Citizen journalism came to the fore most strongly in the final decade of the 20th century, understood either as a description of radical anti-establishment reporters working outside the mainstream media corporations (such as IndyMedia reporters providing alternative coverage of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999) or as altruistic volunteers eager to ‘have their say’ in the newspapers, broadcast news or web pages of the day.
The rise of the blogosphere, mainly in the United States and Asia, allowed hitherto occasional citizen reporters to become more systematic in their approach, setting up ‘web logs’ of news, events and opinions; the term was shortened to ‘blog’. The Australian history of news blogging is much more recent, and more prone to debate about who is a blogger—and even about who may blog. The one-time public servant Greg Jericho, who blogged under the pseudonym ‘Grog’s Gamut’, found himself at the centre of exactly that kind of debate in 2010, and subsequently left the Australian Public Service to continue blogging and for a career as a media researcher.
Elspeth Tilley and John Cokley’s Deconstructing the Discourse of Citizen Journalism (2008) describes some of the myths that have developed around citizen journalists: they are ‘Crusoe-like Lone Rangers, free from commercial pressures and organisational loyalties and offering an independent voice of the people’; they are ‘noble citizens’ who champion truth and objectivity; and citizen journalism offers a ‘perfect plurality’, many more voices as a counter-balance to perceived bias in corporate media. Other less complimentary descriptions depict citizen journalists as dangerously unqualified amateurs, or as freelancers threatening the professional market share of employed journalists.
Accepting its contested nature, citizen journalism in Australia has roots deeper than the 1999 WTO riots or even the 1980s phenomena of civic journalism and public journalism, which are both forms of consultation of citizens by professional journalists, and not to be confused with citizen journalism.
Many citizen journalists here sprang from the emergence in the 1970s and 1980s of vocational tertiary journalism education programs. A new group entered the news production sphere, trained in the practices of institutional journalism but never having worked in established newsrooms where the ‘cadetship’ model had dominated. They began producing news and feature products (including photography) as part of their studies, and were encouraged to sell their work into the established media market. New ‘street’ publications and the community radio and television sector, enabled by the gradual democratisation of journalism technologies such as electronic phototypesetting and desktop editing and publishing, created a market for many. This has continued to the point where more paid journalism positions now exist in Australia outside major newsrooms than within the media establishment, without the total number of positions having been drastically reduced.
A related understanding of citizen journalism includes those who once worked within institutional frameworks such as newspapers, but have then established themselves as independent journalists or commentators. Charmian Clift left the newspaper establishment in the mid-20th century but was re-engaged as a casual columnist on the basis of her dual fame as a novelist and the wife of an even more famous novelist, George Johnston. Filmmaker and journalist John Pilger, and writers Wilfred Burchett, Stephen Mayne, Margaret Simons and Margo Kingston, have been among the best-known Australians in this model.
Australian citizen journalists contribute to online news communities such as Wikinews, an offshoot of the Wikimedia Foundation. Wikinews defines itself as ‘a news source written entirely by its users’, and maintains that its content is neither ‘press releases [nor] source documents, advertisements, scientific papers, encyclopedic articles or editorials’. Also in the mix is ‘user-generated content’—that layer of words, images and sounds encouraged by publishers who find production more cost-effective when they advertise for audience members to send in their own words, pictures, audio or video recordings, to accompany reports by staff journalists or other ‘freelancers’.
Taking a wider view, citizen journalism in Australia is part of a general global movement among creative producers to take their work direct to paying markets and intended customers, rejecting institutional stages of production where ‘editing’, ‘approval’, ‘production’ or ‘quality assurance’ take place. The creative producers— be they citizen journalists, or musicians using iTunes, farmers using local markets or online shopkeepers using eBay—emphasise the intrinsic value of their creativity, even if it turns out raw and less perfectly structured than the manufactured variety.