‘Citizen Journalism’ is a phrase just like ‘Horseless carriage,’ and we needed both


News-gathering can be profitable — there are oodles of examples of them. The challenge is taking those dollars to create the most efficiently-produced local journalism.

The big solution and sure trend of the future is fostering a community that covers itself.

The Quick Take

Citizen journalism is a transitional phrase that will soon be as dated as ‘horseless carriage’ is now

But we’re in a period of transition so the ‘citizen’ distinction serves a purpose.

So I’ve been thrilled to see that NEast Philly, the year-old, hyperlocal news site for Northeast Philadelphia to which I contribute and handle Web operations, has been slowly receiving more reader submissions. Lately, Editor Shannon McDonald tells me she’s receiving an item or two a week from readers.

We’ve been encouraging readers to send in photos, brief write-ups of their community events and any other kind of reporting that anyone can do. It’s coming, but still most comes from McDonald tracking down information, submissions and contacts.

I’m one to describe this as ‘UGC‘ — user-generated content — and have been known to use the phrase “citizen journalism.” After doing so once more, I was pointed to a few dated conversations about just how dated that phrase might be, and I have some thoughts on why it’s a concept that still has value.

That older, yet still interesting conversation from this summer came from the always insightful Spot.Us founder David Cohn and was predated in 2006 by Amy Gahran.


The take is this: ‘citizen journalism’ the phrase is like ‘horseless carriage,’ which described cars in their nascence.

As Cohn writes:

Our culture was so fixated on the horse for transportation that when we found something that got us from place A to place B, we had to define it as something that did a horses’ job – without the horse. The “horseless carriage” term was perfect for that transition phase [Source].

Likewise, the thinking goes, we are so used to using the word ‘journalist’ for people who are paid to investigate, report and write our news full-time that as the Web reduced publishing costs and opened up opportunities for anyone to be a journalist that we needed a new term.

Citizen journalism was born, but, as most speculate, like ‘horseless carriage,’ we’ll soon enough probably drop the qualifier. It will just be journalism.

Bright and young Cody Brown made a wonderful case for the future of news being largely handled by the public — someday. There were once professional drivers handling the once complicated work of using the new technology of driving. It was a position that was lost, and now most everyone is his own driver. So, soon, the professional journalist and citizen journalist distinctions will be lost, we say, and we’ll have just have journalists.

I can agree with all of this, that the public will play a larger and larger role in covering itself and that ‘citizen journalism’ will be seen soon enough as an awfully silly phrase.


But there is a tendency in future of news conversations to race to the future. Whoever can guess what news will look like 2015 wins, er, unless you get to 2023, and anyone left behind loses.

The public will play an enormous role in the future, and this will make ‘citizen journalists’ probably just ‘journalists’ or perhaps something else.

What else you gonna call Citizen Journalism

Assuming we still need a distinction today but perhaps wanting something that sounds less Orwellian:

  • reader submissions
  • independent journalism
  • participatory journalism
  • user-generated content
  • crowd-sourced news
  • others?

But that’s not now.

McDonald from NEast Philly and others who specialize in their trade — whether they had any formal training or not doesn’t matter, if I focus my time plumbing then I am a damn plumber — still have to curate this conversation on news sites or through social media. They are collecting, selecting, editing, and normalizing how this will happen in the future.

We can mock CNN’s iReport or other vaunted phrasings of ‘citizen journalism’ but people outside this conversation on the future of news don’t all understand our expectations for the future, just like folks didn’t understand what an automobile was in the early 20th century.

We still need the professional drivers, so we still have horseless carriages.

Yo, the video below from a San Francisco trolley in 1905 has all sorts of horseless carriages, which interact with actual horse-driven carriages. We had both, so we had to make the distinction. Similarly, today we have plenty of professional and plenty of independent journalists, so we need the distinction now.

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