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The Reader Becomes the Writer in Chicago

5 years ago
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Some people love to deride the plight of newspapers. In case you're unaware, the outlook is not so good. One question often asked in the age of dropping papers and reporters is: Who will cover local politics if no one is paid to do so?

Some Chicago citizens may have the answer -- or at least, one answer. Barbara Iverson reports that a community news site, WindyCitizen.com, will try covering a city council meeting this week by inviting political reporters and non-bona-fide people to a live online discussion of the meeting. The city clerk will be streaming the meeting live on his website.

So really, it's not as if ordinary folk are filing a story or reporting the meat of the council meeting. Instead, they'll be allowed to comment about what they think of what's being said. This is usually called "analysis" or "opinion," although in such an open forum, it might as well just be called chatter.

"I have no idea about what will happen in the thread," a frequent contributor to the website tells Iverson.

That's exactly the problem with such abstract attempts at "citizen journalism." Reporters on the city hall beat would be able to filter out the nonsense common on all meeting agendas (like naming the day after a high school science fair winner) and tell readers the most important news. Contrary to what many people believe, most beat reporters don't have a strong bias, and if they have any opinions about their subjects, they keep them to themselves. Above all, journalists are paid to inform the community.

So when people talk about citizen journalism replacing old-school journalism, I'm not exactly sure what they mean. Do they mean more people adding their opinions about community affairs? Do they mean more people reporting actual news by digging for secrets? Or do they just mean more blogging? It would be really great if some smart, aspiring citizen journalists could outline what exactly they plan to do to further the discussion of news instead of simply reducing it to personal opinion.

Another timely question: Do people care about the news? A popular Pew Research poll from March showed that only one-third of people would personally miss reading their local paper if it folded. Presumably, the people in the other two-thirds of the population either don't read the local news or just go for the sports section. It is true, however, that as newspapers' circulations continue to fall, their website traffic is going up and up. Though there has been an expected drop off since traffic spiked during the presidential election season.

Jack Shafer, in his thoughtful, navel-gazing media column on Slate, notes that during the New York newspaper strike of 1962-63, readers turned to alternative forms of media. Readership of papers like the Village Voice and the Brooklyn Daily leapt to unheard-of numbers, while news radio stations broadcast to a horde of new listeners. But that was the 60s. They didn't have Twitter. Today's wired generation is preoccupied with social networking and is so disengaged from current events that some newspapers have pulled their free subscriptions off of college campuses.

If the attentive readers at Windy Citizen can spot news for news and everything else for whatever it is, its brand of quasi-journalism has a chance of pinch hitting for the old reporters who no longer have their jobs. Likewise, if citizens elsewhere recognize that journalism's purpose is not self-serving but public-serving, they can earn the right to participate.

(By the way, I snapped that dire photo up there when I visited Chicago this weekend. How's that for citizen journalism?)
Filed Under: Media, The Cram

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