Monday, January 30, 2012

Still agonizing over letting readers in

A blog post today by the editor of the Island Packet serving Hilton Head Island, S.C., and environs shows how journalists still agonize over letting their readers "in" to the newspaper pages (or, more really, the websites).

Editor Jeff Kidd has posted 12 questions to help us determine how much 'citizen journalism' you want at islandpacket.com, beaufortgazette.com.

Some are interesting, again illustrating the neurosis we have about this:

  • If clearly labeled user-submitted content was inaccurate, would it diminish your regard for staff-produced stories, photos and other content? 
  • If clearly labeled user-submitted content was obscene or in poor taste, would it diminish your regard for staff-produced stories, photos and other content? 
 Kidd precedes the questions (most of the rest are about what things people read on the website and how they access it) with these observations, beginning with the thesis that the papers (the doublet includes the Beaufort Gazette) already are hyperlocal because of their focus on the local community and that they already allow "citizen journalism" through things like user photo galleries, community calendars and school lunch menus.

He goes on:

But there's no doubt the terms take on new meaning in an online age, particularly one coming to be marked by ability to both produce and consume news from smartphones and other mobile devices. This creates the possibility of unfiltered publications from the field, though most traditional-media outlets have not gone that far. We still submit to the model for in-print publication, where space is limited, one thing is published to the exclusion of something else, and thus choices are made about what goes in and what doesn't. Even the most gently edited submissions at the Packet and Gazette are reworked or reformatted so that it is distilled to its essence.

Website operations, on the other hand, largely remove the space constraint (though there is still much utility in winnowing away extraneous verbiage and information.) It also greatly reduces the turn-around time for publication. In fact, if we were so inclined, we could publish a a photo of little Jimmy's 11th birthday party as quickly as it takes little Jimmy's mommy to hit send on her smartphone's touch screen.

Of course, at this point we don't actually publish reader-submitted information instantaneously, either, and for good reason — newsworthiness and veracity are the coins of our realm. Allowing anyone to slap anything they want on our site with no approval — let alone verification — presents potential problems. After all, it takes little imagination to think of what could go wrong if a frat boy with an iPhone can immediately post a photo from impromptu wet T-shirt contest that erupted at the kegger. We want more community news, but we also want to remain a publication suitable for family reading.

Nonetheless, we doubtlessly will creep closer toward faster turnaround and yet more opportunities for folks like you to send in news of your everyday lives.
My problem: This doesn't sound to me like a publication that particularly wants "citizen journalism," but one that can get increasing amounts of content on the cheap  -- just making it easier for your readers to shovel more content on your site because there may be ways to increasingly take the human factor out of screening it.

Here's the thing: Those readers are joyfully passing you by with their (humdrum) "everyday lives" and their mobile phones and tablets, passing you by to the point where you become less relative, not more.

If you really care about hyperlocal journalism, then you realize digital is about not only content but community. And online, community is far different from how journalists, even those at smaller operations like this, have tended to define it. It is not us handling "The News" and, oh, by the way, we'll let you have a little place at the side of the table.

True community would actually mean doing more "screening" -- in other words, getting more staff involved. Only it's not "screening," but curating and engaging -- inviting your readers in as co-contributors to the process, not just as some kind of cheap content creators.

When we see newsrooms get that, we'll know they're ready for the 21st century.

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