December 12, 2008
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.
This theory becomes even more compelling with online journalism, since the Web removes the hurdle of publishing. Megan’s mom used to write in to the paper about the 4-H award so she could clip out her daughter’s name and put it on the fridge… and prove to Sarah’s mom how much better her daughter was. And back then, the town newspaper was the best source for town news. In many small towns, it still is. But even small towns have the Internet now. So why not let Megan’s mom get online and write about her daugther’s award on the newspaper’s site?
Allowing citizen journalists to become involved in the paper could do two things:
- Boost customer loyalty and involvement
- Take the weight of boring stories off journalists’ shoulders
Obviously, opening up a newspaper’s site like this has a lot of risk, as John Zhu writes about on his blog.
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.
But if a paper were careful in setting up the system, let users edit other users’ content, and clearly flagged user-submitted content as different than professionally-produced content, then Megan’s mom would visit the site more often, interact more often, and click on advertising more often. Then, once Sarah’s mom wins the pie competition, she’ll start doing the same. And then they can start posting screenshots of their stories to their personal blogs. Suddenly you could have a swell of content written and read by a tight-knit community. Suddenly, you’ve allowed that community to interact online. The newspaper becomes its own social network for its coverage area. And now you have a bunch of subscribers writing content that THEY care about.
People might ask if that’s newsworthy, to which I’d ask what could me more newsworthy? To me, a story is newsworthy when it has an impact on people. Certainly, Obama’s weekly addresses are more newsworhty than Megan’s brother winning the pie-eating competition. But both affect the audience. They can feel like they “own” that part of your newspaper; that they are part of the newspaper. Once you’ve got that kind of brand loyalty, once it escalates to brand evangelism, then your subscribers are far more valuable.