Citizen journalism, but make it equitable

As exciting as it is to see local newsrooms launching every week, there are parts of the country where it’s unlikely anyone will start a news outlet that can pay journalists living wages to do the news full-time.

The economics don’t work; the math simply doesn’t math.

But one answer for newsrooms and communities is right at our fingertips: We need to bring back citizen journalism, and this time make it equitable.

If you’ll remember, the first serious go-round came around the time of the economic crisis of 2008, when newspapers turned to citizen journalism, frankly, as a way of getting free or super-cheap content for their websites. The experiment, based on practices that were exploitative and extractive, largely failed amid burnout and high turnover.

Fast forward to now. There exists enormous potential to build partnerships between newsrooms, individual content creators, mediamakers, and citizens that are both just and sustainable.

Several organizations are already innovating in this space. This past summer at Scalawag, a nonprofit newsroom covering the South, a white reporter and Black farmer co-reported a story about farming in Mississippi. “For many of our sources, time is money, and we have to address the imbalance of reporters getting paid to tell stories on behalf of people without whom none of this work is possible,” wrote Erica Hensley, the white journalist who worked on the story.

I’ve long been a fan of the Documenters program from Chicago-based City Bureau, which trains community members to document public meetings who then work with journalists to publish findings. In 2018, City Bureau expanded the program to six cities through a partnership network.

Plus, platforms like TikTok and YouTube have created ways for users to monetize their content. Legions of tech-savvy mediamakers live in communities currently not served by a news outlet, many of them already providing a form of coverage by documenting encounters with law enforcement, talking to public officials on podcasts and video streaming platforms and commentating on local issues. Some are hobbyists, some have agendas, some hope to build brands, some just like to run their mouths about what’s going on around town.

Either way, they’re providing valuable sources of information in places where fully staffed news organizations are unlikely to return anytime soon. Newsrooms should assign editors, reporters, data journalists and other resources to work with these citizen journalists. And pay them equitably. These wouldn’t just be investments in content; in the long run, we’re investing in democracy.

Ryan “R.L.” Nave is the editor-in-chief at Reckon.

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