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The stronger citizen reporter

“Covering the realities of everyday life — car accidents, house fires, general police activity, weather emergencies — is well suited to the citizen journalist.”

Citizen journalism is not a new concept. In the digital age, prior to the advent of Twitter, bloggers were the flag bearers of the movement. While innovative (citizen coverage of the 2004 tsunami is widely cited as an early watershed moment for the movement), pre-social media blogging lacked distribution and organizational power. The rise of social platforms changed that, spurring a greater democratization of media. The examples are by now well known, from the “Miracle on the Hudson” to the Egyptian revolution. With the ubiquity of Twitter and more so Facebook, every citizen is not just a potential source but also a potential reporter.

justin-auciellloAnd it’s no longer just the major stories, like political unrest, a plane crash, or a natural disaster. Covering the realities of everyday life — car accidents, house fires, general police activity, weather emergencies — is well suited to the citizen journalist, many of whom are now armed with mobile devices and reporting in real time. It’s Facebook, not Twitter, that’s leading the charge, which is not surprising considering that as of October, Facebook claims 1.15 billion monthly active users compared to Twitter’s 220 million.

As a journalist that started reporting as a citizen (“on the scene,” curation, and aggregation), I created Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN), a two-way news outlet based exclusively (for now) on Facebook and Twitter in the days before Hurricane Irene August 2011 in order to provide citizens with a “news for the people, by the people” platform that is strict on journalistic integrity.

While the objective is to supply news, traffic, and weather information to the community, it’s also a community platform, allowing people to interact, collaborate, and discuss local issues. It provided wall-to-wall coverage before, during, and after Superstorm Sandy and to this day assists with the storm recovery. The citizens, dubbed on JSHN as “contributors,” are both the sources and reporters, and with over 220,000 of them between Facebook and Twitter, the ability to disseminate information quickly is powerful.

What makes JSHN — as well as other notable citizen news outlets like Monmouth County Police, Fire, and EMS and Anne Arundel County Breaking News and Events — unique is that they’re run by regular citizens, not traditional news organizations. Accordingly, the ethos is inherently bottom-up, which proves to be a major disruptive force.

My predictions for 2014:

  • Citizen reporters will have more robust tools at their disposal. Social media (particularly Facebook) will continue to play a vital role in citizen journalism efforts, but with smartphone numbers continually growing, we will see an influx of feature-rich citizen news apps developed by regular citizens who are simply interested in keeping their communities informed. These apps will allow citizens to share news with each other in real-time in an organized multimedia environment, combining text, photo, and video reports. Editors will monitor the apps to ensure journalistic standards are met and will build stories as they evolve, potentially taking a page out of Circa’s playbook.
  • More collaboration between citizen journalism platforms and traditional media. It’s nothing new for mainstream media to rely on citizen reports posted on social media sites, but we will see increased in-depth collaboration with established citizen news organizations. This will benefit both sides, allowing for a rapid pipeline of information and increased credibility for the citizen news organization. WHYY/NewsWorks, the public radio outlet in Philadelphia, recognized the mutual benefit, forming a content-sharing partnership with Jersey Shore Hurricane News. Organizations like the New Jersey News Commons, formed to strengthen ties between news outlets in New Jersey, will continue to assist and promote citizen journalism efforts.
  • Progressive-minded foundations will support citizen journalism efforts. They’ll recognize that these outlets were originally created not with building an enterprise in mind, but simply to keep people informed. But with the movement still young, it will require support to stimulate growth. The Dodge Foundation’s New Jersey Recovery Fund, created to support catalytic ideas and projects with an emphasis on collaboration, innovation, and sustainability as New Jersey recovers from Hurricane Sandy, granted money to Jersey Shore Hurricane News to develop platforms outside of social media. More foundations will fund the effort in the coming year.
  • With communities already relying on established citizen news platforms, advertisers will take notice. With traditional media, including national hyperlocal efforts like Patch, cutting back, advertisers will flock to citizen platforms. This will happen for two overarching reasons: growth and community support. Established citizen platforms already have active participants who live in the communities in which they report. The nascent nature of these outlets is fertile ground for advertisers to grow and strengthen bonds with the community.
  • Twitter and especially Facebook will nurture and assist the platforms. As more citizens band together to report news and community oriented information, their power will increase, and the social media sites will create tools to facilitate the growth.

Citizen journalism may not be a new concept, but it’s still in its infancy, and 2014 will be the year when we’ll witness the more powerful citizen reporter.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20