DAVID ROSMAN: Despite not being paid, citizen journalists are still professionals

Wednesday, November 10, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Richard Klicki, senior editor/online for the, posted an interesting query to’s Newspaper Professional Group. “Given the state and average salaries of the news industry today, is a journalism degree still worth the investment? Are journalists better trained (and financially served) by working through apprenticeships, like the building trades?”

The question is one that all college students, regardless of major, must ask themselves: “What will be my return on this education investment?” Part of that answer concerns a great intangible: How will I love my career?

Debra Paul, owner of Nutfield Publishing, operating five hyperlocal newspapers in New Hampshire, was succinct in her answer: “It would all depend on whether you’re doing it for money or the greater good.” And she is right, bringing the conversation to the next level.

Given the increasing costs of an college education, a good apprenticeship may not be a bad idea in journalism. In fact, many of the responders admitted that they learned the majority of their trade after they started working. Over the years, I have found this true in many professions, including law and medicine. Journalism should require an apprenticeship to become a journeyman.

Many news outlets, the Missourian included, rely on “citizen journalists,” men and women who are not paid for their columns and reporting but are held to the same high standards as their paid counterparts.

This led to a second question posed to the same group: How do we define a “professional”? Being paid seems to be the consensus.

It is my contention, however, that regular, unpaid contributors, the citizen journalists, should also be considered “professionals” if they meet the standards required by recognized news organizations. Many reject this idea, using Oxford American Dictionary’s definition that one must be paid to be a professional. Merriam-Webster, though in agreement, also suggests that, when used as an adjective, a professional is “characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession.”

Maude Campbell, a freelance medical editor and writer from Cleveland, took some time to research the question and wrote a well-thought-out treatise, making an interesting point referring to Jay Rosen’s award-winning PressThink blog.

She wrote, “(Rosen’s) more recent posts and links … (that) even Wiki defining citizen journalism as … journalism done by professionals/news ‘organizations.’ ”

Rosen also wrote a short manifesto, "The People Formerly Known as the Audience." He wrote, “We graduate from wanting media when we want it, to wanting it without the filler, to wanting media to be way better than it is, to publishing and broadcasting ourselves when it meets a need or sounds like fun.”

Back to the standard of being “paid.” In a standard sense, “paid” means receiving compensation for work performed, traditionally as a paycheck from an employer or customer, or the give and take of the barter system. Sometimes not.

Even defining “paid” has come under some scrutiny. Does being “paid” also include the blogger who is making money from his site from selling advertising? He is being paid, but not directly for his writing. Is this close enough?

English is a “living” language, one that grows and evolves. Grammar, spelling and meanings change over time. As I correlated the definitions and comments, I found myself revisiting the terms "citizen" and "citizen journalist," as well as "professional." As journalism examines the new lands of citizens as journalists, the term "professional" may have to change.

The citizen journalist is writing on behalf of the citizens. This is usually raw material, not well documented, if at all, and does not fit the criteria required by news media.

The Missourian’s citizen journalists, like J. Karl Miller, Rose Nolen, Gene Robertson and others who write for this paper and our cross-town rivals without receiving a paycheck, are professionals. We write because of our love of language and want to inform the public. We write to start a conversation on issues that may otherwise not receive a fair discussion. Our remuneration is your response.

Though some complain that we are not paid for our efforts, we take great pride in our columns. We hold ourselves to the ethical and production standards of the industry, We all thank you for your reading and responding to our thoughts.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at and New York Journal of Books.


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Gregg Bush November 11, 2010 | 1:14 p.m.

"The Missourian’s citizen journalists, like J. Karl Miller, Rose Nolen, Gene Robertson and others who write for this paper and our cross-town rivals without receiving a paycheck, are professionals."
We have to agree on a nomenclature - I ripped these from Wikipedia.
"A pundit is someone who offers to mass-media his or her opinion or commentary on a particular subject area."

"A journalist collects and disseminates information about current events, people, trends, and issues."
And this is a clinical term I'll let you look up on your own: Anosognosia.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 11, 2010 | 5:26 p.m.

For once (mark your calendars) I agree with Gregg Bush.

In law, your credentials to be an "expert witness" often have little to do with university degrees and much more to do with your life experiences.

I have a good friend who only finished high school, but he has offered expert opinion in many court cases. He happens to be world famous in the techniques and problems associated with pneumatic placement of concrete and refractory (high temperature resistant) concrete. There aren't any university professors who know more than he does about that particular subject.

In reality, an expert witness is anyone with knowledge of a subject which the general public could not be expected to have. If a judge agrees he's/she's an expert, then he's/she's an expert!

Of course the obverse side of the coin is that the other side in litigation can and will try to tear the expert witness' testimony to shreds on the witness stand and/or in a legal deposition. This exercise can sometimes become "very spirited." Believe me, Ellis knows! (I have yet to physically assault an opposing attorney, but have come damned close.)

(Report Comment)

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