Saturday, February 2, 2008

Getting What You Pay For

There's citizen journalism and then there's being cheap. As always, the value of the idea comes from its definition. Is it truly a way to bring fresh ideas and voices into the news business? Or is it just a way of going cheap, getting free or almost free "news" from people in the community?

John McIntyre has some thoughts. I never had to handle stories from people like that (well, almost as bad; if you've ever had to read a "farm column" from a retired agriculture agent or a former reporter turned Sunday columnist whose main interest in life was his cat, Fluffy, then you've come close.) But at one paper I worked, a large-ish paper in a small-ish state, did, in the 1970s, rely on little-old-lady type correspondents who mailed--you know, in an envelope with a stamp on it--little stories about local events. Chicken dinners, Boy Scout activities, etc. They were paid a few cents a word and so minor stories took on major proportions and had to be boiled down to reasonable length, which turned the correspondents' copy desk into a major shovel operation.

One midweek afternoon, a cute little story arrived about the local cops vs. firefighters weekend softball game. Which had been interrupted because the firefighters had had to rush off. To put out the blaze that destroyed the historic town hall.

Eventually those correspondents disappeared, along with the the kind of coverage we now are proclaiming as our salvation and that we call hyperlocal. And back through the door has come the idea of free or nearly free material, at least at some operations.

I have always liked the idea that I believe John Robinson promotes down in Greensboro, N.C.; he writes about a "town square" approach, making the paper's web site the place where bloggers, community activists and their ideas come together. Seems to make sense to me, and better than just trying to pick up free copy.

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