Capillary Action

Can citizen journalism save newspapers? That’s what I’ve been wondering lately. What I see is a circulatory system in which the newspaper is the heart, its staff-written content comprise the major blood vessels, and citizen journalists serve as the capillaries that reach down into niches where the big vessels just can’t penetrate.

That papers need saving, or at least reinvention, seems indisputable. Entire books have been written about “The Vanishing Newspaper.” Newspapers remain a powerful force but their own circulation is flat to down and advertising growth is poor relative to other media. As for reputation, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote in June that “the media’s reputation since(Watergate) has sunk like a stone.” Tap into the daily buzz via Romanesko and what do you see: a pointer to Editor & Publisher, which recently weighed in on the Judith Miller affair (the bigger issue would seem to be whether the nation was misled into war and, if so, the role of all media in that — unless we all think Judy & the Times are solely to blame for whatever went awry).

In the spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly, Terry Eastland, publisher of The Weekly Standard, take a shotgun to the media when he writes:

“It’s premature to write an obituary, but there’s no question that America’s news media—the newspapers, newsmagazines, and television networks that people once turned to for all their news—are experiencing what psychologists might call a major life passage. They’ve seen their audiences shrink, they’ve had to worry about vigorous new competitors, and they’ve suffered more than a few self-inflicted wounds—scandals of their own making. They know that more and more people have lost confidence in what they do. To many Americans, today’s newspaper is irrelevant, and network news is as compelling as whatever is being offered over on the Home Shopping Network. Maybe less.”

How could citizen journalism improve this picture? By forcing newspapers and other media outlets to listen to the communities they cover and lessen their tendency to look sideways at each other for cues as to what they should be covering. Modern media are wired to receive the news of cities, states, nations, corporations and other big institutions. They have the Associated Press and many specialty news feeds that deliver reams upon endless reams of bulletins and press releases on items deemed important — by whom? By issuers with the power to command attention: elected officials, corporate and union outlets, the organized newsmaker community. How does a newspaper or other local media listen to its audience? Through letters from those who take time to write, and from phone calls for those who need to get off a complaint or ask a question.

This is isn’t enough local feedback. What if a newspaper encouraged bloggers and hosted them? One media think tank put it somehwhat differently in a white paper :

“Through these emerging electronic communities, the Web has enabled its users to create, increase or renew their social capital. These communities are not merely trading grounds for information but a powerful extension of our social networks. And as in any social system, looking at our motivations helps us understand and trust the system as well as find our place in it.”

In short, participation equals audience buy-in. Sure there would be a issues to solve, some technical, (outsource the actual hosting) some legal (novices may not know about libel but you can teach them and take down libelous stuff to inoculate your news outlet from lawsuits). But reporters and editors would have a new lens down into their readership. And the people who create newspaper-linked blogs might draw their neighbors and friends into the paper’s readership. It might even be possible to sell pay-per-click ads linked to these citizen sites to give local advertisers a more efficient way to reach local readers.

I’m sure my simplistic slice leaves out a lot but it seems clear that media need to reach out to the audience. I bet there are people who are anxious — and able — to help.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media