November 22, 2005
Three Rants ... Continued
PART III: Rick is totally right.
(First, see parts I & II.)
When we get past Rick’s sniping at the blogosphere and the broad practice of “citizen journalism,” he begins to make some points I completely agree with:
Some of the pioneer online efforts at community journalism sites suffer a different problem. At the same San Antonio conference, when the topic of super-local sites came up, display pages from NorthwestVoice.com of Bakersfield, Calif., and MyMissourian.com were projected on a screen. Lead stories included “Another Pet Missing, Perhaps Stolen,” plus “New ‘Harry Potter’ is Magnificent,” and pictures from a local family’s summer vacation.
Even as unperfected news forms, blogs and citizen journalism are exerting great influence.At a later meeting, publishers of the two sites were candid about what Clyde Bentley of MyMissourian.com called the banal quality of many submissions. But both sites, by policy, accept anything contributors think worth posting, since participation is a big part of the point.
Generally, whenever a news organization or longtime media professional announces a shiny new “citizen journalism” initiative, I’ve been underwhelmed by the result. It’s like they give everyone in town a blog and aggregate ‘em all under a folksy, feel-good banner and bam! “Community news.”
Giving everyone a blog is awesome. Media orgs should absolutely do that. More voices speaking up means a better society, period.
Networking those blogs? Also a fantastic idea.
Lumping all the blogs together and proclaiming it news? Um.
In buzzword-speak, when we give everybody in our town a blog, we enable a long tail of conversation. And as Chris Anderson always points out, to get value out of the long tail, our ability to filter content must improve as the amount of available content increases. This is the step news orgs seem to have failed to grasp in their citJ experiments.
The filter can be a person or a team of people, as with the BoingBoing crowd or local sites like MNSpeak and FresnoFamous. MetaFilter, which began as a totally open community blog (and remains open to anyone willing to pay $5), developed quality content with a combination of two filters: 1) the human one, Matt Haughey and 2) a communal one, headquartered at MeFi’s companion blog MetaTalk. Matt applies a light hand as a filter, weeding out double posts or posts he finds wildly out-of-sync with the site’s “Best of the Web” mission. The community is the heavy filter, flagging posts they feel are inappropriate, and most of all, exerting severe social pressure on members to create posts that adhere to the strict standards of the collective.
“But!” you might say, “Sites like The Northwest Voice do have filters — actual human editors who set the tone with decent general-interest community news stories and package the best content into a print edition every week!”
But, I would reply, they evince a totally old-school approach to content. They’re not embracing their lo-fi community destiny. They’re newspapers with columnists and stories. At the same time as the folks behind these sites are celebrating the inconsequence of it all (This is the kind of everyday news people are missing!), there’s a not-so-subtle insistence that these trumped-up blog posts adhere to the broad conventions of the newspaper. You end up with these sad parodies of newspaper articles that tend to morph into over-earnest press releases by paragraph three.
This “we-must-imitate-the-newspaper” attitude even infects sites like Wikinews, which Rick also snarks out in his screed. I’m right there with you, Rick. Wikipedia is, as Rick says, astonishing. It’s one of the first places I go when news does break. (And when I recently linked to a breaking news story on MetaFilter, I was confident that the Wikipedia link was the best choice for the near- and long-term.) Wikinews is merely redundant.
Why try to reconstruct the newspaper? It’s an imperfect form, especially for this medium, and for these purposes. If it’s “citizen journalism” we’re going for, why not seriously take advantage of the medium to distribute the task of reporting on a few extended big-J stories with broad community reach, ideally ones that the resources of the paper are insufficient to cover otherwise? And if it’s community conversation we want, why not have a series of networked group blogs aligned to different communities of interest within a city?