Brooking no further babble
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.
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.