It may surprise you to hear me saying this, but "citizen journalism," that is amateur blogs, Twitter and Talkbacks, aren't going to fill the void left in media as America's newspapers continue to downsize and disappear.
Just because the news will come less from giant publishing companies and more from online media doesn't mean consumers will necessarily face a news drought.
As I've been shouting for years, the content is what matters, not the platform. And if professional journalists and reporters use new media to get the message across, that's great. But bloggers in their parents' basements won't be what puts newspapers out of business.
Granted, it's that image of the pale and pasty nerd tweeting and blogging that the newspaper industry has enjoyed ridiculing while pointing to the quality of its own work as its saving grace. Thing is, for every shut-in masquerading as a journalist, there's a classically trained one, out of work and mobilizing -- or a gainfully employed professional reporter working at a legitimate publication like OnMilwaukee.com.
Journalism is indeed changing, but not necessarily for the worse.
I actually didn't major in journalism, but it was the focus of my studies in international affairs with an emphasis on electronic communications. I took about a dozen reporting classes, and I also worked a full-time job as an editor of my college paper. Around that time, I also worked with a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter at the Washington Bureau of the Dallas Morning News and spent way too much time lingering around the National Press Club trying to soak in some tips. While I don't have as much print journalism experience as my colleagues Drew Olson, Bobby Tanzilo, Damien Jaques and Tim Cuprisin, I did know a thing or two about legitimate reporting before starting OnMilwaukee.com in 1998.
And I can tell you that there's still a big difference between what our salaried writers do every day and the maniacal 140-character ramblings of "some dude" on Twitter.
That said, citizen journalism is making us all a lot more accountable. And it matters. As fewer local newspaper reporters struggle to cover the same amount of news -- they just can't -- they find themselves getting scooped by amateurs. News organizations no longer can worry only about competition from other outlets in town, now they must go head-to-head with camera phones and amateur pundits with Blogspot accounts. Papers can shrug these sources off, but readers simply don't care where they get the news -- as long as they get it.
Consider these numbers: Since March 2007, about 35,000 newspaper jobs have been lost through layoffs or buyouts. A stunning 166 newspapers have either gone out of business or ceased publishing a print edition since 2008. Papers are in big trouble, and journalism jobs are few and far between.
Still, a recent report from the Newspaper Research Journal (which possibly makes it a little biased) says that citizen journalism isn't picking up the slack in covering local news. It looked at 363 online journalism sites, from blogs to "legacy" sites, which it calls the online products of newspapers. It concluded: "Despite hopes for a thriving genre of citizen journalism as at least a partial replacement for legacy journalism, those hopes have not been realized. In content and coverage, (citizen journalism) lags behind legacy web sites on a variety of dimensions considered indicative of news quality."
And I agree. Untrained reporters won't deliver the same quality as professional reporters can.
But the scales are tipping. We're not far from a point when there will be enough professional journalists out there who are working for "nontraditional" sources. Combine that with the valid content that comes from social media and the blogosphere, and the old-school print industry is in really big trouble. It's a good bet that many of those 35,000 newspaper employees will find a new home in reporting, in a medium that is prepared to embrace them.
I, personally, get a handful of calls each week from reporters looking for work. Even in Milwaukee, there are a lot of quality people out there looking for a home.
So, no, the nerds in the basement won't replace newspapers in depth and breadth of coverage. But their successors -- the organized, professional reporters using alternative platforms -- just might.
It's a fact that no one outside the newspaper industry needs to lament.
For the consumers, it just means that everyone will work harder to rise about the new-found competition in the field.
That's a win-win for just about everybody.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.