Thursday, August 4, 2011

Regrown roots at heart of debate

Citizen journalism plan draws emotional response

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
Less than a month ago, I began following a discussion thread on a professional networking site in which journalists were responding to the Huffington Post’s announcement of plans to resume its OffTheBus Citizen Journalism Project, to recruit volunteers to cover the 2012 elections.

These “citizen journalists” would offer a fresh, nontraditional look at the election season.

This is Part II of the project. OffTheBus, Part I enlisted 12,000 citizen journalists to provide Huffington Post with free coverage of the political process leading up to the 2008 election.

Essentially, Huffington Post is engaging in an activity that many journalists take umbrage at for varied reasons. I have to admit I share many of the same concerns.

The discussion, which is ongoing even as I write among members of LinkedIn’s Society for Professional Journalists group, has been quite heated at times and prompted my blog post Fear and loathing in journalism on July 23 after a Patch.com editor was singled out for defending Huffington Post and the work he does himself for a hyper-local Patch.com site. Patch.com is a start-up venture by AOL, which recently acquired Huffington Post. Patch.com essentially is trying to restart community journalism, largely in markets where it has died or is dying as more and more newspapers shutter their operations.

I think a large part of the reaction to the Huffington Post’s OffTheBus project is rooted in anger, likely fear as well, and a professional pride that seems to me to border on arrogance, which I will explain shortly.

First, let’s take a look at the anger and the fear.

38,440 jobs lost since 2007

That anyone would serve as a volunteer “citizen journalist” is perceived as a direct threat to those in my profession: My layoff on Dec. 2 was among 2,907 newspaper jobs cut nationally in 2010, and 38,440 jobs from 2007 through July 2011, according to the website Paper Cuts, which has been tracking industry layoffs since 2007. The website tracks job losses that include journalists and other newspaper industry jobs.

To give you a taste of the understandable jitters many in my profession are feeling, Paper Cuts’ newspaper layoffs tallies since 2007 are:

2007:
2,293
2008:
15,993
2009:
14,797
2010:
2,907
2011:
2,450
Total:
38,440

As a friend and former co-worker pointed out not too long ago on my Facebook page, industry cuts have been going on for far longer than that, although not to the draconian extent seen in the bloodletting of 2008-09.

Those who remain in the industry fear for their jobs and their futures. Those of us who fell to the cuts wonder whether we will ever work in the field again. That has left a fair number of journalists bitter and angry.

Citizen journalists as volunteer labor

Stir into the mix the idea of a news organization purposely soliciting volunteers to work as citizen journalists, and it becomes understandably upsetting in an industry that has taken such huge hits in the last 41/2 years.

Jobs — present and future — may be in jeopardy if publishers can get stories — or content — without having to pay for it.

Dovetailed with this reaction is the idea that these citizen journalists are being exploited in a manner that should not happen in private industry. Nonprofit organizations certainly receive plenty of support from volunteers — but they are nonprofits, usually seeking to provide some kind of community service or assistance.

Publishers exist to make a profit, and the idea that they would use volunteer labor as a means of making that profit reeks of exploitation. I find myself in this camp more than any other, even if the volunteers sign up knowing full well they have little to gain except perhaps name recognition.

Professional pride, hint of arrogance?

After this point, it seems to me that the criticism of Huffington Post’s use of citizen journalists crosses from fear and anger into the realm of professional pride and, perhaps, leans in the direction of arrogance, as well.

First, there is the perception that citizen journalists are not trained nor are they equipped with the skills to provide the quality, in terms of writing, in terms of professional standards offered by trained professionals.

Yes, that’s true. Yet, a large part of me asks: So what?

Don’t get me wrong — I do not believe we should toss out the standards and expectations for quality we’ve sought as a profession.

Yet, citizen journalism has been around a long time and played a profound role in this country, and quite frankly, a different perspective can breathe new life into an institution that some perceive as stuffy, arrogant and stale.

I think journalists were having more fun and winning more respect with what they did 150 years ago than say in the past 30 or 40 years.

Ben Franklin, Mark Twain: Citizen journalists

Many early newspapers originated with everyday folks — some printers, former riverboat pilots, inventors — citizen journalists who took an active interest in their communities. They entered a profession that still was young and without the guidance or oversight of a Society of Professional Journalists. I think of people like Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain as examples of pioneers of citizen journalism in this country. They were intelligent, well-meaning individuals who stepped up and filled a need.

I wonder if we as a profession have become so caught up in “the rules” and standards of journalism that we have become arrogant in our attitudes toward those who are unschooled in it.

Do we too easily dismiss the value of the contributions they might have to offer?

I’d point out that newspapers frequently make use of freelance writers, some of who are exceptional reporters but who have had little or no formal training as journalists. At the start, then, they were citizen journalists.

I for one refuse to believe that the idea of citizen journalism is inherently bad or evil, even as I voice caution over what I do perceive as its potential for exploitation.

I base that on my own observations and knowledge of human nature: There was more than one executive at Sun-Times Media whose eyes lit up at the very mention of the term citizen journalist. I think it’s fair to say that most everyone in the newsrooms there interpreted that as an explicit threat: Why should the company pay a reporter if a citizen journalism would do the work for free?

Fresh perspective has value

But there is something refreshing about the idea of an everyday Joe looking at the same subject matter but without the encumbrances of institutional thought that we carry as trained journalists. Certainly, this idea does not diminish the concerns that skilled professionals raise about writing quality and adherence to ethical standards.

Yet the idea, as expressed by Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman, of getting that fresh perspective of the political process from the point of view of someone with an untrained eye and who is not so thoroughly immersed in the journalism of politics — and perhaps the politics of journalism — strongly appeals to me as potentially groundbreaking.

Along the same lines is the argument that these citizen journalists will not have the ethical savvy to skirt around issues that the professionals long have faced. I would suggest that more than one journalist have slipped past that line at least once, maybe have been chastened for it, but have dusted themselves off and have moved on, pained but wiser.

Sometimes the best, most effective lessons are learned when the finger is burned.

Reactions edging toward arrogance?

The expressions of indignation I have read along these lines in this thread appear to me, at the risk of offending some, to be at least in part self-serving (been there, done that, been laid off and now I have nothing to lose), not to mention a bit on the arrogant side. I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge having had to come to grips with my own attitudes in this regard over the past several years.

It’s tough because as trained professionals, we do care about ethics and professional standards, the writing, the photography and other elements of our craft and profession. But, as I’ve heard repeated by several journalists over the years, “good writing never saved a newspaper.” I believe that is true. By the way, each of the journalists I’ve heard say this were exceptional writers.

I think that more often than not, it is the quality of the information and the usefulness of that information to the reader that has greater value. High ethical standards is a part of the recipe the reader, as a practical matter, will never taste or see (although it will fend off food poisoning) as long as the information is accurate, true and reliable.

Quality writing, on the other hand, can be icing on the cake, but it is not essential for the cake to be good. Writing just needs to be understandable.

So citizen journalism is not new and it does have value.

Entrepreneurial journalism

Yes, I’d like to be working full-time again instead of selling my skills piecemeal to three or four or more employers. But those opportunities are few and far between in our craft these days. So I find myself having to think like an entrepreneur. So I blog, at least in part, to get my name out there; I sell my services as a reporter; I rent myself out as a copy editor; and I offer my services as a consultant in writing, editing and social media marketing. Call me a Ted of all trades.

All the while, I keep searching for what I hope one day will be a full-time job in my vocation.

Journalism today is all about entrepreneurism — it has to be, because if something doesn’t change, the newspaper industry will not transform, it will die. Judging by a readership that began declining after World War II, long before the advent of the Internet, the state of journalism in America, at least as it is perceived by the public, is abysmal.

Something needs to change.

Like it or not, Huffington Post has proven itself a successful entrepreneur in new media. Whether that will be a long-lived success remains to be seen, but the organization is trying new things in the brave new world of digital media.

Slam it if you will, but I would point out that very few newspapers have switched over successfully to new media yet — yes, their digital revenues are increasing dramatically, but not at the pace at which their print revenues are declining, according to a June report by eMarketer.com.

The same report indicates newspapers will not see even a modest profit until 2014. That likely will translate into more layoffs over the next 21/2 years.

I think at least some of those publications may be at a point where, should they cut any more, the harm will be irreparable. I know readers in my own community who have dropped their subscriptions to the local paper because they believe a few pages of reading material is not worth a buck or so.

The Internet is a digital land of opportunity. We as a profession need to stake out our part in it.