LASICS .::. Open Conference Systems, IAMCR 2010: Communication and Citizenship

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Civic journalism as a challenge for the journalistic profession around 1900

Thomas Birkner

Last modified: 2010-07-05


Civic journalism is not a new phenomenon. It is certain that it goes back to the time when mass media became the organizing element in social communication. Not only politics and the growing industry but also ordinary people tried to participate in the new media publicity. In the context of social modernization, urbanization and democratization during the 19th century a modern communication system emerged. Simultaneously the handling of citizens’ participation and the integration of a more and more fragmented audience became part of the professional project of journalism.[1] Since then, citizenship and communication went hand in hand.

The paper deals with the advantages and disadvantages of civic journalism around 1900 to give a historical perspective on the goals and threads it offers to professional journalism nowadays. Theoretically based on an critical analysis of the Habermasian Public Sphere[2], of Anglo-American concepts of grassroots journalism[3] and dreams of the blogosphere as “auxiliary forces of the Fourth Estate”[4] or even as “Fifth Estate”[5] the paper concentrates on the specifics of the public sphere, where we always had and have citizen journalists meanwhile we do not have citizen dentists or pilots. This has always threatened professional journalism. Therefore the case of Germany seems to be a perfect example as due to the delayed urbanization and the incomplete democratization in the 19th century also the professional project of journalism stayed unaccomplished.

The paper uses the – up till now nearly unknown – source of German journalistic handbooks, that were published in the years between 1900 and 1914 and were quite successful, which can be demonstrated by their frequent reprinting. A content analysis shows, that many of them give professional advice to the journalists in order to deal with the growing mass of citizen journalism. Others provide more practical tips for those who tried to offer their content to the newspapers, while some quote early stylebooks of the newspapers. A scientific book on Culture and Press especially warns that professional journalism will loose the contact to the people and evokes journalists not to underestimate the importance of citizens’ participation of all kind to keep in touch with both practical and quotidian live.[6] The result can be illustrated with examples of the most modern newspapers of the time, like the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung. In their issue of the 18th of June in 1899, for example, they tell their readers on page seven, that they get many photos – a quite new technology – from their audience and invite them to sent more. The next page presents a competition on the best photo that illustrates “bathing”.

The paper concentrates on an early but quite developed phase of civic journalism and tries to demonstrate that new phenomena in the web 2.0 have very early precedents.[7] The scientific research on these early forms of citizens’ participation offers new perspectives on present challenges for journalism and with the source of the journalistic handbooks it gives a new view on the professional project of journalism around 1900.

[1] E.g. Retallack, James (1993): „From Pariah to Profession? The Journalist in German Society and Politics, from the late Enlightment to the Rise of Hitler“, in: German Studies Review, 16, pp. 175-223.

[2] Habermas, Jürgen (1990) [1962]: Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

[3] E.g. Jan Rosens definition of citizen journalism: „When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.“ Quoted at his own blog: E.g. also: Gillmor, Dan: We the media. Grassroots Journalism by the people for the people, Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly and Briggs, Xavier de Souza (2008): Democracy as Problem Solving – Civic Capacity in Communities Across the Globe, Cambridge, MA / London: MIT Press, pp. 307ff.

[4] Moorstedt, Tobias (2009): „Die Hilfstruppe der vierten Gewalt“, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung, 22th of August, p. 17.

[5] Segler, Daland (2009,): „Die fünfte Gewalt? Der professionelle Journalismus muss sich der härter werdenden Kritik der Blogger stellen“, in: Frankfurter Rundschau, 16th of June, p. 41.

[6] Löbl, Emil (1903): Kultur und Presse, Leipzig: Duncker & Humboldt, p. 177.

[7] E.g. for example Cabrera, María Ángeles (2004): Periodismo digital y nuevas tecnologías, in: Barrera, Carlos (Hrsg.): Historia del periodismo universal, Barcelona: Ariel, S. 393-417.

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