Couch Potatoes and Journalism Culture

Journalism requires not only a business model, but a culture. At the Center for Future Civic Media, we sometimes take a moment to reflect on the online news experiments begun in the pioneer digital media days in the 1990s, to keep a clear head about how journalism and social networks intersect. But perhaps we shouldn’t use the j-word.
The precipitous slide of journalism from iconic cultural power status to cultural irrelevance during the past decade is stunning. When the Shorenstein Center’s Prof. Tom Patterson told his board last month that the nation’s premiere think tank of, by and for top-notch news media was going to think less about journalism and more about public policy, it was a real wakeup call. The Harvard students just aren’t as interested as they used to be in journalism, he explained.

It’s hard to find anyone these days who promotes the notion of the journalist as public hero. With the exception of George Clooney’s “Goodnight and Good Luck,” the popular culture has written off the MSM as just so many hacks bought to you by corporate imperialists or libertine liberals.

Now even citizen journalists are also falling into ill repute. Jeff Howe of Wired, who created the term “crowd sourcing,” assailed at a Nieman Foundation talk this fall the “flawed assumption that people want to do what journalists do.” His Assignment Zero six-month experiment, which invited the open source journalism world to do its own fact-checking, was not a success. He concluded that people connected virtually could not build up communities “interested in covering a certain subject.” What he found instead was that not only were people “not good at” hyperlocal coverage, but what came in from them was “press releases and a lot of hate speech.” Local websites that are all UGC are not the news about City Hall, he concluded, even though that is what people actually need. “You go to the website from your hometown to keep up with things, not to see everyone’s prom pictures.”

Enter Jack Driscoll, former editor of the Boston Globe, former editor-in-residence at the MIT Media Lab, and now advisor to MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, to turn this around. Jack dedicates his new book Couch Potatoes Sprout: The Rise of Online Community Journalism to reporters “of every variety,” saying “their role is more vital to democracy than ever.”

If Clark Kent isn’t there to cover the city council because he’s been laid off, then perhaps volunteer citizen reporters can step in, Jack says. To be sure, he isn’t about to throw the professionals overboard. He agrees with Persephone Miel of Harvard’s Berkman Center, who said at a conference earlier this year, “The old media are broken. Bloggers didn’t break them. Bloggers won’t fix them.”

Jack isn’t swooning over the notion that anyone off the street can do investigative journalism in a sustained and focused way and he isn’t carried away by the random dramatic tweets, Youtube videos and Flickr photos from people who happened to be in the right (or wrong) place when something like the Indonesian tsunami or the Mumbai terrorist attacks took place. He’s talking here about something in between: group-generated community journalism by people in Melrose, MA, Rye, N.H. and elsewhere who are finding new excitement and power through organized community news efforts. They are offering some hyperlocal watchdogging that local newspapers seem increasingly unable or unwilling to perform. And despite Geoff Howe’s complaints, some of them ARE covering local government where none of the professional journalists are bothering to look.

Jack has written about what he has learned through three citizen journalism experiments he started: The Melrose Mirror Silver Stringers, a group of over 100 senior citizens working over the past 12 years to publish their online news and cultural site at; the Junior Journal, which began 10 years ago at the MIT Media Lab and engaged more than 300 teenagers from 91 countries to put out a global news service now archived at, and The Rye Reflections, where Jack currently leads a band of 15 neighbors at

Jack agrees with Persephone Miel that the technology isn’t the hard part. It’s the people. Jack’s book is full of enthusiasm for how journalism can revive old people and empower young ones. He’s also full of practical advice about interviewing, writing, and editing. He has lived the pro/am model and now shares his secrets of success. If anyone can make citizen journalism work, it’s Jack.

It is great for more citizens to become engaged in their communities and commit acts of journalism. Yet even Jack agrees that they cannot replace entirely the professional journalists who are disappearing. This does not seem to be a concern for the public, particularly those under 40, who appear content to get their news through social networks, for free—and may not notice, at first, if the local newspaper or even The New York Times has withered to nothing.

Who out there is working on the issue of building a culture that supports best practice reporting, editing and dissemination of journalism? Renee Hobbs from Temple University was at MIT today for a conference with students and teachers about media literacy, which is part of the solution. She, Erin Reilly and Henry Jenkins are thinking creatively about how to build out the new media practices for civic engagement. But they and Jack can’t do it alone.

Who is innovating the business models that will pay for good investigative journalism–the hard kind, the unpopular stories that nevertheless are essential to accountable governance? There are experiments galore, but no one seems to have cracked the economics nut. Not micropayments (such as nor pro/am models (like the Chitown Daily News) nor even the new Global Post experiment in foreign news, has solved the structural issues bedeviling the professional press corps. Philanthropy (ProPublica) is nice for a while, but it is not enough to sustain over time this check and balance function that is key to a successful democratic culture. Every time someone touts citizen journalism, look closely at what made it work: virtually every time, it is the moment that professional journalists organized or picked up the citizens’ work and offered it to the world. And Jack fulfills that model himself.

What are you reading, and thinking, and watching that might advance our collective thinking about these questions? Please tag as “civicmedia” articles in Delicious that might help build this exploration. And don’t hesitate to share your thoughts, or those of others that you think relevant, at our Center for Future Civic Media discussion forums at We will be hosting some face to face discussions at the Center in 2009 that attempt to make progress on these issues. We will podcast these conversations and invite the virtual civic media community to participate. Two rules: no MSM end-days hand-wringing, and no inordinate new media faith in technology alone. Join us to build a positive culture and practice with these exciting new tools, as Jack has illustrated in his new book, to support the flow of information and engagement that real geographic communities need.