Josh Korr of Publishing 2.0 has written a thoughtful post in which he proposes a citizen journalism model for “scrapbook news” — you know, the tidbits about kids winning rec league titles and 4-H awards. I think this excerpt sums up the gist of Josh’s post pretty well:
The truth is, scrapbook news written by journalists is effectively the same as scrapbook news submitted by the would-be scrapbookers. If the story is “Megan won the 4-H award at the fair,” how much of a difference does it make to have a journalist write the story rather than Megan’s mom? (Though you’d probably still want some minimal level of editing so every item didn’t say “Goooo, Megan!” Or maybe that would be ok too.)
The key would be to acknowledge that while scrapbook news is news, certain kinds of news might not carry the same burden of expertise, professionalism, polish or “objectivity” (if you believe in that sort of thing) as city council coverage might.
First off, I like the tone Josh strikes from the outset — not talking about citizen journalists as displacing professional journalists and instead focusing on what each can do. He’s right that too many such discussions get sidetracked by the whole “who’s more important” or “who’s more legitimate” shenanigans.
As for the model he proposes for scrapbook news, while I agree with it in theory, I do have concerns as to its effectiveness in practice.
Before I go into my reasons for those concerns, a few related thoughts:
- I don’t worry about whether scrapbook news is “news”, because it doesn’t matter if it is or not. What does matter is that it is something people look for in their newspaper and care about. Therefore, it is of value to the newspaper, both as a community service and for the sake of building community good will.
- Let’s be honest: Scrapbook news isn’t exactly high on journalists’ list of things they like to do, and most of them would gladly dump that responsibility on someone else if they have a practical solution for doing so. There’s no shame in admitting that. Nobody got into journalism to write stories about rec league titles and 4-H awards, just like nobody goes into science to wash test tubes or goes into graphic design to perform preflight checks. Journalists don’t have to like this stuff; there’s only a problem when this stuff doesn’t get done.
- When it comes to scrapbook news, most newspapers already use, and often rely heavily on, user-contributed content, such as submitted rec league champion photos and writeups/phone reports from games/events. So the fact that the content came from an “amateur” instead of a journalist on the staff isn’t a concern to me.
I agree with Josh that just writing “Megan won the 4-H award at the fair on Saturday” can be done by anyone. The problem is that it doesn’t take journalists much time to do something like that, so it doesn’t save them all that much time to have a user submit a three-sentence brief as opposed to writing it themselves. Furthermore, most journalists rely on people to submit such items to them now anyway instead of chasing it down themselves, so in reality, a reporter “getting” scrapbook news items currently involves the following steps: open e-mail, Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C, create Word document, Ctrl-V.
For the model to truly work, to truly free up significant chunks of time for journalists, it needs to work for more in-depth — and more labor-intensive — pieces than briefs, such as features or detailed reports on an event. That’s when the differences between a professional and an amateur start to show, and where editing really comes into play. And that is what concerns me — the level of editing that content gets before it is presented for public consumption.
Currently, most newspapers generally would not run lengthy user-submitted articles, and if they do, the articles are heavily edited so that they are in line with the paper’s editorial standards. In the excerpt above, Josh proposes “some minimal level of editing” to ensure that the content meets certain standards. If one of the main goals of the model is to free up newsroom personnel to do the work that citizen journalists cannot, then the amount of time the newsroom should spend on the user-contributed content, including the time for editing, would indeed have to be “minimal”. However, from my experience, the amount of editing needed to bring user-contributed content to standards acceptable for publication is often much more than “minimal”. Using a user-submitted article might free up a reporter, but it also adds more work (sometimes significantly more) for the copy desk. That time consumed is still coming out of the same newsroom — you are spending money from a different bank account, but it’s still your money that’s being spent. Besides, with dwindling staffs, more and more writers are pulling desk shifts as well, further clouding the “time saved” issue.
The need for editing
I have no qualms about publishing user-submitted scrapbook news, but I do worry about publishing it with little editing. That concern doesn’t stem from a distrust of non-journalists, but rather the lack of faith in the ability of the bulk of humanity to write something good enough for public dissemination and consumption. Everyone — journalist or not — needs editing before their work sees the light of day in the form of a professional publication. This is the view I’ve formed from more than a decade of editing other people’s writing in journalism, advertising, education, and public relations.
So if a newspaper doesn’t think it makes sense to just do “minimal” editing as general policy for content produced by its staff — people who are trained specifically to produce good writing — then what sense does it make to do minimal editing as general policy on content produced by the general public, a significant portion of whom are not good writers? It’s simply a matter of holding ALL content in your publication to the same standard. As for the idea that perhaps newspapers should loosen that standard for scrapbook news, I think that works fine, until you find yourself having to explain to a complaining reader why your newspaper decided that some portions of its product don’t have to meet the same standards as others. Good luck with that.
At their best and worst, citizen and professional journalism probably aren’t that far apart in quality. You can find highlights and lowlights for each. But the question that doesn’t get asked enough in the discussion is: How often do user-contributed content fall into the “acceptable” range (or in this case, the “suitable for publication as is” range). While I agree with Josh’s model in theory, I think that, in practice, it relies too much on the assumption that most of the user-contributed content that newspapers receive would fall into that range, whereas my experience tells me it doesn’t.
Look, I know that “quality” is usually the first argument many journalists trot out against citizen journalism, and sometimes the claims of incompetence are exaggerated and drive citizen journalism proponents up the wall. But has anyone considered WHY this is so often the first argument? Perhaps it’s because there’s more truth to the “quality” issue than some citizen journalism proponents would care to admit. Edit submitted stuff like this on a daily basis, and tell me that doesn’t make you question the wisdom of doing “minimal” editing on anything. And this example was from an SID, a supposedly trained professional with experience. I can’t begin to tell you how many submissions from parents and coaches I’ve gotten over the years where I would’ve been fired if I had let them run with only “minimal editing”. I’m not even talking about high-minded journalistic standards. I’m talking about basic things like getting facts right, writing in complete, non-run-on sentences that make sense, and not making up names for players on the other team when you don’t know them (which did happen to us one time, but thankfully we caught it before it printed).
To his credit, Josh does try to account for the quality concern in his model:
Letting outsiders cover some of these topics doesn’t have to mean abandoning editorial standards. Newsrooms could require that any contributors attend a session about journalism and editorial standards. Once it’s contributors’ name on the story and readers start lobbing criticism at them, they’ll realize that adhering to those standards is the best defense.
The training session is definitely a good idea, but it takes much more than one session to get people not familiar with journalistic standards (or just aren’t good writers) to start producing content of acceptable quality, much less “minimal editing needed” quality. I’m sure more than a few preps editors are nodding their heads in agreement right now as they struggle to teach stringers to write a gamer that makes sense. And really, if you’re a mom looking to submit a story about your kid taking first place in the cow-milking contest yesterday, why should you have to jump through hoops like attending a training session before the paper would take your story? “What’s that? If I don’t attend a session, you can’t run my story verbatim? Well, I don’t care if you run my story verbatim. You can edit it or write your own story, just as long as you run something about it. What’s that? You don’t have time to edit it or write your own? Well, hire more people. You can’t hire more people? Well, that’s your problem, not mine. But if you don’t put something in there about my kid’s udder-stroking prowess, you’re ignoring your community.” And you know what? She would be right.
As for reader criticism acting as “quality control”, I’m not sure how effective that would be for scrapbook news. Here’s why:
- How often does reader criticism of newspaper stories center on the actual construction of the story, things like good transition, good quotes, good grammar? Almost never. Besides, who’s going to be such an a-hole as to write to someone and say, “I scorn the grammatical incompetence you displayed in your story about your 5-year-old’s cow-milking title”?
- Users contribute scrapbook news for their own sake — to highlight their own kids’ accomplishments, to give themselves something to clip for the scrapbook — not for the sake of other people reading it. If a mom submits a poorly written feature about her kid’s talent for stimulating the bovine mammary, and the newspaper publishes it with little editing, the mom gets what she wanted out of the deal — a piece about her daughter that she’s obviously satisfied with. And unless this is someone who contributes regularly, what does it matter if people she doesn’t know don’t like it? Even if she’s a regular contributor, as long as the newspaper keeps publishing her scrapbook submissions, she still keeps getting what she wants out of the deal — scrapbook material — so what’s the problem from her perspective? The newspaper, on the other hand, will be seen by its other readers as a publisher of subpar content and will be the recipient of the resulting criticism. Yes, the contributor’s name is on the piece, but so is the newspaper’s, and the newspaper’s is bigger. Hey, if a builder screwed up your plumbing, you complain to the builder, even if the builder outsourced the plumbing part to a sub-contractor.
The only effective quality-assurance measure I can see is for the newspaper to turn down submissions that don’t meet its editorial standards. Of course, if you do that, then you risk drastically reducing the amount of user-contributed content and turning away contributors for good, weakening the effectiveness of the model. Also, it would consume more time because you would have to decide whether each piece meets your standards.
As much criticism as I seemed to have served up above, I really am not against user-submitted content. I’m just against assuming they can all write well when you won’t even make that assumption with your own staff. If you want to take what other people write and put them in your product — in the process staking your name and reputation to it — then I think you need to make sure it lives up to your usual standards because, as far as the consumer is concerned, if it’s in your product, it IS your product.
Oh god, you are still not done yet?
No, not quite. One part of Josh’ post especially caught my interest, given my sports journalism background:
Similarly — though on a subject of less civic importance — why couldn’t sports fans provide some game coverage? Are readers really that much better served by a journalist giving a play-by-play rundown of a game that anyone with the right satellite-TV package can see, topped off with a handful of clichéd quotes?
My thoughts on this:
- Good game coverage refrains from play-by-play rundown and clichéd quotes as much as possible.
- Watching a game as a fan is quite different from watching a game to cover it, and the former is much more enjoyable than the latter, and fans will figure that out soon enough if they start writing gamers, at which point most will probably choose to just be a fan instead.
- If a game is on TV, chances are there will be a wire story or at least a decent-length release from the team/school, nullifying the need for fan coverage. Where contributions by fans would be needed is the games that nobody is covering and relatively few care that much about — high schools and rec teams. The smaller the fan base, the harder it is to find a fan willing and able to write a good gamer for you.
- Sports is something where it’s hard for a fan to stay objective, especially a fan passionate enough about a team to write an extensive piece on its game without compensation. I’m not saying objective fans don’t exist, just that it’s hard to find them and even harder to find one who would write a gamer for you for free.
- Covering a team’s games is a big part of how journalists build connections. Try staying away from a team’s games and letting fans handle gamers, and then see how much cooperation you get from coaches, players, and PR folks when you do need them for a story.
- If newspapers want to use fans to help cover a team, the best use for them might be some of those midweek press conferences rather than the games. One, there’s usually little real significant news coming out of them, but you need a body there to report whatever does come out. Two, there’s not much to be biased about. It’s just “here’s what the coach said.” Of course, good luck finding fans who can and would want to spend a couple hours in the middle of a workday to go to a press conference or watch it on TV and then write a summary of it, for free.