Monday, May 23, 2005

Brooking no further babble

Citizen Journalism 1.0 isn’t working very well and it’s high time we admit it.

For all the excitement that has attended the debut of several audience-participation websites, most of the open-tsoris efforts undertaken to date are too inconsequential, too scattered, too opinionated and/or too poorly edited to be worth the time it takes to puzzle them out.

They are making a hash of what theoretically could be a good idea. If they can be fixed, let’s get on with it. If they can’t, then perhaps we need to move on to Plan B. Whatever that is.

The thing that gripes me about the proliferation of group-grope projects like Bluffton Today, Now Public and similar undertakings is that they take up space, take up time and add very little value for the trouble. Topics range from the narcissistic to the inane to the objectionable.

In the former category, self-absorbed ramblings about the ups, downs and ins and outs of blogging are the most popular fare.

B-o-r-i-n-g.

In the second case, how many more pictures of new babies and puppies can we take? When will people realize that life is not a series of Kodak moments? Enjoy your babies and puppies, bless them all, and leave the rest of us alone.

As for the third category, things got so ugly at the Ventura County Star that the newspaper last week shut down its public-comment site when remarks about race and immigration “quickly went off the mark and over the line” in spite of efforts by editors to delete the most virulent of them.

The experience “showed the unfortunate underbelly of the Internet,” wrote the chagrined John Moore of the Star. “The anonymity offered by the Internet on comments like this seems to encourage people to say the meanest, ugliest things about other people."

UPDATE: The Star now has reinstituted public comments with a number of restrictions, incuding filters to remove a growing dictionary of offensive words. Earlier the paper said it would permit comments only if it didn't"require us to hire a full-time babysitter.”

That's a worthy goal, but almost any open-forum site worth visiting will require a babysitter, ringmaster, traffic cop or editor to bring order to the inevitable chaos.

The value of a skilled interlocutor is proven emphatically in such efforts as Northwest Voice and Backfence. Thanks to careful tending, both sites are useful and satisfying to read. But Northwest Voice isn’t really native to the Net. Backfence is a genuine online creature, but it is not clear it is sustainable.

Northwest Voice, which is published online and in print by the Bakersfield Californian, is one of the oldest community-participation sites in this young business. The Californian simultaneously introduced its website at the same time it launched a free bi-weekly tabloid that is distributed to some 24,000 demographically desirable households.

The website, which is patrolled by editors, solicits reader contributions to supplement staff reporting for both the online and offline editions. So, it’s really a hybrid product. Even if citizen contributions flag, as they have been known to do from time to time, the project will be sustained, so long as the newspaper believes it to be strategically valuable.

Backfence is a pure web play introduced this month in two suburbs of Washington, DC. A web-only product with 199os-style visions of a multimillion-dollar, national rollout, Backfence aims to fill itself entirely with citizen-provided content. It intends to make money by selling advertising to local merchants and such larger regional and national accounts as its audience may merit.

Edited by Mark Potts, a veteran journalist of national distinction, Backfence is picture-perfect. The problem, indeed, is that it is too perfect. Because the site has not attracted very many contributions since it launched, it has been possible for Mark to carefuly groom each item. "The reality is, I really haven't had to do that much grooming," responds Mark. "A lot of what looks slick and edited about our site has more to do with design than with any intervention. Can a couple editors run 10 local sites, the way we have planned? No problem at all."

If Backfence can’t generate more interest, however, it isn’t going anyplace. If it does, how many Marks will it really take to keep Backfence looking good as it scales?

Plan B for community journalism may be Bayosphere, a new effort piloted by Dan Gillmor, the Silicon Valley journalist who literally wrote the book (“We the Media”) on citizen journalism. Because Bayosphere remains in semi-stealth mode, we can only surmise from Dan’s remarks that Bayosphere to some degree will marshal, moderate and massage the efforts of the community journalists who contribute to the site.

The question is whether community journalists will sit still for a vetting process, which some seem to equate with the Mainstream Media they disdain.

As CBS News, Mitch Albom and Newsweek famously learned when they bobbled the basics, there’s no substitute for getting your story straight. If citizen sites have been paying attention to those high-profile hijinks, they will take the steps necessary to establish their relevance and credibility.

In so doing, they can make a major contribution to elevating a public discourse profoundly tattered by rampant misinformation and partisan invective. If all they contribute is rabid babbling, who needs them?

We’ve been getting enough of that from the pros.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Joe Zekas said...

As always, you're a great read.

Steel yourself for much more babbling.

The common thread to many of the problems you identify with the citizen journalism movement is that its self-appointed leaders only know how to talk to each other. They're clueless as to how to engage an audience, or as to who their audience might be - apart from each other. The audience that employed them for lo these many years, has systematically ignored their advice.

When confronted with an actual audience (as in the Ventura Star situation), journalism as conversation quickly reverts to journalism as lecture, because these folks know nothing about leading or forming or informing a community.

8:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another risk in turning loose a group of newspersons to write individual blogs, as they have done on the newspaper at Greensboro, is the normal tendency to compete for public attention. This competition could lead staff members to go to unnatural extremes, each trying to best the others---and all at some risk of eroding the newspaper's credibility.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Benz said...

You raise good points and are voicing something that I've believed for a while. But I'm not sure you or I should be the judge of whether these products are working. The real judge will be the community. If they're reading it and contributing, it really doesn't matter much if we think it's boring. If the community doesn't find much of value, it won't take long for these sites to die on the vine.

11:00 AM  
Anonymous Mark Potts said...

Thanks for the kind words about Backfence, but the reality is that it's way too early to judge any of the citizens media efforts. It takes months, if not years, for an online community to truly find itself and grow. So judging any of us after a few weeks (mostly) is hardly fair--we're learning new things every day about what makes these things tick.

That said, we're extremely happy with the way things are going on Backfence--and we're doing much less "grooming" of content than you imply. We assemble the home page (and try to capture on it the voices of the original posts, edited for space), but every other word on the site is unedited.

And I agree with Benz: The community will be the final judge. That's the whole point!

10:41 PM  
Anonymous TheShu said...

Thanks for the traffic, but you are slightly inaccurate in referencing my site (Greensboro Is Talking). This site is my own blog which I use to discuss the goings-on in the Greensboro community.

The "group-grope" sites I think you meant to point to were the efforts of Greensboro101.com and the local newspaper's formerly "Public" now "Town Square" project at news-record.com.

(Note that the paper slyly changed the moniker after instituting what some of us call the "what's mine is mine" and the "what's yours is mine" clauses in their terms and conditions which can be found on any of their blogs...i.e we own the copyright and your contributed content becomes ours royalty-free for eternity.)

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Haeg said...

I agree with some of what Alansays: much of what I've seen in the community journalism space hasn't measured up to the promise of citizens media. But Benz et. al. have a point: The community is the final arbiter. But if it's only puppies and babies they want, let's just agree not to attach the word journalism to it.

If it's good info and better journalism you want (to Joe Zekas' point), I think you have to think hard about how you engage the audience.

I think we at Minnesota Public Radio have found a pretty compelling approach.

See our "idea generators" for an example of how we're doing it:

www.mpr.org/smalltowns
www.mpr.org/disparity

We've found that you can't just open the floodgates, cross your fingers and hope for the best (like so many sites do). You have to frame the conversation (I know that sounds like heresy to the grassroots media purists, but it's what works!) and be there to moderate, facilitate, correct spelling, grammar, etc.

You also have to give people something specific to work off of. Not everyone is a born chronicler. But everyone can be if asked for their specific knowledge and insight on an issue.

To that end, we have created a network of 10,000-plus people who we ask for help covering the news. Most of the time, we're asking them for help and they're responding. But occasionally, people are using the point of access to suggest ideas and to help us think through stories.

Our approach is still evolving, but I think we're honing in on a workable and compelling model for citizens journalism + traditional journalism. I'd love to hear more examples of methods that are succeeding.

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Haeg said...

I agree with some of what Alansays: much of what I've seen in the community journalism space hasn't measured up to the promise of citizens media. But Benz et. al. have a point: The community is the final arbiter. But if it's only puppies and babies they want, let's just agree not to attach the word journalism to it.

If it's good info and better journalism you want (to Joe Zekas' point), I think you have to think hard about how you engage the audience.

I think we at Minnesota Public Radio have found a pretty compelling approach.

See our "idea generators" for an example of how we're doing it:

www.mpr.org/smalltowns
www.mpr.org/disparity

We've found that you can't just open the floodgates, cross your fingers and hope for the best (like so many sites do). You have to frame the conversation (I know that sounds like heresy to the grassroots media purists, but it's what works!) and be there to moderate, facilitate, correct spelling, grammar, etc.

You also have to give people something specific to work off of. Not everyone is a born chronicler. But everyone can be if asked for their specific knowledge and insight on an issue.

To that end, we have created a network of 10,000-plus people who we ask for help covering the news. Most of the time, we're asking them for help and they're responding. But occasionally, people are using the point of access to suggest ideas and to help us think through stories.

Our approach is still evolving, but I think we're honing in on a workable and compelling model for citizens journalism + traditional journalism. I'd love to hear more examples of methods that are succeeding.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Ari Soglin said...

Take a look at a heated discussion going on this week at BeniciaNews.com about the ugly state of teacher contract talks in a 5,000-student K-12 district: http://www.benicianews.com/forums2/Thread.cfm?CFApp=1&Thread_ID=41263&mc=95

It has some of the flaws of Citizen Journalism 1.0 that Alan mentions, such as people making irrelevant personal attacks and so many posts (94 as I write this) that it's difficult to wade through it all.

Still, the thread, which started ironically when a group of parents posted a citizen journalism article titled "BUSD Parents Plea for an end to the Divisiveness," gets beyond the "new babies and puppies" that Alan is getting tired of. This kind of discussion has the potential to create a better-informed citizenry. It is raising community awareness that the school district's financial problems -- a large budget shortfall -- are unresolved despite a wrenching decision this spring to close an elementary school and years of program cuts. The vitriol is showing how deep the divide is growing between the union and citizens who want the teachers to make concessions. The more the community focuses on the issues, the greater its chance of finding solutions.

This happens on BeniciaNews in part because the site has been around for five years and has a large following, but these sorts of discussions have occurred on the site since shortly after we launched. Yesterday, as this thread was beginning to really bubble, a reporter from a local newspaper called me to get some help accessing the message board. If the reporter does a story in response to the message board discussion, providing an authoritative account of the issues affecting negotiations, then we're getting beyond Citizen Journalism 1.0. That's where I'd like to see CJ go: Citizen journalists use these new channels to float local issues and debate them, helping important matters bubble to the point that mainstream media pays attention and then filters through the noise to produce an authoritative account.

Full disclosure: I live in Benicia, a San Francisco suburb, have children in the schools, occasionally post citizen journalism articles myself, and now have a seat on the board of a foundation trying to raise money for the local public schools.

Ari Soglin
www.GetLocalNews.com
www.CitizenPaine.com

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's with the obsession about what's news?

For the last time:

NEWS ORGANIZATIONS DON'T GET TO DECIDE THAT, ANYMORE.

1:50 PM  

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