Published in


The Citizen Journalism Manual…

3. Backstory

Journalism is what maintains democracy. It’s the force for progressive social change… Andrew Vachss

DURING THE AGE OF PRINT, radio and television, people who would have liked to publish stories were denied access by professional barriers such as not being an employed journalist or a freelancer with a track record, and by not owning the means of media production.

Known writers who were not employees of a publication would be commissioned to produce a story for publication in a magazine or newspaper. For most, commissions were too infrequent to produce much of a livelihood. For unknown writers it was a matter of writing a story or producing photographs then sending them to publishers in the hope that one would find it worthwhile publishing.

Now, anyone with a few tools, basic ability and something to say can publish their ideas to the world, thanks to the internet and digital technology. Blogging is a product of that technology and it has created something new in the tradition of journalism — the citizen journalist.

Now, a computer, tablet or smartphone, an internet connection, a website, blog or social media channel, motivation and a basic ability in writing and photography take our messages to the world.

Practices that build credibility

Let’s get underway by saying journalism is a collection of approaches, tools and techniques that mediate events, incidents, trends and ideas between their instigator, those affected by them and the interested public.

In becoming a citizen journalist we move beyond the everyday social media user, the commentator and the blogger, and into a more considered and responsible space. Here, we reach out to people with new ideas and engaging stories.

Curiousity, basic writing ability, a computer, broadband connection and a camera are the tools of the new media.

We do this in two ways:

  • by using a set or relevant online tools and publishing venues
  • through adopting a set of journalism practices that bring us credibility and, in doing that, attracts readers and viewers.

Although citizen journalism and blogging are relatively new media formats, practices brought over from older media such as print can improve the citizen journalist’s work and reputation. We look at these later.

A watching brief

To situate citizen journalism within the tradition of journalism, let’s take a short excursion into the recent past.

The Fourth estate and beyond

The practice of journalism has been critical to the functioning of democracies through the Twentieth Century and into the present time. It is even more so now at this time of concentrated media ownership and the fabrication of misleading ‘fake news’ by people with a political, commercial or other agenda.

Journalism’s role evolved to complement the three preexisting ‘estates’ of Western democracies:

  • the legislature (government)
  • the courts
  • the clergy.

These were the legal and moral brokers and decision makers of their societies. The ‘press’, the print media, evolved into a fourth estate that grew to complement the three earlier estates. The ‘fourth estate’, assumed a watching brief on society.

By the turn of the Twenty First Century the reputation of all four estates was in decline. They retained their traditional role but public confidence in them was falling. In part, this was due to better media reporting that revealed the doings and misdoings of the legislature, clergy and commercial interests. The media’s drift away from practices like investigative reporting to focus on entertainment and ‘light news’ led to a loss of public confidence in it. So did its promoting of particular political ideas and the policies of political parties.

Two decades into the new century, politically-motivated individuals and organisations further shook public trust in established media by deliberately spreading disinformation about it so as to weaken its role in society. The Covid 19 pandemic and government actions to stem its spread provided the means to sow distrust not only in the media but in science as well.

The emergence of citizen journalism over the first two decades of the Twenty First Century is due to more than the opportunities brought by new technologies. It is a reaction to the declining reputation of the traditional estates, including the fourth estate itself.

Breaking with the past

Journalists and forward-looking media organisations saw the need to change how stories were reported as far back as the 1970s. It was then that the ‘New Journalism’ appeared. While it was disliked by some in the media, it was welcomed by many journalists, readers and publishers.

Wikipedia describes the New Journalism like this:

“… a style of news writing and journalism, developed in the 1960s and 1970s, which uses literary techniques deemed unconventional at the time. It is characterized by a subjective perspective, a literary style reminiscent of long-form non-fiction and emphasizing “truth” over “facts,” and intensive reportage in which reporters immersed themselves in the stories as they reported and wrote them. This was in contrast to traditional journalism where the journalist was typically ‘invisible’ and facts are reported as objectively as possible.”

The idea of journalists participating in what they write about, becoming “immersed”, went against journalistic practice at the time. That remains the situation in mainstream media today.

Investigative journalism was linked to the New Journalism and, like it, was stimulated by the social fervent of the sixties and seventies. Its practitioners produced analytical and revealing longform articles and books by taking an inquiring, investigative approach to dig behind the news and newsmakers and uncover deeper-lying and perhaps hidden motivations.

Literary journalism was a term used to describe the New Journalism of the 1970s and later. It offered a new, livelier form or writing that was a distinct break with the staid reporting of news and current affairs. Literary journalism was also associated with investigative journalism. Names like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and others became prominent, thanks to their articles and books.

Later in this pre-internet time, media organisations experimented with ‘public journalism’ that attempted to include the public in the process of writing news. A range of techniques were adopted to produce information that would go into stories. This was the first time the public were part of the reporting process. Like investigative and literary journalism it took time to produce and consequently favoured media organisations that could afford to have journalists working on a story for longer periods.

All of these trends were indicators of a growing sense that the media was ripe for change. Appearing in the period between the 1970s and 1990s, they were products of the social change that characterised this period when economies started to computerise, computers became devices that non-specialists could own and use, when a globalised economy started to take shape, the Cold War ended and the pace and impact of technologies started to accelerate.

Online journalism is a product of economic and social computerisation and of the deepening impact of digital technologies on societies. It not only changed how news is gathered, it changed how it is distributed to its audiences. Whereas once we had metropolitan newspapers, radio and television distributing news and information in a one-to-many format, now the media landscape is fractured into channels reporting directly to specialist audiences. This is the time of citizen journalism.

The platforms of citizen journalism

Citizen journalists make use of a range of online publishing platforms:

  • websites featuring text-based, stills photography and video reporting
  • podcasting — producing and publishing audio stories as sound files; this is akin to radio documentary production
  • photography — the publishing of stills images; these are accompanied by captions that context the image and give it meaning; photographs often accompanies text-based journalism and illustrate something in the text; photographs might be stand-alone, single-picture stories accompanied by a few paragraphs as a caption to explain them, or might be grouped as a presentation of related photographs in a photo essay or arranged sequentially and displayed one at a time in a slide show (so-named for colour transparency film images or ‘slides’ projected via a slide projector)
  • videography — the use of video cameras and editing software to tell a story.

Any number of these formats can be combined in a single story. An audio file embedded in a text story might be a recording of an interview with one of the protagonists, for example.

Mixing platforms is known as multimedia. I became aware of the value of combining a couple of these when, while on a course on photojournalism, the instructor said I was fortunate in being able to combine writing and photography. That was verified later when as a freelancer I found that stories accompanied by a selection of photographs increased the saleability of an article.

Citizen journalists capable in more than a single skill, who can combine writing and photography, for example, are better placed to produce stories that will attract readers. This is because photographs show the actuality of what is being written about while the text gives context, meaning, history and detail. Relevant to this are the findings of social media researchers that posts (social media stories) accompanied by a photograph or graphic attract more readers.

Around 93 percent of the most engaging posts on Facebook include an image, according to Kissmetrics and reported in online business magazine, Fast Company.

And what of email?

Despite its ageing, email remains a popular means of one-to-one and one-to-many online communication. It should be considered by citizen journalists, but in its more modern forms.

A read-only format, email is useful as a distribution medium. Before social media and Web 2.0, the interactive web, email distribution lists were used to disseminate information to list members. Emails would contain the full text rather than the practice today of emails carrying a paragraph or two followed by a link that points to the story on a website. Read a brief history of email here.

Email newsletter software that links introductory text to full stories and images on a website has given email new life. Crafting a visually attractive email newsletter using software designed for this purpose allows individuals and organisations to keep people on a mailing list informed. Citizen journalists can do this too, and keep readers up to date and retain their readership.

Publishing media

As citizen journalists, our online publishing venues consist mainly of websites and social media:

  • websites provide a repository for our work or that of the organisation we write/photograph for; there, it is retained over the long term and can be found by search engines and by periodically updating and reposting links to it
  • social media connects readers to stories on our website, provides channels for reposting links to the work of others, for posting information and for commenting on posts; unlike websites that retain findable past stories discovered by a search, postings to social media quickly disappear down the timeline and are only recovered by interested readers.

Unlike the old media of newspapers, magazines, radio and TV that are one-to-many channels, online media offers many-to-many channels, providing a greater diversity of opinion, expertise and voices.

Our motivation

We have taken a rough and hurried excursion through the media landscapes of the late Twentieth Century and into the present time and looked at the platforms we can use for our citizen journalism. Now is the time, before we put finger to keyboard, to sit quietly and think about our motivation in wanting to become a citizen journalist. That done, it is thinking time again as we work out the topics we know or can learn enough about to offer useful insight into. We also consider the type of journalism we would do. Are we primarily writers? photographers? videographers? podcasters?

To make a start, let’s consider a few questions:

  1. Why do I want to be a blogger/citizen journalist?
  2. What do I know enough about that would enable me to write informative articles? (This suggests specialised niches for blogging such a technology, farming, landuse, economics, science, societies, politics, travel, sociology, education etc)
  3. Do I have the time and opportunity to research, write and publish stories on a regular basis?
  4. Are there enough potential stories in my niche to sustain my writing over a longer period of time?
  5. What are my preferred types of media production — writing short or long pieces, stills photography, video, audio?
  6. Where could I learn more about blogging?
  7. How do I make a start?

Having answered these questions, make a list of a dozen or so potential stories in your niche you could work on to make a start as a citizen journalist.

Finding our audience

Today’s internet is a crowded place and it requires searching to find our readership or viewers.

This has to go beyond tagging our work with meaningful, descriptive and findable words and learning a little about search engine optimisation. It requires actively going out and searching for potential audiences, especially on social media. This will be an ongoing process.

The Citizen Journalism Manual…

  1. Citizen journalism: A few definitions

2. Introducing Citizen Journalism

3. Backstory

4. Making a start in citizen journalism with basic skills and equipment

5. Our challenge: the distrust of media

6. Things we will encounter

7. Dealing with conspiracy theories

8. The legals

9. An insight into copyright

10. On offence

11. On bias

12. Be wary of word salads

13. The necessity of skepticism

14. Types of stories and writing

15. Practices for citizen journalists

16. Writing and distributing our stories

17. Writing: a few considerations

18. Let’s start writing

19. About formats: News or features?

20. Follow the arc

21. Write sticky stories

22. Writing reviews

23. Doing radio interviews

24. Civic affairs reporting for citizen journalists

25. Using audio and video

26. Photography for the citizen journalist

27. Shooting video for MOJO

28. The time is now



PacificEdge takes us into the journalism of people, places, events and memoir and on into short fictional pieces.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.