As Blogs and Citizen Journalism Grow, Where’s the News?

The jury is way out on what business models, if any, work for blogs and citizen journalism. The noise-to-signal ratio in the new media forms remains alarmingly high. And it’s time to stop this silly stuff about replacing big media.
 
Says who? Contrarian me or some other nostalgic MSM dinosaur? No, that’s Dan Gillmor, the justly acclaimed author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People,” who quit a comfortable day job chronicling new technologies for a more active involvement. “We’re on the verge of something,” as he put it during a daylong conference on new media matters in San Antonio in August. “I’m trying to clear away the underbrush so people can do it.”

This was to be a breakthrough year for citizen journalism. It is the subject of deep-think conference after deep-think conference. Traditional media have roused from their slumber and are indulging in the most sincere form of flattery, getting urgent about bringing blogs or citizen-written sites into their mix. But as candid reporter Gillmor notes, the future hasn’t arrived just yet. Especially for a straight news report, blogs and citizen journalism are showing limitations. What seems on a faster development track is adaptation of the new forms into MSM online operations together with some artful combinations of civilian and professional input.

Let’s start with a positive. Armed with cell phones or other digi-cams, citizens can be counted on to enrich coverage of events like last winter’s tsunami, the London subway bombings and Hurricane Katrina, with still photos and streaming video. To my eyes, ABC’s “World News Tonight” wove roughly equal volumes of their own and civilian film into a seamless report the evening of the subway attacks. For this kind of story, video civilian-reporters appear here to stay.

In news with words, achievements are more sporadic. Blog reports can also provide an unmediated, granular ground-level view on huge stories like Katrina or the Iraq war. It is not as if mainstream media has dropped the ball on either of these, but the blogs are a useful supplement, for instance, filling out the perspective of soldiers on the ground.

Traditional media have roused from their slumber and are indulging in the most sincere form of flattery, getting urgent about bringing blogs or citizen-written sites into their mix. Consistently breaking significant stories is tougher. Sure, there was Rathergate. But what reporting coups have you scored lately, blogosphere? Judge Richard Posner in his bombastic essay on old and new media in The New York Times Book Review did make at least one solid point. The Bush/National Guard story played perfectly to one of the blog world’s strengths — bringing people with an arcane area of expertise (old typewriters, in this instance) onto the case quickly.

As a news medium, blogs and citizen journalism have some soft spots widely noted and others perhaps less obvious. Content that is factual, reported, verified, placed in context and therefore credible is a sometime thing. As Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism (not necessarily a booster himself) has noted, enthusiasts have an answer for that: after-the-fact discussion and criticism is an alternate form of checking what gets asserted in blogs. Also, the cream rises — the best and most insightful practitioners get the good reputations and big audiences.

It is hardly original to observe the deep affinity of the blogging form with let-me-vent opinion riffs and back-and-forth, so’s-your-old-man exchanges. Of course, these often veer to outright incivility. That creates a host’s dilemma — let the rude and profane post along with everyone else, or go to the expense and trouble of policing comments, courting the wrath of those whose microphone is shut off.

A few favorite bloggers (Romenesko and Wonkette, for two) are disciplined about always keeping entries tight and letting the links provide amplification. However, many blog essayists with worthwhile things to say choose to say those things at inordinate length. But then, blogging is a form of expression exempt from the crusty city editor who tosses back your copy and says, “How about cutting this sucker to 12 inches?”

My colleagues Bill Mitchell and Bob Steele took a shot earlier this year at a discussion paper on ethics for bloggers. But before one reaches intriguing questions such as whether the content of links ought to be verified just as facts are in a traditional story, there is the threshold issue of what fraction of the blogging community wants to hold itself to standards comparable to the best practices of MSM. New media giants Google and Yahoo! take a conservative tack on the value of blogs as compared to traditional news. Google News links only to professionally edited sources. Yahoo! recently announced improvements to make locating blogs of interest easier, but continues to fence them from real, professional content.

The broad acceptance of anonymity in Web formats baffles me. What’s so nifty about that? Especially if it is license to shoot from cover in criticism, a practice nearly any newspaper code on anonymous sources would discourage or prohibit.

While I’m not nearly as involved as Gillmor, I’m getting pessimistic, too, about harnessing the sprawl of blogs and citizen journalism into something comprehensive — a homely virtue of a newspaper front page or, in real time, Web sites like those published by CNN or The New York Times.

…There is the threshold issue of what fraction of the blogging community wants to hold itself to standards comparable to the best practices of MSM. The astonishing Wikipedia functions well on breaking news. One morning’s entry on Terry Schaivo this summer included an overnight ruling too late for that day’s papers. Its coverage of John Roberts’ nomination and confirmation was cumulative rather than episodic. The start-up Wikinews still has conspicuous holes, however. In the first week in August, the site had entries on Rafael Palmeiro’s steroid suspension and John Bolton’s appointment as United Nations ambassador, but was silent on the day-to-day effort to patch Challenger in outer space.

RSS (really simple syndication) promises to provide the reader an individualized report — a story list, actually — with whatever mix of traditional and non-traditional sources you choose. That may become a widely adopted technology before long — but this has not turned into the year of the RSS, as an earlier piece of mine suggested might happen. A recent survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that only 9 percent of online users knew what RSS was, let alone had set up an RSS reader. (Recent Nielsen research has countered that as many as 83 percent of RSS users of My Yahoo! or other banded products don’t know it by that name.)

Some of the pioneer online efforts at community journalism sites suffer a different problem. At the same San Antonio conference, when the topic of super-local sites came up, display pages from NorthwestVoice.com of Bakersfield, Calif., and MyMissourian.com were projected on a screen. Lead stories included “Another Pet Missing, Perhaps Stolen,” plus “New ‘Harry Potter’ is Magnificent,” and pictures from a local family’s summer vacation.

Even as unperfected news forms, blogs and citizen journalism are exerting great influence.At a later meeting, publishers of the two sites were candid about what Clyde Bentley of MyMissourian.com called the banal quality of many submissions. But both sites, by policy, accept anything contributors think worth posting, since participation is a big part of the point. Mary Lou Fulton, of the Bakersfield site, said a content mix of “everyday concerns and everyday victories” has succeeded in drawing an audience, too.

Even as unperfected news forms, blogs and citizen journalism are exerting great influence. 2005 has become a year in which many newspaper Web sites have faced the music that shovel-ware from the morning paper is not sufficient and have picked up the pace in originating other kinds of content. There are small movements forward in adopting the informal, conversational tone of much Web writing. The Chicago Tribune began blogging afternoon baseball games — in a sassy style that makes a visit a quick work break. This spring, The New York Times’ site ran an audio feature, several minutes of its baseball writer just chatting about what ailed the Yankees (against a slide show of still photos). More recently, the Times‘ Elisabeth Bumiller provided an instant audio analysis of the withdrawal of Harriet Miers’ nomination to the Supreme Court.

On a more serious topic, the Times’ Nicholas Kristof carries his crusade against the sexual enslavement of third-world girls into extra depth online that a twice-a-week newspaper column would not accommodate. The Dallas Morning News editorial page department now has its writers blogging outward and reader discussion blogged in — a logical attempt in editorial page editor Keven Ann Willey’s view to get more opinion and more free-flowing opinion than traditional formats allow.  

Citizen journalism and blogs remain something big, even if that something isn’t a news medium.My hometown St. Petersburg Times (owned by Poynter), has a hit on its hands with an online discussion hosted by the Pinellas County superintendent of schools, Clayton Wilcox. A recent request for comment on the district’s attendance plan drew 381 posts. The Times is now experimenting with other topics, basically serious, in a site titled www.itsyourtimes.com.

After the London subway attack, the paper version of the Times carried a compelling account by a local young woman living abroad who had been trapped underground — as told to a veteran reporter. Get me rewrite. That might have happened anyhow, but Times editors had piloted the format several months earlier with a teenager’s account of watching a crime out of an upstairs window.

We’re only just beginning on such citizen-professional collaborations, which, in my view, have enormous potential both ways — enriched content and perspective for MSM venues and a little shaping and refining that can kick what’s raw in blogs and citizen journalism up a notch in news value and focus.

Citizen journalism and blogs remain something big, even if that something isn’t a news medium. At a minimum, they compete for time and attention, and influence an expectation by readers to be talked with conversationally rather than talked at, a development that would be imprudent for MSM to ignore.  Blog buzz has become a supplementary stream of content that younger users, especially, are comfortable mingling with professional journalism. And, of course, content-light offerings like Craigslist and Google drain advertising and threaten the traditional media business model that pays for costly news-gathering.

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