Citizen Journalism: Ready for a Rewrite

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Down with citizen journalism!

Long live citizen journalism!

Remember the passionately earnest debate about whether citizens manning the keyboards were either the future or end of journalism?

I’m not certain exactly when the debate’s embers went cold, but the first entry under Google search is a Wikipedia article, most of which was written in the previous decade, and the next two entries go back to 2006 and 2005. A fitting capstone is what’s happened at The Columbia Missourian, produced by students and staff at the Missouri School of Journalism. The Missourian – a pioneer advocate for citizen journalism — has finally integrated community contributions onto its main site after keeping them in a ghetto for seven years on a site called MyMissourian. (The integration is actually only about 90% complete. Reader contributions are still kept antiseptically separate from staff work — on pages under a READERS tab, and they still have to go through a gate-keeping editor.)

So, has citizen journalism won?

One argument-ending answer is this recent contribution — video, photos and text — to The Missourian on “storm chasing” by community contributor Dustin Mazzio. It’s a compelling package that any site would die for. The most skilled regular-issue journalist writing a third-person account could never match what Mazzio produced (“We could feel the inflow as well as see the wind blowing across the crops in front of us, sucking what it could up into the storm”). Mazzio is a professional too — a storm chaser who tracks storms and helps people caught in them.

In every community there are scores, hundreds, of people who have special expertise like Mazzio, and if they were mobilized could give a whole new face to community journalism.

There will always be room for regular journalists, who have been trained in the craft of finding information and the art of fashioning it into narratives that may not be as gripping as Mazzio’s first-person story but can throw a searchlight on community problems that need fixing.

There’s ample room for both, and any site will be improved by having both. Clyde Bentley, a professor at the Missouri School and founder of MyMissourian, told me: “The traditional media, when stripped to the bones, must maintain its role as the eyes of the public on government and civic life. While dispassionate government coverage is often boring, it is vital to society. What citizen journalism can do, when included in a traditional outlet’s mix, is provide some of the softer side of news that takes the edge off of the daily dose of meetings and mayhem.”

But what about going further and putting these two forces together at the community level? There can be a synergistic 1 + 1 = 3. A site that can do that will attract readers and advertisers who want to reach them.

Take health care. But that’s a national issue, isn’t it? Or is it? People don’t go to Washington, D.C., to see their doctor, get an MRI or to be hospitalized. Add up all those local activities and you get the ever-growing $2.6 trillion annual bill for health care. What’s worse is that all these costs vary wildly from community to community and for no logical reasons. Imagine if hyperlocal sites would tell the story of health care in their community – documenting whether it was more or less costly than the average (with adjustments for regional cost of living)?

This is, to be sure, a complex story. But it could be put together if professional and citizen journalists could tackle it from different angles.

The first place to go would be the local Accountable Care Organization, a voluntary group of doctors, hospitals and other providers who collaborate with the goal of improving the quality of care of Medicare patients while also eliminating unnecessary expenses, with all parties sharing in the cost savings. ACOs, part of Obamacare, focus on Medicare because this federal service accounts for 20% of all health costs, and it covers the fast-growing senior population. (Washington Post Wonkblog staffer Sarah Kliff’s reporting on this issue is a great resource to send hyperlocal editors in the right direction.)

The editor of a local site can get the ball rolling by finding which providers are on the local ACO, and inviting them to contribute to a new section that could be titled “Our Health Care Bill for Seniors.” Questions to put to ACO members:

  • How can ACOs improve the quality of care – in doctors’ offices and at hospitals
  • How do we know that cost cutting won’t include cutting into quality?
  • If the ACO works, how much will it save in our community?
  • Will some of the savings be invested in improving care locally?
  • Do average citizens have a real voice in ACOs?

These are questions to which seniors, and their children and other relatives — indeed the entire community — will want to know the answers. These answers will make great stories for the local website.

It’s possible that some communities don’t yet have an ACO. If not, the website editor should find out why. Is the organization being boycotted by one or more providers who don’t like the rules set up by the feds? If the answer is yes, then the editor can ask the boycotter to explain its action, and get reactions from other local parties. So either way, there’s a story – and if there’s no ACO because it’s being boycotted by one or more local providers, that could be a big story with ramifications for both quality and cost of care.

This is just one example of how citizen journalism can be reinvented to help communities not only become better informed but better places to live – and get quality health care at an affordable cost. Education reform – which is not far behind health care in local importance – is another. The list could go on.

The question is, are community sites ready to take the lead in reinventing citizen journalism to produce a 1 + 1 = 3?

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Keith Williamson.