A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Canadaland live show that was being put on here in Edmonton as part of Litfest. Canadaland, for those unfamiliar with it, is a sort of alt-media type podcast with a focus on the state of journalism here in Canada. For the live show, host Jesse Brown invited a panel of Edmonton journalists/media personalities on stage with him to discuss journalism, media, and current events as they relate to our city.
One topic that kept coming up throughout the night was the idea of “citizen journalism” here in the city. Since the devastating Postmedia cuts in January, the panelists noted a large number of locally produced blogs, podcasts, and social media accounts springing up in an attempt to fill that gap. The argument was that journalism is, in many ways, an essential service. If there are no companies providing news, the non-journalist citizens of a population will rise up to fill that gap. This kind of made sense to me. In Edmonton there are a huge number blogs and podcasts dedicated to topics as diverse as food & lifestyle, sports, arts & culture, politics, science, economics, and even the weather. It kind of parallels the different sections of a newspaper when you think about it. Instead of sitting down at the kitchen table every morning to read the Edmonton Journal, you could reasonably get the same kind of information by scrolling through your bookmarked blogs or your twitter-feed, or by streaming weekly podcasts on your commute into work. Canadaland, an independently produced news podcast is, in itself, a kind of proof-of-concept of this idea.
As convincing of an argument as it was, it might be too early to decide whether this kind of social media journalism is set to replace traditional print media. I decided to consult Karen Unland, a journalism professor here at MacEwan, and somewhat of an expert on this topic. She runs “Seen and Heard in Edmonton,” a blog and podcast about blogs and podcasts here in the city. In Karen’s view, many bloggers and podcasters manage to “commit acts of journalism,” but usually only in a roundabout, accidental way. That isn’t to say that they aren’t doing some amazing things, but they generally lack the skills and training necessary to maintain important things like impartiality. They also lack the means to devote time and money to the investigative aspects of journalism. People need a sustainable funding source in order to pursue these media forms on a fulltime basis, and the current model isn’t cutting it.
What these social-media journalists don’t lack is passion. And it is this passion (coupled with the ease with which people can self-publish and distribute these days) that is driving the move towards citizen journalism. Karen thinks that this trend would have emerged whether the Postmedia cutbacks occurred or not. These bloggers are passionate about their chosen topic, and eager to create a conversation around it. The only real hurdle at this point that prohibits social-media journalism from truly making an impact is a sustainable funding model. No matter how many retweets or replies your home-brewed journalistic piece generates, Twitter isn’t going to pay you for that content.
If a sustainable funding model for this kind of content ever emerges, future journalism students here at MacEwan might just start taking classes on blogging and podcasting as part of their regular coursework.
(Big thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer my questions on this topic)