Newspapers Broke My Heart. Will Citizen Journalism Heal It? By Trent Seibert

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Newspapers broke my heart. Will citizen-journalism heal it?

by Trent Seibert

Every time I open a newspaper my heart breaks a little more.

Newspapers are on the decline. Around the country, management is putting the squeeze on newsroom budgets and cutting staff. And without resources to pay for overtime, for public records fees and for lawyers to fight government officials who refuse to hand over public records, well … the end result ain’t good.

And with massive layoffs in the newspaper industry – as well as timid leadership in many newsrooms – newspapers and the nightly news are becoming less relevant – and that there are fewer investigative reporters to serve as watchdogs for voters and taxpayers.

In Romenesko, a column covering the news industry, there seems to be a daily horror story about newsroom cuts and journalism layoffs.

Enter citizen journalists and bloggers.

Thank goodness for them. There is a surge from the citizen-journalists, bloggers and nontraditional news outlets in creating original content. Indeed, national blogger Talking Points Memo elbowed away competition from newspapers such as the New York Times and took home the prestigious George Polk award last year.

There are examples of vibrant blogger/citizen-journalism in Tennessee as well:

Southern Beale has done great work lately in covering the Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash waste spill. She was the first to spotlight the campaign contributions collected from coal special interests by elected leaders in the state.

Adam Kleinheider at PostPolitics has become a must-read for anyone interested in following state politics in the Volunteer State. He broke so much news during the recent election that I’m not going to even try to mention it all here.

Just today Sean Braisted got the scoop that state Sen. Andy Burke is mulling a gubernatorial run.

These are just a few examples. But I want to see more. I believe bloggers, citizen journalists and nontraditional outlets must take on the role of public watchdog as newspapers continue to decline.

That’s why a small team of journalists and I started Texas Watchdog. We’re a nonprofit online news site – one of a few dozen that have popped up across the country. We also provide investigative tools and training to bloggers, activists of any stripe and journalists at newsrooms with few resources.

The Texas Watchdog staff believes that the group’s work is one part of the solution to the decline of investigative journalism at newspapers and TV stations. We help train anyone on how to investigative government, make government agencies more transparent and to keep “city hall” honest. Some of that training includes crafting public records requests, effective interviewing, useful tools in digging into the backgrounds of those running for office, developing sources, as well as other skills.

We are thrilled to see NewsTechZilla emerge as a resource for bloggers and citizen-journalists.

Keep at it. And call us if we can help.

Trent Seibert is a former Tennessean and Channel 2 reporter. He’s now journalist and editor with Texas Watchdog, based in Houston, Texas.

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  1. Mediaverse said January 7, 2009 | Permalink

    Once again, this is a great site and a great discussion. Let’s be real for a sec, though: citizen journalism is not the great hope that we think it will be.

    Why? Because good journalism happens more often when people are paid–well enough–to do it. It rarely happens for free. That’s the biggest stumbling block to citizen journalism. Now, I would totally change my opinion if more individuals were willing to pay others to do good journalism but that’s not going to happen as long as news is viewed a free and readily available content.

    So, in other words, you can train as many folks as you’d like how to research and investigate to keep government honest and you’ll develop some great, well-informed citizens but you won’t be creating new journalists unless those same folks can find a way to pay their bills by spending time researching and investigating. That’s why blogs break news so inconsistently as compared to MSMs. It’s not that there aren’t enough blogs; it’s just that bloggers don’t have the resources (i.e. time) to truly dedicate themselves to reporting the way a traditional journalist with a salary and benefits can.

    Life always intrudes and limits bloggers–well, except those like Talking Points Memo who have financing.

    If you really want to change the game, then develop more venture capitalists who want to pay for good journalism.

  2. sadcox said January 7, 2009 | Permalink

    @Mediaverse I agree with what you’re saying. In fact, I tend to look at my news consumption this way…

    1) For breaking facts and events–Twitter
    2) For opinion and punditry–blogs
    3) For investigative journalism–newspapers

    You’re right, most bloggers don’t have that resource (time) to really cover a story. What I don’t understand is why newspapers are still printing things like accounts of sporting events that are 12 hours old and were watched, blogged, tweeted, and listened to by just about everyone who cares about the details.

    Seems like a waste of that precious resource–time.

  3. Kelly said January 7, 2009 | Permalink

    I’ve always loved newspapers and have read them cover to cover since I was a teenager. Anymore I only take the paper for the local information it provides. Unfortuantly that coverage is getting thinner and thinner. Most of the stuff is from the AP which I can read online the day before the newspaper comes out. The editorials are left leaning, the syndicated columnists are left leaning, the letters are left leaning (in a conservative community you’d think it would be 50/50). It’s a shame, but it won’t be long before I do away with subscribing.

  4. Lisa Williams said January 8, 2009 | Permalink

    Great post, Trent. I was looking for the same thing today as I scanned the Oakland indy sites I track at Placeblogger to see how they were handling today’s unrest. Some of the sites aren’t picking up the baton, but it only takes one, in this case, a great site called Oakland Focus. I think it will be a rocky ride, but I personally believe journalism will survive the death of its institutions.

  5. Dave Barnes said January 8, 2009 | Permalink

    I think that integration is a huge problem.

    Let’s assume that the Daily Planet wants to incorporate and use citizen journalists.

    1. How do you find them?
    2. How do you get them to give up (if they have one) their current blog and “work” for you?
    3. How do you compensate them?
    4. What sort of editing process do you subject them to? This one is a nasty as bloggers type and it appears. How do you convince bloggers to subject themselves to an editing process? How do you get (train) editors to turn around a post in a 1/2 hour? What does the editor of the Daily Planet do when the citizen uses the FUCK word in a post/column/article?

  6. Dave Barnes said January 8, 2009 | Permalink

    And, how come I can’t edit my comments on this website?

  7. Greg said January 11, 2009 | Permalink


    The idea of posts being subject to an Editor isn’t foreign to 99% of bloggers since most use blogging platforms that feature different user levels for contributors, editors, and admins. That’s probably “how come” (I think that means “why”) you can’t edit your comments here. You probably don’t have an account, or if you do it doesn’t include the rights to edit comments.

    Is this the first blog you’ve ever read? Seems like an online marketing guy would know this stuff already.

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