The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Light my fire

A bunch of fellows with calloused hands, tattooed arms and ability I envy recently taught me an important lesson about the new era of journalism.

Clyde the welderFor the past four years, I’ve talked, research and cajoled my colleagues in an effort to get them over their fear and loathing of citizen journalism. But when I look back at it, my efforts were pointed primarily at the loathing part of the equation. My assumption was that once they overcame their biases about news-like content from untrained non-journalists, the fear would vanish also.

What a mistake. I learned that in spades by donning a heavy leather apron, pulling on a Darth Vader-ish mask and trying to burn up the world.
My son Garrett, who is soon to graduate from engineering school, has a knack for picking the right presents. Even as a little one shopping Dad’s money, he could point to just the right piece of jewelry or clothing to light up Mom’s eyes.

Last Christmas he surprised me beyond words. His gift to me was a four-week class in welding at the Columbia Area Career Center – our local vocational training facility.

Keep in mind that the qualities I’m often known for are a lack of coordination, the dexterity of rhino and a touch of impatience. OK, more than a touch. But I also subscribe to the mantra of doing what you fear most – at least once. I know computers, I know writing and I can even hammer nails. But sparks, flames and glowing metal were out of my league.

But there I sat in a room full of guys with hot-rod T-shirts and gimme caps as a gravel-voiced instructor showed us how to turn on an oxy-acetylene torch without blowing up the building. I’m sure I looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Somewhere near the end of that introductory demonstration, I realized my panic was the same as I had seen on the faces of dozens of students, friends and fellow journalists when I tried to explain the wonders of online citizen journalism.

It’s not the loathing, dummy. It’s the fear.

My failing as an evangelist for citizen journalism is the paucity of reassurance I offered to those who see their jobs, their passion, their worlds at risk by the new twist on the word that defines their lives. I’m a change junkie, so “new and improved” makes me happy.

Unless I’m faced with something as alien as a welding torch.

I eventually took my own advice, checked that there were plenty of fire extinguishers around and just did it. By the end of the four weeks, I could shower the floor with sparks, adjust a torch flame to a needle point and fuse two chunks of steel together into something that was more-or less-recognizable.

Just like me, citizen journalism won’t burn down the world. It may singe a few hairs and it will undoubtedly produce journalism only “more-or less-recognizable,” but the concept, need and utility of news will survive. Just as I learned that using a cutting torch employs some of the same skills I learned with an X-acto Knife, we need to enjoy finding how our traditional journalism skills apply to citizen journalism.

Now if we could just find an excuse to wear one of those helmets …

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April 3, 2008 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley

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