The New York Times is set to launch a handful of "citizen journalism" sites on Monday, collectively to be called The Local. The reporting will be overseen by two Times staffers, who will in turn be overseen by a Times deputy metro editor.
In some ways, this is a return to newspapers' roots. Local reporters and editors traditionally relied on strong community ties to develop stories and shape coverage. The Internet offers near infinite space to allow these sources to record their own thoughts and observations, and help spark discussions that go into specifics that a general-interest paper shouldn't. It seems reasonable that a newspaper would build a centralized online forum, and the Times, despite recent financial turmoil, is one of the few papers with the resources to put something like this together.
But newspapers should be careful of two things. First, they should not allow "citizen journalism" to replace professional reporting. If someone, anyone, puts together a story that's worthy of running in the paper and meets strict editorial standards, that person should be paid for the work. Would it make sense to ask an excellent amateur chef to cook for free making dishes for sale in a restaurant? At some point, the "citizen" crosses over a boundary and the people making money off the work have a responsibility to drop the "volunteer" bullshit and pony up.
(Unfortunately, the trend of deprofessionalizing journalism is going to continue, and not because newspaper owners want to encourage open debate. It's a way for debt-ridden chains to drive down wages and benefits - maybe even eliminate them altogether for certain content.)
Second, papers need be mindful of the 'city council effect'. Anyone who's covered City Hall for a living knows the score. Very few people in a community have the time or inclination to get involved in multiple community issues. They usually show up when they feel passionate about something - a change in zoning near their home or child's school, traffic problems in their neighborhood, a plan to build a Wal-Mart at the end of the block. Once the issue is resolved, the council room empties, except for staff, a few activists and a gadfly or two - these are the stalwarts of public debate.
Ensuring an open, interesting and diverse citizen forum will be difficult. It will take time and money. Hopefully the Times invests both.