In the five years since I first became a reporter, I have worked for two established print weeklies, both of which have gone out of business. Most recently, I was working for an award-winning online news site financially supported by a nonprofit organization, before nearly two-thirds of the staff were abruptly laid off after the election. For young reporters like me, the Internet is the primary medium for news content, and it is already leading to a new and inclusive form of journalism rooted in public participation. Although cynics like to say that the craft is a dead end for both young reporters and veteran writers alike, I think it’s an exciting time to be a journalist.
While I was covering this year’s Democratic National Convention in my home city of Denver, the irrelevancy of print was made dramatically clear. The city’s dailies dutifully recounted convention events, but even the headlines that marked the newspaper kiosks each day seemed horribly dated by mid-morning; any breaking news during the event had been dutifully covered and rehashed on the Web hours before. Minute by minute, our online audience was consuming new information about the street protests. Breaking stories were immediately posted on the Web and simultaneously sent to hundreds of readers who subscribed to our news feed.
On the first night of the convention I watched as police pepper-sprayed a group of innocent bystanders, hitting several people and nearly missing me. I talked to a thirty-three-year-old Denver native who was simply trying to catch a bus when he was maced. At the same time I was also relaying all of this information via cell phone and text message to one of our editors, who were always stationed in a position to instantly update the site with breaking news. The story was out before the police issued an official statement. In the end, the immediacy of the Web led to better-informed, more engaging protest coverage.
There are plenty of other examples to cite, but I specifically remember this one: when a young video journalist from Colorado was accosted by police during the Republican National Convention while providing live video coverage for an online news site, Internet viewers watched in real time as she was forced to her knees, somehow gripping the camera while simultaneously obeying police orders to raise her hands.
Journalism is becoming a more egalitarian profession — and that’s a good thing. Although many media outlets will remain the property of a small bloc of parent corporations, more and more members of the public who may not be traditionally considered journalists are becoming involved with news coverage. A dramatic power shift has obviously occurred in the way the public produces and consumes news when an unemployed nineteen-year-old using free blogging software can report on the results of a controversial city council vote restructuring Denver’s election bureau and scoop a weathered professional before he even makes it back to the newsroom.
Perhaps counterintuitively, this power shift can actually end up helping established reporters — if they let it. At the online publication where I worked, readers were allowed to freely comment on stories, provided they followed a basic commenting policy designed to avoid spam, libel and personal attacks. I can’t even count the number of times I have gained valuable news tips from commenters, some of them leading to award-winning material. It’s true that many online comments can be worthless, but smart reporters will mine them for information and respond to the readers, perhaps using the eyes and ears of their audience to snag stories that would otherwise have eluded them.
Awhile back, when I was writing regularly about prisons, many of the commenters who followed my corrections coverage worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons as guards in Colorado penitentiaries and risked losing their jobs if they talked to the media on the record. I would initiate conversations with them off-site, and ended up building an impressive Rolodex of informants inside the prisons. These invaluable sources served me well when I traveled to the small town of Florence to write a feature on the nation’s only federal super maximum security prison, exposing massive staffing cuts leading to dangerous working conditions and inmate neglect.
When a riot involving more than 200 inmates broke out on the outdoor recreation yard of a high-security penitentiary in southern Colorado during April I utilized my corrections sources and commenters to follow the breaking story. Even though I was more than a hundred miles away from the scene in Denver, our news site was the first to correctly report that two inmates had been killed by guard rifle fire during the melee, and that the guards had emptied more than 500 rounds of live ammo from the prison’s towers. I would again use these corrections sources when I was the first to report that the warden of the same prison received an annual award for prison excellence from the bureau in July, despite two additional inmate deaths since that time.
This new kind of journalism, based on old-fashioned reporting but propelled by public participation and rooted in the inclusive nature of the Web, will continue to thrive as newsmakers begin to see information as less of a commodity and more of a continuing dialog with their audiences. Of course, those working as journalists online should continue to use the fundamental ethical principles invoked by their predecessors — bylines, ethics policies, disclosing possible conflicts of interest, and publicly correcting their errors. With a new media ethos that encourages public participation and empowerment, it is my hope that the newest generation of reporters will succeed in rekindling the idea of journalism as public service. That’s what I want to do.
Erin Rosa is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa’s work has been featured in a variety of news outlets, including the Huffington Post, The Colorado Independent, and Democracy Now! This commentary was originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review.