The Rhetoric of Journalism – Defining and Re-Defining What We Do.

In September 2007 I laid out my definitions for “Networked Journalism” vs. “Citizen Journalism” vs. the myriad of other names for social media in the news world.”

I’m not trying to prescribe anything – just sharing how I use these words because it helps me think through what is happening online and where Spot.Us, Circa, AJ+ and others stand (look for the joke at the end of this LONG post).

Update: That 2007 post landed me a small freelance piece for the Press Gazette where I wrote a cleaner version: “Time Citizen Journalism Pulled its Act together.” As noted – the original post was inspired by  Steve Outing’s Poynter post 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism.

It is time to revisit these definitions, update them, and add explanations to what I mean when I use certain phrases like “journalism is a process, not a product.” In reading through all of them – I hope one can see how they play off each other in my mind.

My definitions and updates for

  • Citizen Journalism (BIG C and replaced by “Participatory media”)
  • citizen journalism (little c – replaced by Eyewitness Media, UGC)
  • Stand-alone Journalism
  • Pro-am Journalism
  • Networked Journalism (including “Distributed Reporting.”)
  • Open Source Journalism (including the re-release of stories and content sharing).
  • Structured Journalism
  • Sponsored Content

And I try and explain what I mean when I say….

  • Journalism is a process – not a product.
  • Collaboration is Queen
  • Media is an act of community organizing
  • Community Funded Reporting
  • Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.
  • Hyper-local
  • Computational Journalism
  • New Media skill set
  • New Media mind set
  • Journalism (yes… I get that bold)
  • Professional journalism

“citizen journalism”

Update: Boss Rosen defines citizen journalism as such: “When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools in their possession to inform one another.” The reason I wrote my initial post in 2007 was because this definition (although not articulated at the time – it was in the ether) is too broad. It defines a class of acts. What he is describing is Citizen Journalism with a capital “C.” I tend to avoid this term because it clashes with “citizen journalism” which I describe below, as an act that happens under very specific circumstances. I tend to refer to the class of acts as “Participatory journalism.” Here’s why.

Old def of citizen journalism: This is the catch phrase that started it all. “Citizen journalism” with a capital “C” refers to an entire class of terms, and hence some of the confusion. If we are talking about a single act of “citizen journalism,” we most often are discussing an individual, who is not a paid journalist, who bares witness to a newsworthy event and broadcasts it. Acts of citizen journalism in this sense happen by mere coincidence. People are everywhere and when disaster strikes, someone usually has a camera.

Examples: Oscar Grant shooting, London train bombings, terror attacks in India.

Update 2015: The term “Citizen Journalism” has more or less fallen out of favor. In truth, it was never “in favor” but was used for lack of having a better name. Some used “UGC” or “User Generated Content” but that too felt “cold.” In 2015 – I find the term “eyewitness media” coming into popularity and this feels like a nice term.

“Stand-alone journalism”

In contrast to citizen journalism (the act), this is when the individual isn’t reporting out of happenstance. The reporter, who is not acting as a “professional” (defined below), made a conscious choice to go out and report on a topic. This term was coined by Chris Nolan at Many people still refer this as “citizen journalism” but I think they are actually referring to the class of acts “Citizen Journalism (with a big C). This is why the two get confused and why I would put this under the class of “Participatory journalism.”

Update: These might also be called “Placebloggers.” One of my favorite stand alone journalists in San Francisco is N Judah Chronicles. To my knowledge this blog is a passionate hobby, not part of the author’s profession.

“Structured Journalism”

Best articulated here: Taking the content of news and structuring it in such a way so that elements can be used and re-used by manipulating a database. This is not database journalism, because the database in question is created by journalists (rather than mined by them).

“Sponsored Content”

Content that is of the same nature/type as editorial, but is paid for by a sponsor. It should be transparent that the content is sponsored, but it should not be of a different nature. Example: Television commercials are sponsored content. They are basically “mini TV-shows.” Banner ads are NOT sponsored content, because they are not “mini news-articles.”


“Pro-am Journalism”

The most basic form of “Citizen journalism” that news organizations tend to engage in is when professional and amateur journalists work together. It occurs through basic comments on an article – when those comments add extra information or new views that the original writer left out. These comments can be an incredible source of value to a story and are very easy to invoke. This is the basis of “pro-am journalism” but it extends to include more (below). Reporters need to learn the art of community management; and acknowledge that they now have a nuanced relationship with readers and must repeat, every day, “my readers know more than I do.”

“Network journalism”

Although it hasn’t reached its full potential, the idea is to organize groups of people through the internet to work on a single story or project. Like stand-alone journalism, it is a conscious decision, but large groups, rather than a lone reporter, do the work. Networked journalism rests its fate on two principles: the “wisdom of crowds” – the idea that collectives can be more intelligent than individuals – and “distributed reporting.”

Update: This is often espoused by Jeff Jarvis and I believe it is what Dave Winer often describes in his posts on the future of news. Almost two years later I still don’t think network journalism has reached its full potential, which is to say, we can expect more and better coverage in this fashion. I think what is needed are mature platforms that can allow groups of like-minded individuals to find each other and do “distributed reporting.”

Distributed Reporting

The art of organizing an online workflow, so that volunteers are efficient and happy to donate time to commit acts of journalism that in aggregate helps produce news. In distributed reporting – the work load is spread out. This is contrasted nicely with “community funding” where the cost of reporting is distributed.

“Open source journalism”

Like networked journalism, these projects are collaborative. They have multiple points or “sources” of information. But open source journalism adds an important element. Either a) the re-release of stories or b) sharing information among competitors. These factors make a project “open.”

Update: I think we are starting to see the emergence of this. ProPublica, the new Huffington Post investigative arm and Spot.Us all make content available to be republished. What happens when everyone starts doing it? We focus less on “scoops” and more on collaboration.

Update 2015: What happens when this becomes a universal format and extendable via an API.

The re-release of stories

In networked journalism, people work in collaboration on a single story. In open source, they work together on a story that is constantly refined and republished in public. Imagine a journalist who releases a story to the public. Then, using participatory or networked journalism, more reporting and information is added and the story is reworked and republished. This method can produce amazing results. Covering an election, you’ll need a definitive story once the results are in. An open source story will feel very anti-climatic. But covering development in a community, the story will probably last several months, lending itself to new versions.

Update: Not unlike this blog post where I started defining these terms for myself. This would be the third release of it.

Sharing information:

While this has major potential, it has yet to be realized. Imagine 100 newspapers covering the same topic: “Local effects of global warming.” Each paper covers its own neighborhood, gathering the same information, local bird migration, average temperatures and more. Each paper would have a story serving its local readers, but if it shared that information with the other 99 papers, they could create a national view of global warming. You lose the scoop, but you get to be part of a story that is greater than that which your single paper could ever produce.

Update: See “What happens to my recyclables” on Spot.Us. Now imagine we raise $4,000 instead of $400. We hire ten reporters to do this story in ten different cities – all sharing their methods and ideas, so the finishes package is better than the sum of its parts. Spot.Us in this sense becomes the SourceForge of how to do this story. I also think that the move of ProPublica and Huffington Post to share their investigative work with newspapers is incredibly interesting and, not to pat myself on the back, validates a lot of my early thoughts on sharing of content. Scoops have the half life of a link. Being the first one to cover a story is not nearly as cool as being one of ten or more organizations to all cover a story together.


Journalism is a process – not a product.

Newspapers, TV shows and magazines are products that contain journalism. But journalism is a process. It is a series of acts one does to collect, filter, distribute and add value to information. Journalism is never finished. Even when you package a story in a newspaper – the story is not done. Stories are never open and shut cases. They develop over time and this can be reflected in the re-release of stories.

Collaboration is Queen

Analogy is of a chess board: Content is king (the most important) but collaboration is queen (the most powerful.

Extending the analogy

  • Rooks are technology (I love Casteling as a first move)
  • Bishops are your project managers – either technology or community.
  • Knights are your editors/reporters
  • Pawns are your community (and can become queens if you get them to the other side of the board)

Media is an act of community organizing

I missed the 60’s – but I hear they were awesome! When you wanted to make a change back then, you’d get a bunch of people together and picket something. That still occurs.

But a YouTube video can be the modern march. Many YouTube videos are made with this in mind. It is media – but it is also a force of change. Before you whine “that it is all bias and unfair,” consider a well accepted motto, that journalism is supposed to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Also – get off your high-horse.

Community Funded Reporting

Distributing the cost of hiring a journalist across many different people. This can be contrasted with distributing reporting – where the work load is spread out. It is a new business model. Nothing else about the journalism changes. It is contrasted with micro-payments which are related but distinct because there is transparency and control about where the money goes.

“Journalism will survive the death of its institutions.”

One of my all time favorite quotes. The rallying cry should be “save journalism” not “save newspapers.” It is a mistake to conflate the two. Journalism is a process (see above) that can and will survive the death of its institutions.


I hate the word “hyperlocal.” I don’t know why “local” isn’t enough. For me hyperlocal is a word used to avoid having to say “community.” We should be doing “community journalism” not “hyperlocal.” When I read hyperlocal – I often replace it with “community” and don’t need to skip a beat.

Computational Journalism

An evolution of NICAR or database journalism. The world is filled with data sets. Computational journalism turns these data sets into something digestible. Think info graphics. More than that, however, the data becomes interactive. One can easily slice and dice the data through their computer to find the information that is most relevant to them. Adrian Holovaty‘s work are great examples as are Matt Waite‘s and Derek Willis. Having the programming skills of a second grader (maybe today that isn’t so bad now) this is probably the field of journalism I am least involved in, but I respect it greatly. There is also something to be said for the name: I believe Adrian has said he doesn’t like the term “computational journalism.” But I go back to the disclaimer at the top – these are the terms/defintions I use. I am not prescribing them to anyone.

New Media skill set

This is now 1/2 of what journalist schools are repeating over and over again. We need to teach “new media skill set….” For me this boils down to digital storytelling. In Greek times oration was the only way to tell a story. And some individuals got really good at it. Jouranalism consists of stories and ideas. Telling a good story is an art and a new media skill set means being able to tell stories well online. This includes photos, video, audio and more.

New Media mind set

The other half of what journalist schools say they need to teach “… and new media mind set.” Too often, however, I get the impression that journalism professors think that teaching a “new media mind set” is to make sure students keep in mind they need a “new media skill set.” The two are very different. A new media mind set means engaging with readers. It means using tools like blogs, twitter, social news sites like Digg or Reddit, and other free networking sites not just to tell your story (skill set) but to engage with communities on their level.


Journalism is a process: Collecting information, filtering information and distributing information. Often this consists of analyzing information to add value or meaning ie: with all this information here’s why it is important. It also includes caveats: the information must be accurate and throroughly researched. Through this process journalism takes the form of stories and ideas.

Professional Journalism

“When somebody makes money doing journalism.” Analogy – if somebody plays guitar on the streets for money – they are professional musicians (just not very successful ones). Doing something with the intent and expectation of being paid makes one a professional journalist.

Simple, right? So why did I feel the need to define it as such?

Occasionally I hear people say “professional journalism” when they mean “good journalism” because they equate the two. They say: “Yes but this is ‘professional journalism.'” Note: citizen journalism can be good and professional journalism can be bad.

I love the folks at Public-Press, so I hope they don’t mind me using them as an example.

I often hear the Public-Press refer to what they do as “professional journalism.” At the same time, however, the Public-Press, except for one individual, is run by volunteers. Most of the content they publish is produced for free or is from Spot.Us. Since Spot.Us’ content is paid – I would argue that this is the “professional” content they have. That said – I think A LOT of their content is good. Either way an ex-journalist who is volunteering at the Public-Press is now a stand-alone journalist. And guess what – there is nothing wrong with that. Don’t ghettoize it!

People also refer to Spot.Us as “citizen journalism.” Spot.Us is, without a doubt, participatory. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the content we produce in the end is made by reporters who get paid. So the finished work is not citizen journalism – although citizens are involved in every step of the process.

Social Media Expert

A jackass that is trying to get hired so they can sell you snake oil.

So how do I describe Spot.Us? Simple….

“Spot.Us is participatory journalism that believes journalism is a process not a product, funded through community organizing efforts. We strive to use networked practices and open source principles, enabling stand-alone journalists to reach further and become professionals, pushing content sharing among news organizations so that collaboration can produce powerful stories of distributed reporting. The endeavor is run by David Cohn who is a social media expert.

I need to work on my elevator pitch 😉

9 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Journalism – Defining and Re-Defining What We Do.”

  1. If like you say this is just a guide so that people can understand what you are talking about when you use one of these terms, that’s fine. Sort of a decoder ring for your posts. It’s just a little ironic making up your own definitions for things such as professional journalism, when journalism is usually about trying to communicate things to people in a way that has meaning for them, rather than making them adopt your meaning.

    Still, I have to demur on your effort to define professional journalism as just about making money. Otherwise unprofessional journalism would be when you don’t make money, right? And then it’s OK for me to refer to citizen journalists as amateurs.


    Wordplay aside, you’re cherry-picking just one meaning of “professional,” usually not the preferred meaning, and in any case the only meaning in the list that has anything to do with livelihood. All the rest of the meanings, the more common ones (outside sports), have to do with standards, ethics, competence, comportment, trustworthiness and training. Most people’s opinions about whether someone is a professional journalist vs. a hack clearly are not based on the practitioner’s income.

    It is a long-running debate in journalism whether we actually qualify, in the sociological sense, as a profession or a craft or a trade or what. It’s a rather academic argument, in both meanings of that word. But I know very few people who would endorse separating the common conceptions of professional journalism and good journalism like you have.

    Me thinks the phrase you are really looking for is “commercial journalism.”

  2. It’s just a little ironic making up your own definitions for things such as professional journalism, when journalism is usually about trying to communicate things to people in a way that has meaning for them

    I don’t see it as ironic at all – this is my blog. I rarely do journalism on this blog – it is almost always me just talking to myself (with other people listening in).

    As for the profession thing: I really do stand by this: Professional, commercial, whatever you want to call it – all too often is used as a euphemism for “good journalism.” It makes a straw man argument against citizen journalists (oh, well… they aren’t professional so it must be bad).

    I hate that. Professional simply means you are doing it for a living. End of story (again – this is just how I take it).

  3. I have to disagree with you I’m afraid, it’s your notion of professionalism, if a journalist gets paid for writing in a newspaper or website etc might make he/she a type of journalist but not a professional. A journalist is someone who carries out the journalistic process in a professional way, that doesn’t require payment although the two are often associated. So good journalism is journalism that is performed in a ‘good’ and ‘professional’ payment doesn’t matter.

  4. @chris
    I understand your sentiment – but then you are still not providing a definition of “professional.”

    The def. you give is circular. You are saying – “professional journalism is that which is produced in a professional way.” That still leaves me scratching my head.

    Payment might not be what defines professional – but we need some kind of definition other than the label “professional” itself – otherwise we end up arguing over who gets to decide where that label is applied.

    Make sense?

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