Ever since the "Internets" got into the blogging business, we've witnessed a frequently confusing and contradictory argument going back and forth between the blogosphere and the so-called mainstream media over the question of who is--or isn't--a journalist.
Press critic Jay Rosen declared the argument "over" long ago, but nothing in our media is ever really over. But the evidence that the lines are blurring is becoming undeniable. Arianna Huffington is setting up her own reporting division over at The Huffington Post, Josh Marshall has been hosting TPMuckracker.com for some time now, and The Washington Post and Time magazine recently lost their highest profile reporters to an as-yet-unnamed and unknown website.
Yet another significant, but so far largely unsung development in the marriage of the blogosphere and MSM can be found in David Bennahum's Center for Independent Media. The Washington, D.C. nonprofit launched two sites this past summer, ColoradoConfidential.com and MinnesotaMonitor.com--both of which are staffed by, get this, investigative bloggers.
Bennahum describes the project thusly: "We go state to state and we find the most promising local bloggers in those states in terms of doing journalism, and we give them journalism training. We have a guy named Steve Doig who is a professor of journalism at Arizona State and a Pulitzer Prize winner, and we have a local trainer. In Colorado it's a woman named Sandra Fish, who is a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and in Minnesota it's Mark Neuzil, who is a professor at University of St. Thomas journalism school."
The training program teaches the bloggers how to break news about issues in their state, while adhering to the code of ethics drafted by the Society of Professional Journalists.
The bloggers work six month stints writing for one of the two portal sites that collect their pieces--Bennahum plans to expand to other states over the next couple of years. They also get a package of services: the journalism training, a LexisNexis account to use for research, and a $1,500 stipend each month. CIM also hires a PR firm in each state to promote the bloggers' breaking news to the established media in the state. "The idea," Bennahum explains, "is that to diversify the debate you have to reach a wide audience and you can't be limiting yourself only to the audience you can reach on the blog."
The goal of Bennahum's nonprofit is to try to increase the diversity of the media landscape as global corporations simultaneously downsize and dumb-down the majority of major media properties. "In terms of the civic role," he avers, "we look to the Constitution and the idea that we have freedom of the press, because it's important for the public to be informed. We think one of the main drivers of how you inform people is news, and because of the shrinking sources of news due to all of the consolidation in the business of news, we go into these states and diversify the debate by suddenly having 10 more people producing real news on their blogs."
CIM's goals are simple: "train the bloggers in how to break news, aggregate their content into these portal sites that can reach the influentials in the state--reporters, newspaper editors, radio--all the people who are gatekeepers to the debate."
So far, the results are real. Since the two sites went live in July (through October), CIM's bloggers produced 2,200 news stories, appeared on radio and TV 30 times, and have been cited in the newspapers--either credited for a piece of news they broke or mentioned--195 times. The blogs themselves have racked up 700,000 visits in that period. "When we look at ourselves in terms of fulfilling our social mission," Bennahum said, "which is to use news to enhance public debate."
The two sites have also done a decent job of leading the news cycle on stories that matter. CIM Fellow Cara Degette was the first one to report--on ColoradoConfidential.com--that Pastor Ted Haggard had been fired from New Life Church, the church in Colorado, for "moral failings" that allegedly included the solicitation of a male prostitute and buying methamphetamines.
And MinnesotaMonitor.com broke the story that Michelle Bachmann, who was running for re-election to the House of Representatives in Minnesota's 6th district, got endorsed by the largest church in Minnesota in mid-October, triggering an IRS complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington- and leading to MSNBC's Keith Olberman, the AP, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and 79 newspapers around the country to pick it up.
Time will tell, as the saying goes, whether the model CIM has created can be expanded to diversify media voices around the nation and help reshape the kinds of stories that local media outlets consider "news."
Newspapers, talk and news radio, and television news, have all been heading downhill in a proverbial handbasket as they chase the lowest common denominator as if shot out from a cannon full of crap. MSM journalists rarely appreciate this kind of "help" from amateurs--even well-trained amateurs--but none would dare argue that they don't need all the help they can get given the state of the profession these days. And citizens might say the same thing, which is why all of us have an interest in whether CIM's experiment succeeds.