Sunday night on Twitter, a link made the rounds among people I follow. It was to an editorial in a web publication called The Digital Journalist, entitled: Let’s Abolish ‘Citizen Journalists’. Now I’ve been tracking varieties of this disdain for years, but this struck me and others as a particularly vivid—in fact, imperious—expression of it.
Citizen journalist is a misnomer. There is no such thing. There are citizens and there are journalists. Everybody can be one of the former, but to be called a journalist means that you are a professional. Either you have been schooled in journalism, or you have “paid your dues,” rising slowly through the ranks.
…We advocate abolishing the term “citizen journalist.” These people can call themselves “citizen news gatherers,” but it is no more appropriate to call them citizen journalists than it would be to sit before a citizen judge or be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon.
Because of declining revenues, newspapers, magazines and TV stations actually think they can get these “volunteers” to replace the professionals. If that is the case, we hope the next step is not to have citizen “editors” start running traditional media, or any media for that matter.
In the same issue of The Digital Journalist (Dec. 2009) was an even more aggressive attack, Citizen Journalism: A Recipe for Disaster, by Ron Steinman. I have my own definition of the term and I wanted to know what was behind these harsh sentiments. So I wrote to Dirck Halstead, the editor and publisher of The Digital Journalist, to ask for an interview. He agreed. At least I thought he did. The interview, conducted by email, kind of broke down just as it was getting good. Anyway, here it is….
Your editorial, Let’s Abolish ‘Citizen Journalists’, seems to come out of some frustration you have or perhaps a sense of dismay. What is this frustration? What is this dismay?
Dirck Halstead: I come from many years of traditional journalism.I was there for the ”golden years”of the 70s. There were many publications that were vying for the talents of photojournalists. These publications lavished many pages on photo essays. They travelled photographers around the world to provide those pages.
Things changed in the 80s with “run of press” color which meant that a color photograph could be inserted at any point in the publication process, instead of being pre-printed. The whole point of “color acts” which dominated magazines until this point, was to provide pre-printed advertising pages. Hence, the editorial color budget depended on how many advertising pages there were, and vice-versa.
Editorial photojournalism has always been inextricably bound with advertising. Today, the advertising is gone. So goes photojournalism, simple as that. For all purposes, “photojournalism” as we know it is all over.
“We advocate abolishing the term ‘citizen journalist,”” you write. How would you propose to go about this?
Dirck Halstead: I can’t abolish it. The situation is much too far gone. The problem for citizen journalists is there are no agents. Because nobody knows who will produce what, when.
So their work is not marketable.
However, one of these days, there will be a huge change in media. It requires the death of print. The reality is that the web is holding down web advertising rates, which are at 10% of print or less. Once print is gone, and the entire focus is on the web, you will see aggregation of web sites by the principal players , such as Time Inc. that will build super sites, with huge advertising budgets, and once again there will be a competitive market for visual storytellers, be in still or video.
“There are many people who think they can replace professional visual journalists,” you say. What is this conclusion—that citizen journalists think they can or should replace the pros—based on? Where do you find this urge to replace expressed?
Dirck Halstead: I refer you to this email to The Digital Journalist today by Edward C. Greenberg, the counsel for the American Society of Media Photographers. He says it very well.
“I have never had the pleasure of meeting or conversing with Howard Owens but I can represent and inform him that I have been told ‘to my face’ not less than a hundred times from: editors, publishers, book companies, editorial stock agents/cies, media company lawyers, newspaper editors from publications stretching from NYC to LA, Mexico to Canada (and beyond), accountants, op ed page editors, those who hire staff shooters, those who used to hire staff shooters and on and on, that it was the intention/goal/business plan of that given publication/business to eliminate all professional photographers.
I hear it almost every day. Attorneys for media outlets and publishers make no secret about it. I have been writing and publishing about such public pronouncements for over a decade. It is not exactly a secret. I have been but one of many playing Paul Revere on this issue. At least one professional organization resisted the warnings preferring (mistakenly) to think that shooters and clients would ‘partner’ for mutual survival.
There has been and continues to be a concerted effort to replace all professional editorial photographers (which I define as persons who must make a living by shooting and licensing their work) with people whose economic survival is not based on their respective photographic activities. There has been no shortage of lawyers, IP execs, editors, etc. who work for media companies who admit that openly. Any who are reluctant to speak require one, (two at the most) adult beverage(s) before they ‘come clean.’”
I’m not sure I understand the argument. Maybe you can clarify it for me. Owners and managers looking to cut costs think they can do it by ditching professional journalists and getting amateurs to do the work. Craven business minds will always try to replace expensive workers with cheaper ones if they think they can get away with it. Why aim your fire at citizen journalists, people who are simply exercising their rights, and using the tools they have?
Dirck Halstead: I am not aiming my comments on those people who want to contribute to the flow of information, be it visual or text.
[At this point the interview begins to break down. Dirck Halstead starts skipping questions and refusing to say whether he was giving me a “no comment.” Yes, I asked.]
You seem to be concerned about a single class of producers, professional photographers employed by news organizations and the threat to their livelihoods. The term “citizen journalism” refers to much more than that. Are you in fact limiting your arguments to the news photographer’s role, or do think citizen journalism should be abolished in all its manifestations?
[Mr. Halstead did not reply to this question.]
Where does this idea come from that a journalist is the one with his name on the list, or the credential from the police department (a government agency, by the way) and all others are just pretenders? I find that a little surprising and I am wondering where you got it from.
The reality is that in order to be given access to events, whether it is a fire or a political campaign, there must be an accrediting body. You can’t cross police and fire lines by simply saying you want to do that. Try it with your local police department. You can’t waltz into the White House or a summit meeting or embed with a unit in Afghanistan simply because you want to.
There are people who do this. They are called professionals. As I said, if you are a dedicated citizen journalist, and really want to do this stuff, you will persevere until you (horrors!) become a professional.
If the concern is who gets access to events, and—as you are saying—“you can’t just waltz in” because the police department won’t let just anyone behind police or fire lines, then where’s the problem?
[Sadly, Mr. Halstead did not reply to this question.]
You said you’re not aiming your comments at people who want to contribute to the flow of information. Okay. Then who are you aiming your comments at?
[Mr. Halstead did not reply to this question, either. Instead, he sent the following.]
Dirck Halstead: Jay, one of the things I learned a long time ago. “Never mistake ambition for talent.”
I assume you have looked at Lucian Read’s and David Bathgate’s galleries. They didn’t get there because they were my friends. I was only vaguely aware of them. They got there because their work was special. They are professionals.
If you want to go to Afghanistan, I promise that I will look at your work with an open mind. I look forward to seeing it.
The 15-minute documentary Citizen Journalism: From Pamphlet to Blog is a guide to US citizen journalism through the ages - from Thomas Paine in the 18th century to the more modern hows and whys of being an anti-establishment news hound.
The film features interviews with talking heads from the blogging world - including Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices - discussing, among other things, how newspapers have gone through major cost-cutting exercises as their revenues are leeched by sites like Craigslist.