Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Patching local news together won't work

By Daniel B. Kline

Good news amateur writers with an inflated sense of your own talent, your local news Web site that nobody reads wants your contributions. Never mind that you have no actual talent – two friends and your mom (who doesn't actually read what you write) told you how much they love your work, so that should clearly result in a mass audience.

Often called “crowdsourcing,” the idea is that the idea that there are lots of local voices just dying to be heard, that people actually want to hear. This concept of turning over your “pages” to amateurs is part of the latest thoughts as to how the newspaper business will be saved/reinvented.

This bit of wishful thinking makes financial sense because actual reporters and professional opinion writers (present company excluded) actually cost money. So, if we can get the public to report and opine for free, then we won't need actual journalists.

Logically, this could work just fine except it's extremely rare to find any actual writing talent willing to participate in this particular scam. Yes, Huffington Post pulls this off, but somehow that site manged to trick celebrities and actual writers to give their work away for free.

When you try this model in hundreds of town across the country, you end up with Web sites populated by amateurs who can't write or tell an interesting story. Basically, this would be like running an upscale restaurant and realizing that the chefs really drive costs up, so you get rid of them and hand customers a pile of ingredients and a stove.

This has not stopped AOL, owners of Huffington Post, from pushing this model on its local Patch sites. In general, these local news sites have one editor who writes, assigns and handles everything else. Some Patch sites have good journalists doing good work, but most feature either overworked, burned out pros or inexperienced kids.

Now, of course, sourcing material from the community has its place. It's not impossible to find or train local talent, but aside from the occasional lucky discovery, doing this requires resources and training. The local news prototype I run has a 16-year-old intern this summer who ranks just a slight tick below my professional staff in quality and vastly exceeds them in output.

To get that intern, however, we made a significant investment in a school program where we teach teenagers how to shoot and edit video. We didn't just hand her a camera and say go report the news, we taught her the skills and then were delighted to find someone with talent who has become a significant contributor.

Simply going on the notion that because a lot of people blog on a local level that there is a log of great, or even marginally acceptable, content which news Web sites can have for free is silly. The “crowd” can enhance your reporting and it can most certainly direct you as to what to cover. But, the idea that the news bus won't be driven by paid professionals will likely end with hundreds of dead local web sites – killed because they thought that just because people are saying something that others would want to read it.

The new newspaper world will feature less walls and more contributions from the audience. Story selection and placement will largely be audience driven and the public will have unprecedented access and control of the what news gets reported. The days of crusty old editors making decisions like J. Jonah Jameson from Spiderman are over, but the day of the professional reporter has just begun.

You can't crowdsource reporting and storytelling anymore than you can crowdsource brain surgery or root canals. Sure, there might be some genius who read a book who can handle either of those, but if I need a brain surgeon or dentist – much like if I need a reporter – I'll stick with the pros.

Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. He can be reached at dan@notastep.com or you can see his archive at dbkline.com. You can listen to his podcast or buy his book, Worst Ideas Ever, at Worstideasever.com.

2 comments:

Tony Di Domizio said...

Daniel-

You are utterly clueless as to how Patch operates on a hyperlocal level.

Most of the Patch sites are run by experienced journalists, and many of the freelance writers do have writing experience.

In many cases, the sites are MORE popular than the competing print edition, which, as they say, is dying.

As a columnist and journalist, I can't believe you aren't more open-minded to something of this caliber.

Have you ever been approached to blog on a Patch site? Do you even have one in your hometown?

Has Patch done you wrong in some way?

It seems a lot of journalists who are dedicated to the daily fishwraps are cocked and loaded to fire off their opinion about still embryonic micro news sites that are making major successes in many communities looking for something new.

Furthermore, many of these fishwraps don't have the gall to even publish your column on their online editions.

Irony?

In fact, there are many companies looking to eliminate the print product altogether and move to strictly online news reporting.

I spent nearly a decade of my life writing for newspapers. You can only go so far and do so much before you are either rehashing an old story or dealing with the corporate red tape and idiocy that comes from print newspaper.

This is the wave of the future. This is competition. This is business.

And business, as they say, is booming.

-Tony Di Domizio, local editor, Montgomeryville-Lansdale Patch
lansdale.patch.com

Sarah said...

Well said, Tony.

As an experienced journalist and editor, with a degree from Temple University and six years in a newsroom, I resent Kline's insinuation that Patch is made up of unqualified monkeys with typewriters.

I am a Patch contributor, but I don't work for free. I provide high-quality content, and in return I am compensated fairly.

This diatribe just sounds like sour grapes to me.

Sarah Cocchimiglio

P.S. Mr. Kline: My mom is an award-winning, accomplished journalist herself, and she absolutely reads my work. Does yours?