The pros and cons of newspapers partnering with 'citizen journalism' networks

Bleacher Report, which calls itself “the Web’s largest sports network powered by citizen sportswriters,” made a big breakthrough for itself on Feb. 22… and the citizen journalism movement.

The company announced it was beginning a partnership with Hearst to introduce local online editions in the newspaper publisher’s four largest markets, including San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, the Houston’s Chronicle’s, the San Antonio Express-News’ MySan, and Essentially, headlines will be pulled into the main sports page, highlighting local content from Bleacher Report’s citizen journalists.

For the newspapers involved, the partnership represents an extra stream of advertising revenue and, most importantly, a commitment to increasing coverage of local sports.

In many ways, the success or failure of this partnership will help determine whether citizen journalism is the “integral piece,” as cited by many experts, that will help newspapers both survive and prosper in the current media landscape.

Sports pages are a particularly excellent venue for this test. They lure the coveted young and middle-aged demographic who are passionate and vocal about their favorite teams and favorite sports … and more than willing to provide their written opinions for free.

While citizen journalists such as these might look, think and act like paid, professional journos, they’re not – at least in the traditional sense – and not just in the salary department.

Indiana University journalism professor David Weaver doesn’t even think citizen journalists should be the correct term in this discussion. “Citizen communicators” would be better, he says, because “without the training and education that most journalists have, most citizens cannot qualify as journalists.”

In a project conducted by, Prof. Weaver and other experts around the country shared their thoughts on the pros and cons of citizen journalism, and its possible role helping newspapers. Here are some comments.

The Positive

“The newspapers that survive will be the ones that make the most of the benefits of the online world. Citizen journalism can in many cases provide free content and the internet provides the ability to reach a much larger audience. The old media that combine their resources with the advantages of new media will thrive. The old media that try to cling to their old methods of doing things will die.” — Derek Clark, who runs

“Probably some events get reported by citizen journalists that would not be reported without them. Reporters can’t be everywhere and cannot know about all events taking place in their communities. In that sense, citizen journalism may help to broaden the
kind of events that are reported.” — Prof. David Weaver.

“With smaller staffs chasing fewer stories, citizen journalists could help local papers keep a broader mix of stories and community reporting in front of readers. Citizen journalism can be a powerful tool for reporting hyperlocal news (news that is specific to one community) because people care about their community and have a hunger for finding out what is going on.” — Thom Clark, president of the Community Media Workshop in Chicago.

“Are you a local newspaper? 90 percent-plus of your income from print adverts targeted at people in the area? Then you should be looking for the local citizen journalists who sit
next to their police scanner and report on the drug busts and local fires. Assume you will have to invest in improving their writing skills, be relaxed about them publishing elsewhere, and pay them enough money to make it worth their while to give you first option on material.” — Brian McNeil, pioneering Wikinews journalist.

“Citizen journalism can help local newspapers survive by making them a more interactive product. Readers who post comments, articles and photos on their local newspaper’s web site might feel a stronger connection to the paper and be more likely to read the print version and the online version of the paper.” — Larry Atkins, adjunct professor of journalism in Arcadia University’s English, Communications and Theatre Department.

The Negative

“I don’t think citizen journalism should dominate or even play a minor role in the operation of mainstream newspapers. I’m sure there is a place for it … a valuable place … in alternative media. I think it’s been the mainstream newspaper industry’s embrace of new editorial formulas and approaches that has been leading to its demise (although) my opinion runs contrary to what most inside and outside the industry believe.” —Adam Stone, publisher of Examiner community newspapers in Putnam and Westchester counties.

“[Citizen communicators] are best at reporting breaking events, and not likely to be very helpful for in-depth, analytical or investigative reporting.” — Prof. Weaver

“Newspapers are brands that bestow credibility, authority, gravitas on their content. I don’t think ‘citizen journalism’ (is there agreement on what this term even means?) can sustain the type of reporting that produces Pulitzer prize winning pieces.” — Richard Roher, president of Roher Public Relations.

“Local newspapers should not rely on citizen journalists to help them survive. Most citizen journalists are not paid anything for their work and lack the motivation to help a for-profit entity continue to make a profit. Citizens cannot and should not be viewed as free labor.” — Dr. Kristen Johnson, assistant professor, Department of Communications, Elizabethtown College, Pa., who has authored several papers on citizen journalism.

Gerry Storch is editor/administrator of , a media analysis/public issues discussion site that bridges the gap between a blog and a book. He has been a feature writer with the Detroit News and Miami Herald, Accent section editor and newsroom investigative team leader with the News, and sports editor and business editor for Gannett News Service. He holds a B.A. in political science and M.A. in journalism, both from the University of Michigan.

About Gerry Storch

I was sports editor and business editor of Gannett News Service in the USA Today headquarters in McLean, Va., when I and a number of colleagues took buyouts at the end of 2001. Before that, I was a feature writer at the Detroit News and Miami Herald, and Accent section editor and newsroom investigative team leader at the News. I hold a B.A. in political science and M.A. in journalism, both from the University of Michigan.


  1. says:

    I, a :Citizen Communicator”, hereby and do decree by order of proclamation that all people who believe Citizen Communicators should not be treated like free labor (slaves) as the professors quoted in this article. Free journalism should not be free because the free cannot be trusted to write the truth.

    ***Note to professor know it all…Stick head in sand a little longer. We’re here and we are not going away.

  2. says: