The web is catalyzing another revolution in America’s newspaper newsrooms: readers have become active participants in producing the news.
Even in what is arguably the most traditional venue for journalism, the daily newspaper, readers now provide stories and photographs for publication. Four in ten newspapers said they host citizen-written blogs. The Kansas City Star, for example, hosts a blog called Mom2Mom where mothers can chat among themselves, then once a week poses a question asking how to deal with a specific issues. The responses appear in the paper’s print editions.
But the readers of America’s daily newspapers today interact with newsrooms on several other fronts, too. They offer tips and leads on fast-breaking news developments and have been invited to act as sources for investigative stories.
Still, survey results indicate editors don’t seem to see citizen journalism as the silver bullet some predicted a decade ago—a source of content that could one day replace reporters. While a quarter of editors describe it as valuable, nearly six out of ten describe it in more qualified terms as only “somewhat” valuable.
In another question, a plurality of editors (46%) believes citizen-produced content is “an essential ingredient for the website and newspaper of the future (…).” But nearly as many of those responding (42%), expressed reservations, agreeing with the statement describing citizen journalism as “an interesting, but limited concept in which citizen input is kept to very small stories or to basic informational material (…).” Only a quarter of the survey respondents described citizen content as “very valuable.”
In interviews, a majority of editors, both at larger and smaller papers, tended to share the more cautious assessment, casting initial expectations as inflated and siding with those survey respondents who saw its role as interesting, but limited. Several complained that getting acceptable written content—e.g. stories—from citizen journalists usually required significant investments of newsroom staff time to train, coach, educate, confirm and edit.
“It’s not the answer,” said Miami Herald executive editor Gyllenhaal. “The idea that all you must do is open the gates and copy flows in is not right. Like anything good, it takes work, a lot of time and a lot of thought.”
Still, some newsrooms—especially those serving smaller circulation markets with well-educated populations and a developed sense of community— have had highly rewarding experiences with other forms of citizen participation.
The editor of one large metropolitan newspaper said his reporters had details of a major highway pile-up, including the names of victims, several hours before the same information was released by police merely by posting a reporter’s email address and phone number on its website along with an invitation for anyone involved in or around the accident to make contact. However, the editor stressed that all information received from the public was first confirmed by a newsroom staffer before it was posted and the names of victims were held back until authorities had notified families.
In interviews, editors invariably said the easiest, most successful form of user-generated content has been weather-related photographs, which have the perfect mix for a citizen’s contribution: they require little expertise, attract broad interest, their content is easily verifiable and they tend to be non-controversial. Weather photos also seem to generate a timely and strong citizen response. Gannett vice-president Kate Marymont discovered this last year during her tenure as executive editor of the News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida (circulation: 92,000) after a tornado touched down in the Cape Coral region of the paper’s circulation area.
“We got hundreds of photos,” she said. “A year ago we’d have asked readers for photos, but now we don’t have to ask. They just send them. It’s not that we’ve gotten wise, it’s just the way the world is behaving. People are more interactive.”
Under Marymont’s leadership, the News-Press operated at the experimental cutting edge in several areas, including its use of citizen journalism. While many newspapers have reached out to readers for tips on a fast-breaking news story where the public is involved, the News-Press has used crowd sourcing effectively in developing showcase investigative stories.
When, in July, 2006, the News-Press began investigating reasons behind a sharp jump in property owner assessments for new sewage and potable water lines being installed in the Cape Coral area, it issued a three-word invitation to readers, “Help us investigate.” It then followed with a four-word question, “What do you know?” Marymont said the reaction was immediate. Within the first 12 hours, the paper received 68 responses from residents, who shared personal stories, steered reporters to documents they had not known existed, “and loaded us with questions to ask.”
Within 24 hours, the paper was quietly offered an audit of the project that the city had ordered but never released. When the News-Press published the audit, work on the project was halted and only resumed after a reduction of property-owner assessments. The paper used similar tactics during an investigation of major discrepancies in the amounts victims of four 2004 hurricanes were reimbursed for roof damage by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Editors say the success of such efforts depends largely on the degree of public motivation.
“You’ve got to find the (public’s) ‘passion point’ and that usually means a pocketbook issue,” said Arizona Republic editor Lovely. “That’s what worked in Cape Coral. People were angry and just needed an outlet.”
The News-Press has also experimented with another dimension of crowd sourcing. It called for volunteers to help with stories, then installed 20 of them—all local citizens—as de-facto technical advisors to the paper. The group, called “Team Watchdog,” included a retired police chief, an accountant, a retired military officer and a former state Supreme Court clerk. Volunteers work closely with reporters, helping them study databases, decipher public records or delve into specialty subjects. They were also formally introduced to the newsroom staff, given classes in ethics and research techniques. Team Watchdog members carry a News-Press ID card identifying them as members of a citizen journalist panel that works with the News-Press and its website, news-press.com. The implicit endorsement of the paper conveyed by such an ID raised concerns on the part of some at the paper, but so far, no significant problems had stemmed from this, Marymont said.
The Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World (circulation: 19,000) has approached citizen journalism in another way. Working together with the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass communication, it first offers a five-week evening course at a ‘Citizen Journalism Academy’ to groups of about 25 volunteers interested in learning more about the journalistic process. Then, after completing the course, it offers participants the opportunity to write for the paper, the website, or submit photos.
“There’s (been) no obligation to do anything, but there are opportunities if they want to try them,” said the paper’s Special Projects director Ralph Gage. Beginning this fall, however, Gage said the paper would alter its approach, seeking out citizens with specific areas of expertise in the expectation that, after completing the course, they would assist the paper in its coverage.