Social Media Makes Us Citizen Journalists

Social media doesn’t just make us consumers of news, it makes us part of the news.

We’re no longer relying on the mainstream media to inform us. In many cases, we’re reporting it ourselves, or at the very least, spreading it beyond the traditional media’s original reach. I can’t count the number of stories I heard about on Twitter, Facebook, or a friend asking me, “hey, did you just hear about __________?”

In some cases, it’s just a link that points back to a story in an online newspaper. It could be a tweet from @IndyStar, it could be a retweet of a story in another part of the world, or it could even be a blogger reporting on news with national ramifications that is still only making ripples in their local media.

My point is we are starting to create our own media. While the mainstream media may sneer and look down their noses at bloggers as citizen journalists, the fact is they are coming up with some interesting stories, often breaking the news before the professionals.

In fact, the Associated Press has gone so far as to not only acknowledged the existence of bloggers, but will even now cite them as a source.

“We should provide attribution whether the other organization is a newspaper, website, broadcaster or blog; whether or not it’s U.S. based; and whether or not it’s an AP member or subscriber,” said the Associated Press’ September 1 online press release.

In other words, they may not like it, but they have to follow their own rules about us.

This is just one more indication that citizen journalists are becoming more important to informing our communities and discussing the things the professionals don’t. This is also one more reason why citizen journalists need to act like real journalists, and not the half-assed rabble rousers they assume us to be.

Want more proof that citizen journalism is continuing to grow? There are a growing number of sites that aggregate our citizen journalist news for us, so we can read more stories about our favorite topics in one location.

  • Newsvine: Community driven news. They reprint wire content, and some members have their own blogs. This one has all the same sections as a traditional newspaper.
  • NowPublic: A citizen journalist network where users do their own reporting, upload videos and audio.
  • The American Reporter: The Internet’s first original content alternative daily newspaper. They publish news from journalists and citizen journalists from around the world. They were the first to break the story about the A.A. Milne estate suing Disney for royalties of Winnie the Pooh. (Disclosure: I have been AR’s humor columnist since 1997.)
  • SB Nation: A collection of sports news, blogs, and scores. It’s done in conjunction with Yahoo Sports, but also a collection of 278 sports blogs from around the country. It’s easy to see a single network — ESPN, Sports Illustrated — covering sports this thoroughly, but SB Nation is able to put it together for a fraction of the cost.
  • Autospies: A collection of automotive news organized by and for automotive enthusiasts. If you are an automotive professional, you may hear breaking news here before you get it in your other industry publications.
  • Tip’d: A finance, investing, and business site that works like Digg. You read a story, “tip” it, and then discuss it.

The Growing Need for Bloggers as Citizen Journalists

Two bits of interesting news this past month for bloggers who consider themselves journalists:

I’ve been preaching for a while that bloggers are citizen journalists. And now we get confirmation that 52% of us believe it to be true, and that 61% of Americans are possible readers. Plus — and this is a big one — the last-reported numbers from Technorati are that 77% of all Internet users read a blog of some kind.

The time is ripe for bloggers to begin thinking of themselves as citizen journalists. Social media is making it so much easier for us to not only see the news, but report it as well.

Social media is breaking the news before the news.

We’ve seen several instances where social media broke news stories before mainstream media picked it up. The three most notable examples have been:

  1. The first images coming out of Haiti were on Twitter, because mainstream media couldn’t get on the ground. People with cell phones and spotty wifi were sending photos to Twitter and Facebook, and we were spreading them around like wildfire. My family was particularly interested in one set of missionaries in Port-au-Print, and @TroyLiveSay was providing information that we weren’t getting anywhere else.
  2. Moments after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, news was spreading on Twitter before the shots had even stopped.
  3. When the US Airways flight landed in the Hudson last year, news had broken on Twitter 15 minutes before the first news reports hit the airwaves.

While none of these examples show a failing of the mainstream media, they show that in many cases, people reporting on incidents that happened nearby ended up being first just because of the widespread nature of the tools.

I’ve been playing with Posterous as a possible blogging platform for rapid response and crisis communication professionals. You email your blogs to your email address (it’s actually just post@posterous.com), your subject line is your headline, you attach any photos, type and format your content in your text box, and voila! You’ve got a blog post sent from your smart phone.

And I totally geeked out a few days ago, when Chris Brogan showed how you can take photos on your digital camera, and immediately have them uploaded to your favorite file sharing service, with something the size of a quarter and something else the size of a pocket calculator.

My advice? If you have even the slightest inclination of being a citizen journalist, start taking your blogging seriously. You don’t have to change the scope of your blog, your writing style, or even the quality of your writing.

Just do it with intentionality. As hard as it may be to explain (this is the 6th time I’ve written this paragraph), report your news for posterity. Do it with a sense of responsibility and gravitas. When you see something happening, take photos and upload them to Flickr or Picasa. Send tweets. Email news to your blog. Be a source of information to your community. Don’t just repeat what you’ve seen, report on it.

Even something as simple as reporting a small incident you just witnessed can sometimes lead to national or even international stories, or you may be the lone voice that speaks for someone who can’t do it themselves.

While I’m not suggesting we all change our focus and become word slingers, I am suggesting we adopt the mindset that we’re just as good as the professionals who, I’m sorry to say, just aren’t as quick as the “ordinary citizens” armed with nothing more than cell phones and a serious case of Twitter-thumbs.

Related posts:
Rules for Being a Media Blogger
Defining Two Types of Crisis Communication
Five Things Newspapers Can Teach Us About Blogging
What Stylebook Should Bloggers Use?

Rules for Being a Media Blogger

This was originally posted at the DeckersMarketing.com blog on May 28, 2009.

I was really honored to be selected as a media blogger for the Indianapolis 500 this year (I’m covering it at my Laughing Stalk humor blog). I’m sitting up here with a lot of local talent, although there are a lot of empty seats right now (I’m in Dennis Neal’s seat from WLW radio in Cincinnati).Indy 500 Media Center

I learned a long time ago that there are a couple of unwritten (and written) rules for media people. And if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for a sports team or major event, you need to follow these rules. They’re the same ones the big-J Journalists follow every day. (“Big-J Journalist” implies that these people are serious journalists who make their living writing and producing important work. These guys look down on bloggers, because we’re not serious or well accepted in journalistic circles.)

  1. Never geek out. You were probably invited because you’ve got a passion for writing and for the team you’re covering. However, you’re the media now. You’re not a fanboy who bumped into your favorite player at a McDonald’s. Play it cool, be mature, and don’t try to be their buddy. You’re there to get a story, just like the real Journalists (see, I even used a big J), so act your age and get it done.
  2. Never ask for autographs or photos. My friend Amanda, who writes Red Hot Mama, the Cincinnati Reds/National League Central fan blog, said she once tried to get some media credentials for a Reds game, and was told it would never happen. It seems the year before, they allowed a blogger into the locker room, but the guy geeked out and asked for autographs and photos with the players. The guy turned into a total fanboy and gave the PR staff the only reason they would ever need to not invite bloggers to cover the team again. Now, we can argue the Reds are missing some great PR and coverage, but until that PR director leaves, he’s willing to give it up to avoid the hassles and headaches.
  3. Blogging is not big-J Journalism. And it never will be if you don’t act like it. Sure there are writers like Chris Brogan, Jason Falls, and even political writers like Matt Drudge and the Daily Kos are all professional bloggers and speakers. They take their reputations and brands seriously, and work hard to make blogging an accepted form of media. If you’re going to be a serious blogger — and maybe we should start calling ourselves big-B Bloggers — write your blog as if you have a serious brand to promote.
  4. On the other hand, you’re not there to write fluff either. Don’t feel like you have to be the company yes man on anything. I was eating lunch today with a reporter who had also been a blogger for his newspaper. He wrote a not-so-nice post about one of the racers and his wife last year, and was griped at by the racer’s staff via email. While he is no longer blogging for his paper, he is still employed by them. He still writes critical pieces if he needs to, and realizes he’s not there to be the PR mouthpiece of the racers or their teams. The takeaway: if you find or see something that could be seen as negative, write about it anyway. Do it respectfully, and treat it like a big-J Journalist would. Write the facts, keep your opinion out of it, and be a professional.

Bloggers are still getting a bad rap from most of the mainstream media as being an unreliable source of news. And it will be, until we change our reputation and quality of work. That, and when the newspapers all go out of business, and network news is replaced by cable news and, well, blogs.

Until that time, as you grow your reputation and reach as a quality Big-B Blogger, practice journalistic techniques. Read books on newspaper writing (it’s still the gold standard of writing quality and ability), use Associated Press writing style, and study as many newspaper writers as you can.

But most importantly, for the love of God, don’t geek out.