Do we need citizen journalism?

Had an interesting conversation last night as part of a panel discussion on “Citizen Journalism, Do We Need It,” sponsored by the South Coast Regional Multimedia Education Center and Moorpark College.

Joining me in the televised discussion were Joe Howry, editor of the Ventura County Star, and Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review out of University of Southern California.

Not sure we answered the question of whether we need it or not. Not surprisingly, we even had trouble defining it, though we pretty much agreed that citizen journalism is a lousy name. “Grassroots” journalism sounds better.

We discussed the changes occurring because of grassroots journalism and what it means to traditional publications and to education.

While at the school I was able to spend some time with a couple of staff members of the Student Voice, the newspaper that tries to serve Ventura County’s three community colleges. Most importantly, I was able to spend time with the paper’s online editor and give some tips on how better use the College Publisher tool the paper uses.

I was impressed by the multimedia news gathering I saw from students covering the event. But it was sad to see the roadblocks the student publication uses in its processing of news.

Moorpark uses a kludgey system to process its stories. Instead of using the power of its College Publisher tool as a submission point for stories –something crucial if the staff is ever going to adopt a post first, print later philosophy, students submit assignments through a WebCT server. This creates a bottleneck because only a couple of people, including the faculty adviser can access submissions for editing.

The reasons behind the WebCT submissions emerged a few years ago when the Ventura County Board of Trustees, against the advice of journalism educators and professionals, closed journalism programs at two of the district’s colleges with the mistaken administrator notion that the three campuses could be served by a single newspaper (which makes sense ONLY if you hire fulltime professional journalists, not if you try to staff it with students).

Because Moorpark adviser Joanna Miller was handed unenviable the task of trying to make the ill-conceived plan work, she turned to distance education methods to establish journalism relationships at the other two colleges. Hence WebCT. It made sense at the time.

But at about the same time the Moorpark paper joined College Publisher’s network and the program has yet to unleash the potential of a vital online publication by cutting out the bottleneck. Indeed, the disenfranchised journalists at Ventura College and Oxnard College, might feel more a part of the publication if they we posting stories directly to the online publication than submitting stories to an instructor through a distance education class. Advanced students at these schools might even be assigned editor privileges so that they can move breaking stories online immediately.

I should note that Moorpark is not the only California community college that has students submit stories this way, but the practice is not common.

By the way, when the Ventura Board made the decision to cut the two journalism programs, I wrote down my predictions, sealed them in an envelope, placed the envelope in an old mayonnaise jar, and buried under a Funk & Wagnels encyclopedia under my front door step that 1) the idea of one paper for the district would not work, that each school wanted its own identity, 2) that administrators desperate to prove they were doing the right thing would declare it an immediate success, though students at Ventura and Oxnard would forever feel disenfranchised, 3) that within 3-5 years the district would recognize its mistake and bring back journalism at Ventura College, 4) that it would take another 3-5 years for Ventura to bring the program back to its quality and enrollment levels, and 5) that it would take 7-10 years, minimum, before they would bring back a newspaper at Oxnard. From the rumblings I hear, I’m right on target with those predictions.

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