At the end of the 20th century, a promising new phenomenon appeared—amateur reporters and commentators who came to be known as “citizen journalists.” They presented their writing on the internet, called web diaries, weblogs or simply blogs. The people maintaining these sites were writers unhindered by conventional journalism practices who wanted to tell stories from a viewpoint that perhaps the mainstream media were unable or uninterested in publishing. Some of these self-described truth tellers, who busied themselves correcting errors, oversights and misinterpretations in what they regarded as the biased or agenda-driven mainstream media—or MSM, in the culture’s parlance—predicted an imminent renaissance of journalism that would be driven by their efforts, which eventually would supplant the MSM altogether.

In his 1999 book What Are Journalists For?, Jay Rosen offered a manifesto for this new era: “On the Web, every reader is also a writer, every consumer a potential producer,” wrote Rosen, a New York University digital journalism professor and an early advocate of citizen journalism. “Everyone there is in potential reach of everyone else who is there. These are new conditions for journalists, and they stand out even at high tide in the hype that often surrounds Web talk.”

Similarly, in Dan Gillmor’s 2004 book We the Media, he argues that the internet allowed citizens to “participate in the news-gathering and dissemination processes.” The world wide web is part of “an expanding, thriving ecosystem,” as Gillmor put it.

But looking at today’s media, where are all these grassroots reporters with contributions so much more compelling than what the “legacy” media offer?

The explosive growth in technology that has allowed people with access to iPhones and BlackBerrys to shoot video and take photos has not spurred the emergence of newsworthy revelations that citizen journalism champions thought the internet had the potential to unleash. Arguably, citizen journalism has mostly yielded images uploaded by volunteer photographers and videographers to the amateur sections of MSM websites. Here you’ll find photos and videos of freakish weather events, highway accidents and a lot of nature shots that might best belong in someone’s scrapbook. Interesting and profound content from citizens has been scarce.

Rosen offered this definition of citizen journalism at the 2008 Netroots Nation conference, an annual event held to discuss ideas on how to use technology more effectively: “When the people, formerly known as the audience, employ the press tools in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism. Got it?” Rosen might have had in mind sites like that of Steve Munro, a Canadian who writes a frequently updated blog, Steve Munro’s Web Site, about Toronto transit and politics. Munro’s work is insightful and engaging for anyone who wants in-depth analysis of Toronto Transit Commission policies and practices—topics the MSM don’t often have the room, time or ability to describe in detail, or cover at all. But there are few of these types of blogs maintained by people who aren’t trained journalists. And while there may be more topics that could use coverage by a knowledgeable person like Munro, a lot of time has to be invested in internet work of his calibre. Most citizens don’t have the time for that. So the best that most internet contributors manage is to upload a video or photo to their favourite TV network. This is their stab at news.

People who have posted to citizen journalism platforms of conventional news outlets have rarely made impressive contributions. Besides, what’s fresh here? News organizations have been using citizens as members of their newsgathering teams for years, getting news tips from them and, more recently, posting their submissions on their websites. The tips from readers, listeners and viewers used to be delivered by phone or snail mail. Now, with the internet and the proliferation of affordable digital cameras, submissions get there quicker and may look more professional.

Ira Basen, a long-time radio producer, says citizen journalists have contributed some valuable information, including reports about the disputed Iranian presidential election last summer. While the foreign press was “confined to reporting from their hotel rooms,” as Basen says, citizens were able to file informative reports on protests.

But citizen journalism, like the regular kind, can be mischievous. Basen offers the example of an online report of Steve Jobs having suffered a heart attack. The January 2009 report, originating on iReport, a section of CNN.com devoted to user-generated content, gained credence because the Apple CEO had a history of health problems. Apple shares dropped until the truth was reported: Jobs’ heart was fine. CNN’s iReport is similar to MyNews at CTV, My Breaking News at CP24 and CBC’s Your Voice. The difference is that the Canadian broadcasters have web teams to moderate and verify all submissions.

Not that items are always vetted carefully, though. Back in December, CBC’s Your Voice carried a photo of Barbara Ann Scott, the 1948 Canadian Olympic skating champion, carrying the Games’ torch into the House of Commons. Submitted by a viewer whose name didn’t appear on the page, and likely taken with a camera phone, the picture was grainy and facial details, including Scott’s, were barely discernible. Without news reports anticipating Scott’s Commons appearance, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for even the sharpest-eyed screener—or viewer—to verify her identity. Pictures of celebs, A-list or minor, are the exception. A lot of viewer-contributed “news” shots consist of pics of fires, storms, road mayhem or images titled “The Amazing Sky” or “Coyote.”

While the images submitted to traditional media sites by citizens are seldom arresting, broadcasters expect volume to increase. Mark Sikstrom, executive producer for news syndication and CTV.ca, is enthusiastic about providing a platform for viewer submissions via CTV’s MyNews. “It’s taking the 10 million camera-enabled people out there and making them part of our newsgathering force. It’s another way of gathering important breaking news.” Sikstrom adds that it’s also “a way of creating community and loyalty. Rather than people being passive viewers, they can be active participants in what we do every day. It does create more loyalty to our brand. And it’s where people are going. They have now come to expect to be partners in media rather than just observers.” MyNews seems to be working for CTV. Since its launch in May 2008, the site’s traffic has tripled, although it’s hard to tell whether that’s due to all the folks posting their snapshots of cats or fires, or because visitors are avidly seeking these out.

True, uploaded photos and videos can also be of genuine breaking news, such as the tornado that hit Durham, a region east of Toronto, last summer. But who follows up on such stories? Journalists at the traditional news organizations. Meanwhile, though, in the pre-web days, tipsters might get a thank you, or even a modest payment; now there’s usually not much reward for contributors. Larry Cornies, coordinator of the print journalism and new media programs at Conestoga College, recalls that “it used to be special for a newspaper when a citizen had a great photo that a paper might buy for $500 and put on the front page. There was a bit of glamour for the contributor.” Today, contributors give up all rights to the content they provide and don’t see a cent or even receive a call to confirm receipt of the image or when, or if, it might be used.

Cornies has experienced this phenomenon. “I was living in Toronto along Queen’s Quay and there was a snowstorm,” he says, describing a location near the city’s waterfront. “In the winter it’s deserted, and I took this great shot of the CN Tower in the background and the desolation of the lakefront. I uploaded it to The Weather Network and heard nothing back. It may have been shown, it may never have been shown, you don’t know. It feels like a hollow exercise when there’s no acknowledgement of your contribution.”

Perhaps the best way to integrate citizen reporting into mainstream news is to train or guide citizen journalists. Websites such as blogTO and Torontoist could be mistaken for citizen publications, but actually are more like small versions of mainstream newsrooms. Writers at Torontoist have guidelines and procedures to follow, making them function in a way similar to a metropolitan daily. David Topping, Torontoist editor-in-chief, explains that the site’s editors examine submissions before they’re posted. Torontoist also has a code of ethics to follow and a fact-checking and editing process similar to larger media organizations.

As a vocation, journalism takes a lot of time to practise well. Cornies, who has his own blog, is cheering for citizen journalists but is skeptical about their potential because of the time required to thoroughly report a story. “Finding and talking to sources, challenging authority figures, collecting and correlating information from a wide variety of sources, and making judgements on how to tell the story are things few people are willing to do for free, or spend a lot of time doing,” he says. “So far, citizen journalism is a cult of amateurs feeling their way into this brave new world called journalism, and I’m cheering for them.” However, Cornies admits that he has yet to see citizen journalists consistently break important stories.

When the utility of citizen journalism is questioned, invariably the case of Victoria’s Paul Pritchard is raised. It was Pritchard who captured the Tasering of Robert Dziekanski by RCMP officers at the Vancouver International Airport in October 2007. Dziekanski, a 40-year-old Polish man who had never flown before and spoke no English, began to behave erratically after spending hours inside an arrivals area. Four officers Tasered Dziekanski five times, ultimately resulting in his death.

That video spurred extensive coverage of the police and their use of Tasers. Pritchard earned the first ever Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Citizen Journalism Award in 2009. Had Pritchard’s video not been submitted, published and reproduced all over the internet, the incident and the issue of using Tasers might have gone largely unnoticed. But was it sheer luck that Pritchard happened to be at the right place and time or an act of journalism? Cornies seems to think that this is an example of a one-off that a citizen broke. It was the MSM that followed up on Pritchard’s information—Pritchard hasn’t produced more stories since.

Pritchard made a bit of money for his scoop, but the citizens whose blogs and musings on the internet that reporters cruise for ideas for their own stories generally don’t even get that. So what has become of the early vision of grassroots freethinkers providing knowledge and insight the MSM fails to provide? Although citizens are breaking news every now and then—the first images from Haiti were shot by civilians—citizens are tipping traditional news media to important or overlooked stories at about the same rate as they have for the last six decades, and the concept of citizen journalism as originally articulated by the Rosens and the Gillmors has yet to become a reality.

Jamie Patterson, web developer at CTV, happily pulls up his favourite viewer submission to date. In the “My Toronto Is…” section that CTV’s website includes as part of its MyNews page, a teenager dressed in a plain tan shirt with a plaid sheet as background gives a two-minute-and-38-second description of his Toronto. Patterson says there is something endearing about how the amateur video was put together—it seems the boy used all the different editing transitions—zigzags and dissolves—available to him. The CN Tower, Rogers Centre and Air Canada Centre are among his top Toronto attractions. He pauses and looks into the far distance as his face dissolves into images of the sites he has mentioned. He leaves CTV viewers with this message: “Some more interesting things about Toronto: Toronto is a very busy city. There’s the GO train you can travel on, there’s the TTC bus, there’s the streetcar, there are taxis you can drive in, there are your own cars you can drive in. Toronto is a very busy city. People are bustling everywhere.”

So now you know.