Traditional media and citizen journalism: Time to curate, collaborate

By Matt DeRienzo
Group editor of Journal Register Company’s publications in Connecticut 

Think of how this sounds to reporters who are bracing for the next round of newsroom layoffs, reporters who’ve gone years in many cases since their last cost of living raise.

“Citizen journalists” – are you kidding me?

When newspaper executives talk about enlisting readers to cover the news, it can feel pretty insulting to the beat reporter who is over-worked, under-paid and under-appreciated. Reporters who can recite the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics verbatim. Reporters who have a masochistic sense of duty to singlehandedly cover everything that a much larger newsroom used to cover.

That “nails on the chalkboard” sound could have something to do with the term “citizen journalist” itself. Connecticut SPJ’s Jodie Mozdzer has done an excellent job establishing the problems with the term itself.

While “citizen journalist” might be impossible to define, there are “acts of citizen journalism” all around us. That’s the disruptive force in news that has both accelerated the financial problems of newspapers and other traditional media and is providing one of the biggest opportunities in generations to expand the breadth and quality of our journalism.

Newspapers and broadcast TV and radio were built on a business model of scarcity.

Millions of people tuned in to Walter Cronkite each evening in the 1960s, and household penetration of daily newspapers was still at a now-unthinkable rate of more than 100 percent (meaning that on average, every household in the country purchased more than one copy).

Today, the scarcity model is dead.

There is no Walter Cronkite equivalent.

And daily newspaper household penetration dropped to 55 percent in 2001, to 44 percent in 2006 to 34 percent in 2011.

Since 2005, print advertising revenue in the United States has dropped by more than 50 percent.

A big part of why is that there are now millions of news and information sources. And they are instantly and multi-directionally connected in “a web” that is the Web.

The people “formerly known as our audience” don’t turn to Walter Cronkite anymore. They don’t turn to the daily newspaper. They turn to each other, and “if the news is important enough, it will find me.”

So we turn to the question of what role traditional media organizations play in this disrupted world of news and information.

What is our relationship with our audience, if they no longer need us, at least in the way they did under that old scarcity model?

Connecticut SPJ’s discussion of “Citizen Journalism” on Saturday will take place at The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe in Torrington, and the venue itself is part of our company’s answer to that question.

It is all about relationships now, and partnering with the audience at every step of the process of local journalism. That starts with openness and transparency, the building blocks of our “open newsroom” experiment.

It also means recognizing that the audience will organize itself around common interests without you because it doesn’t need you to do that.

That’s why we refer to “partnering” instead of “enlisting” or “involving” the audience.

John Paton, the CEO of our company, has said he envisions a day when our mix of content includes one-third original work produced by our professional staff, one-third produced by our audience, and one-third produced by professional partners such as The Associated Press and TheStreet.Com on a national level and CT Mirror and Connecticut Health Investigation Team on a state level.

Does that mean we’ll be enlisting readers to go and cover the city council meeting that used to be covered by the reporter we laid off?

No. But the staff reporter who is covering it will tell readers ahead of time that he’s planning to cover it, and what issues he expects to arise. He or she might use social media, blogging and in-person engagement to enlist the expertise of the audience to find the best angles, to ask the right questions and to put the story in a greater context than “official sources” can or are willing to provide.

It means there will be more jobs like the full-time “curator” position that we created in Torrington last year.

With millions of sources of information out there (including every audience member with a quality camera and Twitter app on their smart phone), there is a huge need and opportunity for traditional media to verify and curate that content and put it into context.

Think back to the last time there was a major community emergency – Hurricane Irene and the Halloween snowstorm in Connecticut come to mind – and you’ll find an excellent example of how media curation of reader reports on social media provided information about closed roads, downed power lines and flooding faster than police and fire crews knew about it.

Almost every media outlet in Connecticut was asking readers to “send in their photos,” but the fact is, they were already sharing that stuff with their own personal networks on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“It may be a mistake for news organisations to keep begging people to send them stuff,” CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis wrote in The Guardian. “That’s the way they think – centralised, controlling, exclusive. But the better structure may be for journalists to curate the best of what is out on the web. Rather than playing wack-a-mole on the occasional mistake/rumour/lie sent it, editors would better serve if they found the best content anywhere, not just among that which was sent to them.”

It’s not about swapping out professional journalists for “citizen journalists,” but rather, professional journalists tuning in to the acts of citizen journalism that are happening all around them as they combine curation and collaboration with ethical standards, shoe leather and news judgment to do a better job overall in “getting the story.”

At his blog Buzz Machine, Jarvis wrote that “… journalists must redefine their roles and relationships as more than reporters, editors, and producers — which, yes, they must still be — but also…. Moderators. Entrepreneurs. Teachers. Students. Helpers. Enablers. Networkers. Filters. Partners. Community members. Citizens.”

Matt DeRienzo is group editor of Journal Register Company’s publications in Connecticut, which include the New Haven Register, Middletown Press, Register Citizen and Connecticut Magazine.

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