Good journalism is always time-consuming, and time is always money. Once, there were ‘rivers of gold’, the advertising revenues monopolised by newspapers, that sustained well-staffed newsrooms with the resources to pursue hard stories.
Those rivers have run dry. The advertising dollars that underwrote serious journalism have been hijacked by a million web pages, news on the cheap, where the stories between the ads read like fast food tastes. The old newsrooms have halved, then quartered, and those left behind are mostly too time poor to do the research, the checking, the thinking, that quality writing demands. Not surprisingly, it’s investigative journalism that’s been the big loser – to the quiet relief of those who trade in politics, power and money.
But there are already glimmers of hope among the turbulent forces shaping the new media – and citizen journalism is one of the brightest. If, suddenly, there are people who are prepared to work at the news coalface for the simple satisfaction of doing something profoundly worthwhile, the whole game changes. With a little guidance, some determination, and enough time, most people can produce the bones of a good story that the mainstream media, with its workload and deadlines, doesn’t have the resources to cover.
Check any local paper, in print or online, and see how many stories their small number of reporters have to churn out each day. It’s a tribute to their professionalism that they do the job as well as they do. A citizen journalist will never match that work rate, primarily because she or he would never want to. If a story takes a fortnight of digging, and another week of checking and writing, so what? There’s no meter running. It’s a degree of freedom that most journalists in paid employment can only dream of.
The impact of citizen journalists, especially in a small news market like the Redlands, can be dramatic. It wouldn’t take many volunteer reporters, producing a steady flow of worthwhile stories, to double the surveillance of public affairs provided by the current news outlets across the city. This would lift the profile and awareness of Redlands 2030 which, in turn, would raise the status and credibility of its citizen journalists.
Two things follow. First, important community players like the Redland City Council, Queensland Government, local business, entrepreneurs and so on, simply can’t ignore a media presence with growing influence in their sphere of operations. Their co-operation in sharing information, answering questions and agreeing to interviews will, maybe grudgingly, increase.
Second, other media outlets will soon pick up on good local stories instigated by citizen journalists – they really have no option. And because the profit motive is absent, they are welcome to them – as long as there’s some acknowledgement of where the story started. Again, it all adds to the credibility of the 2030 ‘brand’ and the satisfaction that you feel when something you’ve produced has made a difference, no matter how small.
Journalism can be a slog. Stories can go nowhere. People can be unhelpful, and it’s no path to popularity. But if you believe the public’s best defence against bad outcomes is knowing about them, preferably before they happen, it’s rewarding work. And the many things you’ll learn along the way about where you live, and those you share it with, are an intriguing bonus.
Peter Wear – 13 October 2014
Peter Wear has been executive producer of the ABC’s 7.30 Report, a staff writer on The Bulletin magazine, and a regular contributor to the Courier Mail. He also taught journalism at the University of Southern Queensland.
For further reading go to an article in the Guardian by Kate Bulkley: