Newspaper journalism appears to be in terminal decline. It is almost totally reliant on advertising revenues and these are diminishing, lost either to digital television services or, more frequently, to the web. The traditional business model of the press simply is unsustainable. As if this weren't bad enough, younger readers in particular appear less and less willing to buy newspapers - they read them free via the internet if they so desire.
The response of newspapers is to be expected: they have cut costs wherever possible. This is particularly evident when it comes to the most expensive part of the business, serious reportage. Although many students aspire to follow in the footsteps of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, they need to be told that opportunities for serious investigative journalism, foreign correspondents and specialist reporters are precious few and, in consequence, there are scarcely any positions worth having. Increasingly, newsrooms have spartan and jack-of-all-trades staff who wade through PR announcements and agency reports to produce what Nick Davies appositely calls "churnalism".
Out of this disturbance comes Public Journalism 2.0 to insist that, phoenix-like, improved forms of citizen journalism can emerge. It is not entirely clear what citizen journalism means - it is a catch-all that includes blogs, Twitter and YouTube as well as digital newspapers such as The Huffington Post and the "Comment is Free" facility offered by The Guardian that allows readers to debate articles published in the paper. This public journalism can also embrace bystanders at events who happen to have their mobile phone cameras to hand and are willing to send in pictures of events such as the July 2005 London Underground bombings.
The common denominators of citizen journalism are, first, that it enables audiences to contribute to the story: interactivity empowers formerly passive recipients of news. The second feature is that it is free, stretching the work of professional journalism thanks to participants who are committed enough to contribute news without reimbursement. This endearing feature ought not to be dismissed, as this volume makes clear, since volunteers can help re-enliven communities by their willingness to give time and energy to local issues. Indeed, much of this book is driven by a conviction that the "democratic deficit", much in evidence in settled Western nations, may be overcome with the aid of citizen journalism. Report from your street and rekindle neighbourliness!
The book is decidedly North American in perspective, but it will be useful to teachers and activists who are interested in the possibilities of citizen journalism. It is not a scholarly work, more one of advocacy, but within its pages there are plenty of examples of what has been done and what could be achieved. It is structured in three parts - principles, practices and possibilities - with plenty of reader-friendly summary sections. The contributors are largely journalist practitioners, even if they are now settled in university posts, something that helps explain their encouragement of higher-education institutions to seize the opportunities to fill spaces evacuated by the established press (notably in terms of local news coverage).
Public Journalism 2.0 has a distinctly unfinished feel to it. It reads like a bunch of amateurs have got together to resist apathy about the disappearance of established news outlets and who share the conviction that digital technologies offer hope. The book is incomplete and raw, but this is part of its charm.
Public Journalism 2.0: The Promise and Reality of a Citizen-Engaged Press
Edited by Jack Rosenberry and Burton St John III
Routledge, 204pp, £.99
Published 16 December 2009