Big Media's Latest Mistake

PUBLISHED: January 13, 2012

Here’s a bold strategy to help struggling big league sports teams: Ask the community to contribute players. For instance, instead of using only highly paid pros on the baseball diamond, try adding a citizen shortstop. And how about enlisting bloggers to serve as coaches?

OK, you’re right. Such desperate measures would eventually ruin teams, and before long fans would stop paying to come to games since they can always watch low-caliber competition for free in the backyard.

Yet this is exactly where many of the nation’s struggling news organizations—particularly newspapers—are headed, in what is shaping up to be the second-biggest media miscalculation since the rise of the Internet.

The first, beginning in the mid-1990s, was publishing the same content for free on the Web that readers were asked to pay for in print. The second, now taking hold, is trying to compete with social, interactive media by mimicking their techniques. The public is being encouraged to both play and pay.

The oxymoron “citizen journalist” is turning up not only at newspapers but also at TV and radio stations as well as on the Internet. The sports analogy fits because unlike professions such as law and medicine, for which formal training is an accepted necessity, journalism and sports are attempted at all skill levels. Many amateurs believe they could hit like Albert Pujols or report like Carl Bernstein—if only given the chance.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging input from the community, which is why the paper you’re reading has a letters section. There’s also room for, say, an amateur’s photo if he and his cellphone happen to be at the right spot when news occurs.

This is not to downgrade the importance of amateur writers and videographers, whose efforts via social media have had significant impact—most ­notably during political protests in the Middle East and at the Occupy ­movements across the United States. But the notion that mainstream—if that’s the term that fits—news organizations can morph into communal information exchanges and still maintain journalistic and business viability is a bad bet.

One example is what’s loosely referred to as “coffee shop journalism.” Strange as it sounds, quite a few papers are closing regional bureaus and instructing the displaced professional reporters to camp in coffee shops to get a sense of what the caffeine-conscious citizenry thinks is newsworthy. Some publications are setting up storefront workstations and inviting the public in to chat about community news.

MediaNews’s large Bay Area News Group, covering the San Francisco ­region, is opening “community news labs” at several of its papers. The group president, Mac Tully, says the goal is to “listen, engage, learn and share.” According to Tully, “This strategy is in the forefront of the newspaper industry’s transition from print-centric businesses to locally focused providers of news and information across multiple platforms.”

Coffee shop journalism is a result of budget cutbacks and confusion among publishers about their role in the digital marketplace. While several large publications—such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times—have found that online revenue is not as difficult to generate as was once feared, numerous smaller papers are less certain about what readers will support in electronic formats.

At many small and mid-sized papers, community volunteers submit stories, unpaid interns file reports, and the printed newspaper page summarizes Internet blogs. Worse, the copy-desk function is being cut back or eliminated, so the writing of under trained contributors isn’t even getting the scrutiny formerly provided to the veteran staffers. That’s not journalism, nor is it much of a business strategy.

Mr. Tully is quite right that “locally focused” reporting is key. The way to expand and improve such coverage is to hire more trained journalists and give them adequate time for enterprise reporting—not to sell off desks and send reporters to coffee shops in search of local gossip.

News organizations can use all the citizens they can get—in the bleachers, not on the field of play.

© Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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