Monday, November 7, 2011

Another oxymoron is biting the dust

UPDATED 11/11/11:

The mayor of a significant Utah city has admitted that he's been writing stories about his town under a "pen name" and submitting them to the Deseret News' citizen journalism site, where they've been published. Mayor Mike Winder's response goes something like this (I've taken some license): "What? Ben Franklin did it. Alexander Hamilton did it."

Mr. mayor, look around. Does it look like the turn of the 19th century to you? Do you want to bring duels back, too? (That didn't work out so well for Hamilton.)

While the mayor should be censured for this behavior -- perhaps tossed out of office -- the real fault lies with the Deseret News, which shirked its journalistic responsibility by not only not vetting the mayor's submissions, but for encouraging such submissions in the first place. The mayor himself concluded that, with 2,000 contributors, there are probably "some holes in the Deseret Connect system." Ya think?

The Deseret News, it can be hoped, is learning what other newspapers have already discovered -- that new journalism needs to look a whole lot like the old journalism.

Five or six years ago, the new thing that was going to "save journalism" was the use of "citizen journalists." The idea was pretty simple -- recruit just plain folks in neighborhoods all across the market, give them some basic tools (maybe a spell-check program and a new e-mail address), and have them report on the important goings-on in their world.

Of course, a few immediate issues come to mind:

1. This presents a perfect opportunity for people, companies, organizations and causes to get their own word out there, unfiltered and unedited, under the guise of "community journalism." (Mayor Winder, the floor is yours.)

2. Since these community journalists are unpaid, they aren't exactly consistent in sending material to the mother ship for uploading and dissemination.

3. Even the most well-meaning citizen journalist lacks the training and experience to pursue the "who, what, when, where, why and how" of basic reporting. They lack the basic writing skills to put that information into coherent form. They are not committed to even the most fundamental set of journalism ethics and principles.

Otherwise, it's a great idea. Except it doesn't -- can't -- work. Some updates from the cutting edge of citizen journalism, reported by Tom Grubisich in a column on the blog Street Fight:

“You can’t depend on citizen journalists. I’ve got 12 reliable contributors from a community of 60,000. I’m the  mule, producing 80% of the editorial content. I’ve done 1,700 pieces in our two years, two months of existence, and my wife Jane has supplied a lot of the photos.” -- Patrick Boylan, Welles Park Bulldog (north Chicago)

We have NEVER had a ‘pro-am’ strategy. I don’t believe in asking people to work for free and think it unconscionable that moneyed enterprises like some huge corporations do. WSB is a professional, commercial news organization." --Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog

“All of our news content is original reporting and is paid for. We have paid freelance reporters in each town who have a specific beat. These are all veteran journalists." Mike Shapiro, Alternative Press, New Jersey

“I think the rubric of ‘citizen journalism’ has become outdated. A lot of the new activity is coming from people who have some kind of journalistic background. And they bring some of those core values to their efforts … The fact is that reporting is hard work and is rarely undertaken consistently by citizen-journalism volunteering on an episodic basis.” -- Jan Schaffer, New Voices

The exception appears to be AOL's massive venture, "Patch," which is attempting to repeat a Microsoft experiment of the 1990s called "Sidewalk" by creating hyperlocal sites throughout the country, coordinated from a main office. Now at 890 sites, Patch  is reducing ballooning costs by cutting back on freelancers, who back up multi-tasking editors. Each site also has a clutch of unpaid bloggers to provide "community flavor," Grubisich reports.

I've said it before -- citizen journalism isn't exactly like citizen rocket science, but not just anybody can "do" journalism, any more than any of us can fly to the moon. A better analogy might be teaching -- it takes four years of college and more years of experience, plus a good deal of hard work, to become a good teacher. Journalism is no different, except that a lot of journalists get paid less than teachers.

The Internet does a good many things, but it doesn't magically turn anyone with a computer into a journalist. The only hard thing to figure out is why that wasn't obvious from the start.

No comments:

Post a Comment