the main page is a little weird. Excellent looking print product.
Summary Solid content, layout a little shaky looking.

WikiNews – Worldwide

Content Articles somewhat suspect because of unknown authors. List of sources at conclusion of articles useful for getting more information. Many articles incomplete or weak, especially in the breaking news section. Lots of sections and areas of the world have little in the way of news or representation.
Layout Recycles Wikipedia site concept and colors. Almost too much information on the main page. The interior pages that organize the articles by location and type of news are more useful. Excessive number of fonts and styles make the page harder to read. Great sidebar, lots of good tools make navigation simple.
Summary Successful community news concept, but seems too ambitious in the breadth of coverage.

An industry perspective

In June of 2005, Steve Outing at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies wrote a lengthy (for the Web) article titled "The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism." This is worth studying to get your mind around the expanse of the topic. Note the several "layers." Some news companies and journalists might be "okay" with some layers and not with others.