Grass-roots "citizen journalism" is taking off in Minnesota's online communities as moonlighters report on issues they say the mass media are missing.
Megan Tardiff, 33, feels connected to many causes as a sales manager for the socially minded Minneapolis company Peace Coffee. But she wanted to make a difference, voice opinions, write persuasively. So she took a class on becoming a "citizen journalist."
Tardiff's motive: "How can I help bring about change?"
At a time when anyone can create a blog, citizen journalism -- the idea that everyday people, not just professional journalists, can gather facts and report on news in their communities -- is thriving. There are about 1,500 citizen journalism websites nationwide, according to Jan Schaffer of the University of Maryland's Institute of Interactive Journalism.
In Minnesota, the Placeblogger online directory lists at least 12 websites that practice citizen journalism, and seminars, workshops and classes are held every week in the Twin Cities to train people in journalism basics such as ethics, good writing and other nuts and bolts of the craft. Academics and advocates from around the country, including the Minnesota Journalism Center, will meet in June at the University of Minnesota for a two-day seminar on the subject.
One of Minnesota's biggest advocates is Doug McGill, a former New York Times reporter who teaches people how to gather facts and write about issues that affect them and their communities. McGill covers southeast Minnesota's international connections on his Rochester-based website, the McGill Report.
Citizen journalism is difficult to do well, said McGill, who also teaches regular journalism classes at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. That's why nine Twin Cities residents, including Tardiff, gathered recently at Minneapolis' Washburn High School for McGill's Largemouth Citizen Journalism Workshop. The typical student is motivated by a pet issue such as social justice, democracy, animal welfare, the environment.
"They feel those issues are not confronted enough in our media today," McGill said. "They want to be able to tell those stories and to get more societal resources to go toward those issues."
'Camping While Black'
Deb Pleasants, 46, left a 15-year career as a probation officer to be a full-time mom and stumbled into citizen journalism while taking a writing class at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. She wrote "Camping While Black," an essay about a camping trip near Lanesboro, Minn., with her husband and 7-year-old son.
"There was nothing at all funny when another camper extended a 20-foot-tall flagpole that proudly displayed the Confederate flag," wrote Pleasants, who is black.
She submitted the essay to the Mothers Movement Online, a website "for mothers and others who think about social change." The site published the work in December, initiating Pleasants into the world of citizen journalism.
The essay also served as Pleasants' entree to the Twin Cities Daily Planet citizen journalism website. A "pro-am" operation, it is run by journalists with professional experience who rely on amateurs to write much of the content. About a dozen contributors write regularly and about 50 have written once or twice over the past year, said editor Mary Turck.
Pleasants gets $100 for each article, and in return, she is expected to meet the site's journalistic standards and deadlines. She pitches some ideas for articles, but most are assigned, such as a recent story about the impact of the Central Corridor light-rail transit project.
"I do it because I love writing," Pleasants said. Although the pay is minimal, "it feels good to have my writing valued."
Turck said the Daily Planet isn't just a community news organization.
"What we do is intensively work with people in the community -- like Deb, who is not a professional journalist, but we work with her, we help her find the stories, edit her stories and suggest ways to find more information."
The Daily Planet also holds regular classes, including four-week workshops that Turck teaches. The Minneapolis organization holds an "open newsroom" on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
"Citizen journalists can come in, talk about their stories, run first drafts by us and so on. It's not a matter of people sending in a story cold and then having professionals polish it up. It's very much an interactive mode of working."
An army of videographers
In St. Paul, the Uptake also is training people to be news gatherers, with the goal of creating an army of 100 citizen journalists in time for the Republican National Convention. They will use video as their medium, so their training covers not only journalistic ethics and information-gathering, but also shooting and editing video.
"There are very few organizations focusing on video -- originally produced -- for online," said executive director Jason Barnett.
The Uptake has applied for press passes to be part of the crush of media inside Xcel Center, but Barnett said being outside is more important. "We're interested in telling what's interesting, not what's inside," he said.
While proponents see citizen journalism as the antidote to what they call special-interest reporting by the mass media, McGill worries that the pet-cause element will result in only one side of the story being told. But Barnett said a personalized viewpoint is one of the fundamentals of citizen journalism.
"Make sure it's fair and accurate," he said. "But if there's an issue, we want to explore what the issue is."
Another concern is that citizen journalism sites tend to lean left. While conservative user-written websites -- such as Minnesota-based Power Line (www.powerlineblog.com) -- might qualify as citizen journalism in the broadest sense, they tend to offer commentary on national politics, not "hyperlocal" reporting -- with voices other than the author's -- on community issues.
Power Line's John Hinderaker, a lawyer who lives in Apple Valley, said that even when his site covers local and state issues, it's with a national audience in mind. "What we do is analogous to the editorial page or the op-ed page of a newspaper, for the most part," he said. "Whether you want to call it journalism or not, I don't have a dog in that fight."
Hinderaker said citizen journalism websites might skew left because they receive funding from liberal organizations.
While the new report State of the News Media 2008 called online citizen journalism a significant element in the news of the future, it noted that "the answer to one fundamental question -- financial viability -- remains uncertain."
"There's a lot of energy, but there are certain things that are missing," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which produced the report. "There's no economic model for most of these. None of these are going concerns. This is being done either speculatively or as a labor of love and public service."
That causes some to question whether citizen journalism can be sustained. Some bloggers find it easy to get started, but run out of time, resources and stamina. A Placeblogger search turned up several links to now-inactive Minnesota blogs.
Still, grass-roots organizations such as the Daily Planet and the Uptake and individuals such as McGill and Pleasants persist, working to shape the future of citizen journalism.
"I really believe that anyone on the street has a perspective that's different from a professional journalist," the Uptake's Barnett said. "They don't look at a story the same way if they don't have to do it for their job."
Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542