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Citizen Journalists Are Back!

400 Years of Citizen Journalism

New Media on Ulitzer

Newspapers were published from the 1500s to the 1900s, not by professional journalists but by citizen journalists. Now, with the worldwide movement of citizen journalism, THE CITIZENS ARE BACK!


The idea of citizens writing the news is not a new one. In fact, it is an idea that is as old as the newspaper itself.

There were no professional journalists around 50 BC when Julius Caesar, serving as the First Counsel of Rome, ordered scribes to publish the Acta Diurna, a daily report of governmental activities.

There were no professional journalists in the early 1400s to take advantage of Johann Gutenberg’s new and exciting moveable type press. In fact, it wasn’t until 1505 that a German printer in Augsburg named Erhard Oeglin put out a broadside that announced the discovery of Brazil.

There were no professional journalists to chronicle the travels of Marco Polo (1300s) or to report the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus (1492) or to tell the horrors of Russia’s Ivan the Terrible (1500s).

There were no professional journalists to chronicle the challenges to the Crown by Oliver Cromwell (1600s) or to report the advancement of freedom during the American Revolution (1700s) or to tell the stories of the Spanish-American War or even the Civil War, which ended in 1865.

After the Civil War, things began to change.

Soon after the Civil War, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee became president of Washington College, a Presbyterian college in Lexington, Virginia. It was at this little Christian college in war-torn Virginia, owned and operated by Presbyterians and run by the most recognizable and revered general of the Confederate Army, that the first university-level classes in journalism were held.

Even with this small step forward for the development of a corps of professional journalists, it would be a long time before the great colleges and universities of the day began carrying courses for aspiring journalists, despite the rise of newspaper publishing throughout the now United States of America.

The first full-fledged program for journalists was started by the legendary Walter Williams (pictured below at the University of Missouri in 1908 when he opened the now world renowned Missouri School of Journalism).


Walter Williams - University of Missouri

It took an astounding 30 years – from 1878 until 1908 - for any major school of higher education to notice a need for the training of professional journalists.

If you consider that the serious publishing of newspapers began in the 1500s – after Gutenberg’s press became popular - and there were newspapers, journals, magazines and publications of all shapes and sizes being written, typeset, printed and distributed all around the world, and if you consider the first university-level classes on journalism were held at a little church college in Lexington, Virginia in 1865 – that means that there were no university-trained professional journalists for 365 years.

If you take the equation all the way to the beginning of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in 1908, it means that for 400 years no newspaper anywhere in the world was staffed by what we today would call a professional journalist!

How did the world survive without Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Woodward and Bernstein, the Society of Professional Journalists and the “Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manuel?”

They did it with citizens. Men and women (mostly men) who chronicled events by personal observation or by questioning people who had witnessed events and who put their stories down on paper and published them for others to read.

For 400 years, there were no professional journalists with pencils and notepads, and knowledge of lead paragraphs, inverted pyramids, nut graphs, cutlines and managing editors. They were just citizens who saw what was happening and wrote their observations and shared them in any way they could.

That’s right, for the first 400 years of newspaper publishing, all the writing was done by citizens. By printers, business owners, teachers, ship captains, politicians, court officers, clergymen, scallywags, military officers and soldiers, dirt-poor civilians, wealthy industrialists, farmers, explorers, tradesmen, go down the list.

Everyone who journaled – who chronicled their activities and observations, were journal-ists. Not professional journal-ists as you and I know them today – but citizen journal-ists.

“So what?” you ask?

It’s clear to me that - today - the citizens are back.

More Stories By Ron Ross

Dr. Ron Ross is a publisher, author, speaker, radio personality residing in Loveland, Colorado. He is the author of two published books and several e-books. He is the host of Tidbits Radio on 1310KFKA-AM and on CastleRockRadio.com. He writes a weekly motivational and inspirational column that is published in a variety of newspapers.

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