The People Behind: Citizen Journalism

Journalism and how we produce and receive news is always adapting and changing; especially in recent times thanks to huge leaps in technology. Nowadays everyone has the ability to create and curate their own stories – it’s as easy as downloading an app, uploading a blog, or sharing a video.

At our North Albany Branch, a program has been running that is encouraging individuals to do just that, with the helpful addition of having professionals guide participants. If you’ve ever wanted to tell a story of your community, investigate something of interest, or just create a piece of news that’s important to you, then this program can assist in doing just that. We spoke to librarian Lee Ricci & clerk Paul Smart at the North Albany Branch to tell us more about this exciting program and the reasons behind it.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and background?

Lee: I joined APL in Sept 2011, and in the past 8 years I’ve worked at every branch, doing mostly youth services work. This branch is the first time I’ve had to learn adult services. Paul’s been fantastic to work with – because of all of his experiences he’s made it a much easier transition as far as coming up with ideas for what adults would like and then finding the people who can provide those services.

Paul: I’ve only been in the library for a little over a year, and I loved it right from the beginning. I was coming out of a 35 year career in journalism. It used to be I’d move to an area and get involved with the local newspaper as a way of getting to know the community, but that’s become almost impossible now. Over time I’ve seen the news industry change and papers started falling right and left. I learnt from an early point that unless you’re a staff writer at the New Yorker, it’s not enough. You have to balance a lot of different gigs to build a workable salary. Over those years what I’ve liked about journalism was the breadth of things one could deal with: I’ve enjoyed putting my knowledge and skills to good use here.

Where did the idea come for the Citizen’s Journalism program?

Paul: When I moved to the North Albany Branch, I saw that my predecessor had set up some programs that we couldn’t run without her. We needed some new ideas, and started introducing different programs to fill the need. Some things worked and some didn’t. We did a program based around community gardening, and we had someone from Radix come and show us how to vertical garden. We also did a related program about take care of animals, which was presented while the city was debating new legislation regarding backyard chickens.

“News is all top down at this point. It doesn’t relate to many people or their lives. We wanted to empower them with the idea that the news is whatever you make it; what makes your life important is as valid as anything else out there”

In addition to these programs, I would tie it into the local radio work I do for WCAA & WOOC . With each of these programs, we would do a partner piece on the radio. This would expand the reach and impact of these modest programs. For example, many people who attended hearings about the backyard chicken legislation heard about it through our program or the radio related radio show. The Citizen Journalism program all kind of grew from that. I’m working with two stations that need content, so this program seemed like a great way to train many people to provide that material.

The Citizen Journalism program is empowering people on a larger scale. For a lot of communities, the news is all top down at this point. It doesn’t relate to many people or their lives. We wanted to empower them with the idea that the news is whatever you make it; what makes your life important is as valid as anything else out there.

 Can you give us an explanation of what Citizen Journalism is?

Paul:   The idea of Citizen Journalism is that everyone is empowered to report on what they see. That there is not a science behind journalism. I’ve always found that the best journalists haven’t been to school for it – they tend to be people who read a lot, and more importantly they learn to listen, watch, and observe. Then they place those observations out there. I’ve had a strong interest in Citizen Journalism for many years now. Years ago, I helped initiate an NPR station in the small town in Alaska I was living in. After later moving to Catskill, I was involved in another successful push to create a community radio station. At that point everybody could see that print journalism and the media in general was starting to face all sorts of pressures. One of the ways to counter that was through the empowering of people to do their own journalism – otherwise known as Citizen Journalism.


“The idea of Citizen Journalism is that everyone is empowered to report on what they see. That it’s not a science behind journalism”

About 20 years ago there was a big push towards community radio stations, following the advent of public access television where the emphasis was on allowing the people to be able to create shows, too; to make programming that comes out of a community and addresses their interests and issues.

One of the most important aspects of smaller community news is that one can see how local government works, and hopefully get more people to public meetings.  was you would cover meetings. Otherwise decisions tend to get made in a vacuum. At WGXC , our Columbia/Greene counties community station, the initial idea was to encourage people to go out and just start recording meetings. The difficulty we encountered was that people would sit at the back of a meeting and record, but then you’d have two hours of barely audible stuff. The trick since then has been learning how to practice Citizen Journalism so it can compete with other media’s professionalism and entertainment elements.

What does the program consist of?

Paul:We are currently working in partnership with both WOOC, based at The Sanctuary of Independent Media in Troy, and WCAA – a project associated with Grand Street Community Arts in the South End. Both stations want more live shows that reflect their communities. If people want, they can create small, 10 minutes segments, or if they want a longer format we have that option too. The key is to get people to start submitting and recording more.

We have a lot of people from each station here exchanging information about how they do stuff. We’ve done two sessions so far – in the first session somebody was interested in vaccination and other medical issues from a lay person’s point of view, which seemed fascinating, so we all assisted and directed her. The primary thing is to show people how to record with their phones. Yes, you can get a better recording using a professional recorder like a Xoom, but a phone is much less intimidating. We’re giving people the basics, including showing them how to use a program called Audacity to edit, & revealing tricks of the trade. We also show them how to upload to either station.

We have another six sessions coming up, but we’re in it for the long haul. We want this to continue growing, and hopefully get some other branches involved too.

Why is Citizen Journalism Important?

Paul: It can deal with these issues that otherwise might not be addressed. The worst thing about the Fake News phenomenon is that it doesn’t really leave any room for the news that affects us on a daily basis. People want to feel empowered, and a great way to do that is to realize the important of their own thoughts on issues, and to learn how to report on and record life around them. It’s the idea that journalism is the first draft of history, so we need to reiterate that on a local level. To bring it down to something that’s very local, like a neighborhood.

“My thought is to create an oral history, an ‘on the street’ residents history….not how corrupt the government is or how poverty is ignored. More the people and community behind it. Let’s listen to them. That’s where the story starts”

Lee: Where I’m thinking of taking this is creating an oral history of the city and utilizing the radio stations that Paul is involved with. We have these tools to use, and the public should be encouraged to use them. Journalism in the current culture can be considered a battle between what some people think is good and some think is evil. My thought on this program is instead to create an oral history, an ‘on the street’ residents history….not how corrupt the government is or how poverty is ignored. More the people and community behind it. Let’s listen to them. That’s where the story starts.


How do you come up with ideas for programs?

Lee: In this branch, these are all new, never tried before programs. Often it’s all about getting the word out. Before the chicken program, for example, I saw people read the poster, take a photograph and walk away. I don’t know what they thought, maybe they just turned it into a meme on Facebook! But I think it’s great we’re trying new things out and starting conversations.

Before Paul was here we were doing lots of arts and crafts programs for adults. We have continued to sprinkle some of that throughout the year – but we also have completely different ideas, like reading Shakespeare’s plays aloud for example. We’re just doing different things and seeing if people like it.

Paul: The word is going out around, and that feels important. We’re going to start recording all the William Kennedy books too – he grew up in the building right across from here. We want to archive them & have people come together and share their memories of their own pasts in this city.
It’s been interesting reading Shakespeare with the teens and kids – at first they’d be trying to compete in loudness and then after a few days they were picking up the curses from the books! A program doesn’t have to be ‘big’ to have an impact.

For more details on the Citizen Journalism Program or to sign up, click here