The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Take a breath, Brother Clyde

Enthusiasm is blinding. I had an up-the-side-of-the-head lesson in how important that is this week.

The editing staff of the Columbia Missourian met this week as part of their effort to re-invent the newspaper into a full media system. I imagine that papers all over the country are going through a similar soul-search this year.

I was invited to tell them my thoughts on citizen journalism and to help them ponder the impact of Clyde Bentleyuser generated content on both their futures and the future of journalism. I focused on how most of what we call “citizen journalism” is what newspapers simply called “journalism” pre-1970.

I’m a pretty enthusiastic guy. With citizen journalism, it is easy for me to go into the evangelist mode of loud exclamation, a host of metaphors and pleading questions. Brother and sister journalists, I’m offering you salvation!

All I did was terrify a bunch of hard-bitten newsies. How often do even the politicians or lawyers produce wide eyes and sweaty brows from that crowd?

I had to remember my own attitude toward what we called “open source journalism” in 2004 when I was assigned to the MyMissourian project. It sounded fun but I wasn’t all that sure it was real journalism. As the graduate research team that now writes this blog puzzled through the protocols and procedures for a CJ site, I was among the loudest to call for controls to keep of straying too far from the newspaper tradition.

Researchers are a different breed from newsroom folk, however. In the newsroom you only have time for tactics based on necessity. The researcher is charged to develop strategies based on concepts and theories. The research process forced us to boil down the difference in the open blog culture and the newspaper culture to a minimal number of concepts. After weeks of heated discussion we settled on literacy, decency, banality and commercialism. We were very concerned that the Great Unwashed and Untutored would pepper us with unreadable-obscene-stupid essays promoting their own businesses or causes.

The breakthrough for us was when someone asked, “So what’s new?”

We are journalists and have dealt with those issues since the title was invented. We realized the main difference between how we dealt with them and how the public dealt with them was the rigidity of our rules. People don’t live by an AP Style Book and our track record questions our ability to judge what is stupid.

Not only that, but it appears that Americans are pretty good at figuring out what is hokum and what is usable information. They’ve already survived Madison Avenue.

And that is what I finally said to ease the pain of my fellow journalists: Just lighten up.

The chances of bloggers or their kin eliminating journalists are next to none. If people wanted to be full-time journalists, they would take the low-paying jobs we offer. For the most part, they don’t want to say “what,” they just want to comment on “why.” And when they do directly report, it is most often on something few journalists have the time or inclination to consider.

Citizen journalism isn’t the death of the newsroom; it is the life of it. While we do the hard work of covering boring governmental meetings and tallying votes and scores, the other folk share with us the little joys and trials of life. I think the bloggers just give us room to concentrate on what we do best.

I’m trying to morph from evangelist to therapist: Breath deep and repeat after me – “I’m OK, the public is OK.”

The real challenge the new order is coping with a doubling, tripling or gazillioning of the amount of information out there. That’s a topic for another post.

June 22, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

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