So what is a citizen journalist?

Well, you ask some members of the mainstream media, they are citizen journalists. They’re citizens, aren’t they? Well, true, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s define citizen journalists as journalists who are ordinary citizens and aren’t employed by the press.

Which creates another problem for some in the mainstream media. To them, the title of “journalist” belongs only to those people employed by any person or corporation that owns a printing press or broadcast tower. That’s it. Period. If you’re not, you are just some hack who has a website. To these people, I say … well, I won’t print here what I say to them.

Some mainstream media folks are a bit more…lenient. Sure, they confer the title of “journalist” upon anyone who produces the type of journalism they produce. You know the type. The journalism that adheres to some tired old formula: the objective model, in which two conflicting opinions cancel each other out. If you’re lucky, they’ll ask a professor for a third opinion.

This can be applied to “citizen journalist,” but it is usually a poor fit.
A citizen journalist is a guy who films traffic lights taking too darn long and posts them on his blog. Sometimes it’s a guy ranting about how the city won’t build sidewalks in his part of town. Sometimes it’s a guy who explains how Greens and Libertarians have to get more signatures on petitions than do Democrats and Republicans. Sometimes it’s a woman complaining about rats. Sometimes it’s a woman who complains about how black people are killing each other.

We “citizen journalists” are the people who are driving the mainstream press to distraction. Here we are, writing about city council meetings—which used to be the responsibility of the daily newspaper. How rude!

A citizen journalist is someone who does for free what people get paid to do working for the Journal Star or WEEK. But not in the same way. I write with a point of view, telling the reader what I like and dislike. I am scrupulously honest: I always give my honest opinion. No hiding it behind a veil of objectivity.

They get paid for that stuff. So I don’t try to mimic them.

But rag on them? Give them grief? Oh, yes, I’ll do that. I’ll play up their errors. I’ll poke holes in the superficial nature of their reporting. I’ll point out where they are missing the story. It’s a time-honored practice among citizen journalists.

An Introduction…
At this point in the conversation, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Billy Dennis and I operate the blog, Peoria Pundit. It’s had several addresses, but for the time being, it’s located at tellpeoria.com/peoriapundit.

I blog a lot about the media. I blog a lot about politics. I concentrate on local stuff, but I also dabble in the national and international. I post YouTube videos and pictures. I am an advocate of blogging, and especially an advocate of citizen journalism.

I rather doubt I’m the first guy in Peoria to blog, but I think I’m the oldest blogger still standing.

For better or worse, I’m considered the “Blogfather” hereabouts, a term I liked when I first heard it, grew to hate and now am at peace with.

I’m no braver or more honest than any other blogger. I have my point of view, and other bloggers have theirs. You might know some of my contemporaries. There’s the Peoria AntiPundit. There’s C.J. Summers and his blog, Peoria Chronicle. There’s Emerge Peoria. There’s Merle Widmer, formerly of the Peoria County Board. There’s Vaspers the Grate. There are PeoriaIllinoisan and Peoria Station. There are Judy Rosella Edwards and Amy Kennard. We rarely all agree at any one time. But we respect each other. Well, mostly.

Let me tell you how I got involved in citizen journalism. I was working as an editor for a now-defunct newspaper, shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. I was frustrated. I was editing the paper, but I didn’t feel free to express myself.

That is something that no one who has not written for a newspaper can understand, but it is something that most journalists feel. To some extent, when you write for a publication for money, you write what you are told to write. It happens at some point. You are writing on someone else’s dime, and at some point, you are told “No, don’t write about that,” or more likely, you are subtly directed to write about something else. At this particular publication, it was happening in spades.

» BLOGROLL
Some of the Peoria-area bloggers mentioned in this article:
• Peoria Pundit: tellpeoria.com/peoriapundit
• Peoria Chronicle: peoriachronicle.com
• Emerge Peoria: emergepeoria.blogspot.com
• PeoriaIllinoisan: peoriaillinoisan.blogpeoria.com
• Peoria Station: peoriastation.blogpeoria.com
• Peoria Anti-Pundit: peoriaantipundit.blogspot.com
• Widmer Peoria Watch: widmer-peoria-watch.blogspot.com
• Judy Rosella Edwards: tellpeoria.com/judyrosellaedwards
• Amy Kennard: amykennard.blogspot.com
• Vaspers the Grate: pluperfecter.blogspot.com

It was in the middle of this, feeling down in the dumps, when I came across this little article on the Poynter Institute website about a new trend called “weblogging.” Or, “blogging,” for short. It seems that some folks had discovered how to post short articles to the Web. Just write the article, hit the “publish” button and the article would appear. Each article would have its own static web address, so people could share “links” to each other’s articles. People could add their comments to each article. And some of these “bloggers” were quite popular, with average daily hits in the hundreds of thousands.

Well, I had to try it out, and the blog that would eventually evolve into Peoria Pundit was formed. I posted a few big articles right way. Then, well, nothing.

But I kept at it. I started posting stuff that I would never get away with writing in a column for the newspaper. Heck, it was stuff I wouldn’t want to write for a daily newspaper. But I was having fun.

Then something quite wonderful and extraordinary happened. I got fired.

First Amendment, First Time
It was, “Katy, bar the door!” Termination of employment freed me from the threat of immediate termination. I started posting stuff that I would have written for the newspaper if they had let me. I started covering politics. I started attending city council meetings. And soon I was getting a bunch of hits.

By that time, I started getting links to other bloggers. I started getting links to other Peoria bloggers. We started socializing. I created The Blog Peoria Project and invited other people to start blogs and join in on the fun.

And what I realized was this: I was enjoying my First Amendment rights to freedom of the press. This was a right I did not enjoy during all my years working for mainstream media. I had been enjoying my publisher’s First Amendment rights. Not that any publisher I’ve had ever gave two thoughts to anything other than making money.

But here I was, self-publishing on the Internet, without having to alter one word, censor one thought or moderate myself in any way. It was kind of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted the First Amendment. They certainly didn’t draft it so rich guys could sell advertising.

Now, one journalist I’ve talked to defined that as journalism. Because someone who had made an investment trusted you enough to allow you to write for him or her, the words you put on paper were more to be trusted. Self-publishing citizen journalists who aren’t making money have no skin in the game, they say. The only “real” journalists are the ones who exercise someone else’s First Amendment rights.

I cannot wrap my head around that kind of thinking. You see, the First Amendment right to freedom of the press is a right enjoyed by all citizens, not just those rich enough to buy a printing press or a broadcast tower. Funny how people forget that.

Citizen journalism is about presenting a different point of view. It’s about lots of points of views. It’s about being an alternative source of news and information. It’s about weakening the hold the mainstream media has on our minds. It’s about getting what we have to say out there, without being filtered or censored by those wonderful gatekeepers, the mainstream media. We don’t need anyone telling us what we need and don’t need to know.

It’s about looking out the window of your home and writing down what you see, because what you see is at least as valid as what some reporter sees, or what some editor tells him or her that he or she should be seeing.

The mainstream media is starting to get that. But that’s irrelevant to us. We’re already sharing it. See you in the funny papers.

Billy Dennis is a former reporter and editor at small daily and weekly newspapers in Illinois and Missouri. He comments on media, news and politics. He also owns and operates The Blog Peoria Project, which promotes community-based citizen journalism in his hometown, Peoria. He can be reached at [email protected]