Citizen Journalism Really Takes A Pro

One of the buzzwords you hear a lot of media executives say these days is “citizen journalism.” The people who run the companies that have eliminated the jobs of thousands of journalists want to create space on their websites for journalism supposedly done by non-journalists.

This week, I had an opportunity to test citizen journalism. As a former journalist, I figured I had a better chance than most people of pulling it off. Here’s how I heard that it’s not as easy as some would think:

On Monday, I had a hankering for one of my favorite restaurants near the office, Pei Wei, and arrived prepared to wait in line as usual. When I couldn’t open the door, I realized that the location had closed. Disappointed that online searches revealed that no local outlet had written anything about it, I sought to find out what happened. I figured this was an opportunity to see if a citizen could play a journalistic role.

I sent an email to the company and a few days later, I received an answer. It read, “Sadly, it was a location that was real estate challenged and we couldn’t keep it open. I apologize for any disappointment or inconvenience this caused. We will be opening many more locations in the area over the next few years.”

I shared that answer on my Facebook page and, tongue-in-cheek, promoted it as an “exclusive.” The response was personal and warm so it was pretty good PR. But, as a journalist, I found the response to be a non-answer answer. “Real estate challenged?” What does that mean? As a citizen, though, I got all that I was going to get. Would a media relations department talk to me? Probably not. Could I track down the landlord or property manager and ask questions about what happened tot he lease? Probably not. Could I find an expert in Oakland County, Michigan commercial real estate to share opinion on what might have happened? Maybe. But all or any of the above would have taken time and I have a company to run and clients to serve. How in the heck could I really be a citizen journalist?

I understand how “real people” are playing a role in journalism. If I saw news break in front of me, I would photograph it, tweet it and it could be around the world in seconds. But real reporting of anything other than spot news such as tracking down information, having the credibility and audience to get the right people on the phone and assembling facts, data and opinions into news stories? That’s best left to the professionals. We need more of them so the rest of us can focus on our real jobs.