July 2, 2012

Social Capital Review | The Miami Herald | GeekWire | Governing
Miami Herald Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote last month that citizen journalists cannot replace professionals, but a new report issued by Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communication suggests doing just that to counter the spread of “information ghettos.”

Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize winner, chided former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and conservative blogger Matt Drudge for suggesting citizen journalists can replace professional reporters in taking on powerful interests. To disprove them, Pitts used, for examples, his colleagues who rushed to New York City to cover the Sept. 11 attacks and professional journalists who defied orders to abandon New Orleans in order to continue reporting on Hurricane Katrina. Pitts’ point: citizen journalists don’t have “the resources, the credibility, the knowledge, the training or even the desire” to report such stories.

But WSU’s Murrow College thinks that it may have a found a way around these deficiencies. The college issued a report last month calling for the creation and training of citizen blogger networks across the state of Washington, allied with daily newspapers and funded by foundations, that can transform areas “stuck with a lack of news coverage exacerbated by poor Internet access, bad cellular coverage and dwindling local journalism,” writes John Cook for GeekWire.

Washington is an “information enigma,” according to the Murrow College report.

“Some of the nation’s leading digital technology companies are headquartered in and around Seattle, yet vast areas of the state are starved of locally relevant public affairs news,” the report states.

“Google and Yahoo are two of the global Internet companies that have opened offices in the state, joining content giants like Amazon and MSNBC.com, yet only 20 towns have a daily newspaper, just 23 have radio a station with some form of local news, and TV is clustered in four cities with tightly defined coverage areas. T-Mobile is headquartered in the state, yet mobile dead zones are common outside the major towns. Facebook recently opened a major office in Seattle, yet Washington’s use of social networking platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is lower than many other states.

“In huge sections of Washington, citizens have little or no access to news about what is taking place in their own communities … The situation is particularly grim in areas populated by minorities and on some of the vast Native American reservations. In short, Washington is a digital state with a rural information ghetto.”

The report recommends Murrow College take the lead in allying varied stakeholders to “bolster rural news reporting” in Washington and “increase awareness of and access to high-speed broadband,” writes Matt Rosenberg for The Social Capital Review.

The proposal comes on the heels of mass layoffs in New Orleans and parts of Alabama and follows a recent survey by Governing Magazine that shows state and local government executives are increasingly worried about journalism and public affairs coverage. Just 13 percent of the respondents said they believe citizen journalism can fill the void left by a shrinking newspaper industry.

The survey, conducted June 14-18, found that more than 50 percent of the respondents believe that “government coverage in newspapers is already inconsistent or weak.” Barely 16 percent of the officials rated government coverage as aggressive.

After the recent announcement from Newhouse’s Gulf Coast Newspapers and Advance Newspapers that it would be reducing its daily print schedules in New Orleans and Alabama, government officials said they were worried about “predictions from news executives that more daily newspapers would print less frequently in the next five years, with some cutting back to just once a week.” Nearly 24 percent of government officials polled in the magazine’s online community, Governing Exchange, also said they expect “little impact with digital coverage, online bloggers and TV news picking up the slack.”

Despite their concerns, more than 37 percent of officials surveyed said government should not take an active role in solving the news industry’s problems, but let the marketplace decide instead.

Correction: Pitts referenced Sept. 11, 2001, not Sept. 1 as this post originally stated.

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