|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
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.