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New Yorker Writer Takes Shot at Citizen Journalism

Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, fired a volley across the bow of citizen journalism today in the New Yorker, and I am sure the blogosphere is firing back as I write. He sets up his argument that citizen journalism advocates are aiming to take over professional journalism and demonstrates that this is not a good idea.

There’s only one problem with his argument, most people I know don’t want citizen journalism to take over professional journalism; they want it to supplement professional journalism, which makes this, his closing argument, moot:

Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic. As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.

I don’t want professional journalism to go out of business–God, knows if it that happens it will put my daughter out of work. On the other hand, I think professional journalism can and must be improved. I believe it does not do a good job of getting all voices heard. Lemann speaks in his article about how well citizen journalists did at covering Katrina in its first crucial hours, but then he says the real enduring reporting was done by the mainstream press.

He is right, but where was the mainstream press in getting the voices heard of the 100,000 people left behind before they were left behind. You can read a newspaper like the New York Times or a magazine like the New Yorker and get to know everything there is to know about middle and upper class life. What foods to buy, movies to see, books to read, schools for your kids and vacations to take, but you will be hard pressed to discover the realities of life for those left out. There is where the promise of the Internet lies. Professional journalists, like Lemann, should be using their brainpower to figure out how to tap into their audiences combine intelligence rather than constructing an argument that is rather hollow in that it really misses the point of the citizen publishing, citizen involvement movement.

For me it is about people who want to improve journalism and not destroy it. I also know it true of people like Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine, Jay Rosen at PressThink, and Mary Lou Fulton, who is the publisher at Northwest Voice–all three sites are used by Lemann as examples of the deficiencies of the citizen journalism movement. Too bad because unlike Lemann, these people are looking for solutions, and if he doesn’t believe new ideas are needed, then he just must read the Pew report illustrating how badly the news media are fairing in the eyes of their audiences.

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