Monday, April 20, 2009

Outsourcing “fluff” journalism to civilians?

A lot of citizen journalism Web sites are not exactly known for high quality content.

Which is why, having spent some time on the Bleacher Report, I’ve been amazed by not only the quality of writing, but also the research that goes into each individual story, and the analysis and discussion that follows. There’s a valid reason for this - it exclusively covers sports, and if there is one subject area that almost any civilian would be interested in – and passionately at that – it’s got to be sports. Think about the cheering that went on way into the night when your home team last won the World Series, or the many mornings you woke up having lost your voice, tirelessly rooting for your college football team.

A topic such as sports is thus ideally suited to citizen journalism – people already have a vested interest in the subject, they enjoy talking about it, and since they have followed their team or player trough the years, their knowledge of the topic is usually better than that of a reporter who may have just moved into town, or be disinclined to the sport in question.

A host of different newspapers and Web sites have tried their hand at citizen journalism, but very few report on serious content. As Linda Parker, online communities editor for Gannet’s Cincinnati Enquirer found, when readers were encouraged to contribute to the paper's Web site with the “Get Published” tool, they were more interested in sharing stories about their appearances on television shows and the local opera (what would normally be considered “fluff” journalism), but among these stories was also information about a fundraiser for a child’s bone marrow transplant.

While most of this may not be news that moves and shakes the world, it’s still information that many people are interested in, and that local newspapers spend a lot of time, personnel, and resources in reporting. Might they be better off allowing citizens to offer the bulk of reporting in these areas, and confining trained journalists to the more important stories so they could perhaps offer high-quality journalism where it matters?

Of course, it is amazing to see a community rise and report on a pressing public issue, and keep the authorities in check, as citizens in Fort Myers did to quell the rising prices of public utilities a couple years ago. But such stories are few and far between.

But the important thing to note about such stories is that citizens were inspired to contribute to it of their own accord because it was an issue that was deeply affecting pocketbooks.

Jeff Howe, crowdsourcing pioneer, has often said that the most successful way for news organizations to crowdsource, is to give the audience free rein over content. “Don’t try to control the discussion, just become the room in which it takes place,” he writes in his book.

It’s noteworthy to ask if writing about your pet or the local fair helps you become a better citizen and contribute to the electoral process in meaningful ways.

Perhaps not. But there are more ways to get citizens interested in important news stories than making them write it – perhaps allocating more resources to those stories, and hence doing better journalism might achieve that.