Citizen journalism fills in the gaps
In the past 10 or so years, journalism has undergone a fairly significant transformation with the advent of user-generated content, message boards, blogs and story comments. Not too long ago, the partition between reporters and readers was more solid, save a few letters to the editor.
As with many things, the Internet is the great equalizer. Now, for better or worse, even the stodgiest newspapers find themselves drawn to free-flowing online conversations.
Part of the problem is figuring out how to work in this new era, said Devin Scillian, a Peabody Award-winning anchor based in Detroit.
“It used to be that as journalists we would go out and try to find the most important story and figure out how to make it interesting,” he said. “Now we seem to have gotten it backwards and are trying to figure out how to make something interesting seem important.”
Scillian went on to say the Internet has even changed the way people think of news, so covering a baby panda sneezing on YouTube may feel journalistically flimsy, but not covering it runs the risk of being seen as out of touch.
So from one angle, mainstream media are stretching traditional roles, trying to find an appropriate outlet for this relatively new phenomenon.
But from another angle ” the ground up ” the popularity of blogs, message boards and alternative media feels like a natural extension and, conducted properly, can “complete the thought,” enhancing the original reporting and giving the reader a fuller story.
Enter David O. Williams, co-founder of RealVail.com, a local online site dedicated to issues concerning the Vail Valley.
“I don’t follow the traditional blogger model, that’s for sure,” Williams said with a laugh, recalling his days in the Vail Daily newsroom and as former editor of the Vail Trail. “But RealVail has developed into kind of a hybrid site, where some of our stuff is pretty straight-up journalism and other entries are straight-up blogs.”
Williams said he and Tom Boyd, another former Trail employee, started the site with a mind to cover skiing, travel and outdoor recreation in the area.
“Then last spring we got the idea to target out-of-towners and offer something to people who want the straight scoop on Vail: where to go, what to see … and now we’ve gotten a little more political,” he said.
He said they essentially started the site from scratch, and after about three or four months of late-night Skype sessions, he and Boyd figured out the necessary coding to allow reader comments. Williams said the response to the comment function has been great, with “hits” coming from 120 different countries.
“Part of that is the Vail brand, too,” he said. “If we were in Ogalalla or something, maybe not, but Vail is an international brand, and people are interested. Reader comments and interaction are a key part of that as well.”
For Williams, local reporting may be the key to sustaining journalism.
“I think local-content Web sites are the absolute future of journalism, and I think they serve a critical role in communities like ours and also in communities where there isn’t as much of a robust mainstream media present, because there are a lot of stories that don’t get told,” he said.
He attributed gaps in coverage to staff writers lacking the time or inclination to pursue some of the more relevant community stories.
“For example, the Eagle County Times I could not disagree with more politically, but he’s got his following and his purpose,” Williams said. “I think Pete Buckley just needs to come out and put his name on [Eagle County Times], and I spent some time on a post on my site where I look at the reasons we’re pretty sure it’s him running it. But the point is these are great stories, and it’s the alternative press and bloggers who need to delve into this stuff ” otherwise the stories may not be covered.”
Elsewhere in Colorado, the Denver Post has recently added in a “reader comments” feature. That experiment has produced “phenomenal” results in its first 18 months, according to Doug Conarroe, multimedia producer.
“We’ve seen double-digit growth online, but it’s just part of the toolbox that goes with the online experience,” Conarroe said, referring to the site’s popular message boards. “Having reader participation with news as it’s happening is important for us, and you can tell by just looking at our site that we encourage it ” it’s everywhere.”
One of the main ideas behind user-generated content is burnishing the relationship between a news organization and the community.
It’s been said that a reporter is only as good as his or her sources, and to some extent, an online news organization is only as vibrant as the readers who contribute. Reader comments can offer information not included in the original article, or posit a different viewpoint that can elevate public discourse on vital issues.
One of the main goals is for newspapers to become “hyperlocal” with an unrivaled
emphasis on community coverage, but there’s always room for a different take.
And while not many people would dispute the Vail Daily offers the most comprehensive coverage of the news organizations in the area, other organizations have crept up, like the Vail Mountaineer or the conservative online site, Eagle County Times. The basic idea is no single person or organization has all the news cornered, and the gaps in coverage, varying points of emphasis, slant and tone draw people to different Web sites and newspapers for their news fix.
In the mid-’90s, self-described “computer nerd” Rob Curley was working at the Topeka-Capital Journal. He thought the Web sites of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Kansas City Star surpassed anything he’d seen to date, and he felt a new and better form of storytelling was evolving.
He accepted a position at the Lawrence Journal-World, between Topeka and Kansas City, after being told the paper was willing to make a firm commitment to online journalism.
“We’ve had our site for more than 15 years, and when Rob came along, we saw it as a great chance to continue to stay ahead of the curve,” said Jonathan Kealing, online editor for the Journal-World.
After revamping ljworld.com to be more user-friendly and encourage community participation, Curley moved to Florida to work with the Naples and Bonita Daily News before being tabbed vice president of product development for the Washington Post and Newsweek.
In addition to making the online site easier to navigate and to add story comments, Curley made sure readers had their own corner to blog and submit original content. So far, this general template has been successful in drawing more people to online news sites.
“Our mantra now is ‘Web first,'” Keating said. “We’ll tell the story first online and then either on TV or print. We’re incredibly committed to it and believe this is how journalism will survive and endure in the future.”
Nathan Rodriguez can be reached for comment at (970) 748-2982 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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