Aug 3, 2010

Citizen journalists will always miss the Bell

In a column posted on LA Observed, Ellen Alperstein argues that "citizen" journalists missed the Bell salary scandal precisely because it's the kind of story only professional journalists would pursue (even if it takes them a while to get around to it). Here's an excerpt:
Even though citizen journalism is a wonderful addition to the collection and dissemination of news and community development, it isn't going to replace the kinds of stories people need with regularity to expose civil servants gone wild, hold them accountable and effect positive change of a profound and sustained nature.

There was a lot in the first L.A. Times story about Bell you could have found out yourself. But you're not going to, and neither is anybody else who doesn't have the financial support of a publisher willing to fund the effort society requires to make informed decisions and protect public resources from egregious misappropriation. This isn't new, and you're tired of hearing it and what it costs. But it bears repeating because malfeasance never sleeps and because people who live free don't know what they have until they don't have it.
Meantime, the whole "hyperlocal" movement contends that it can find better stories than the crumbling mainstream media. Let's look at a couple stories from AOL's WestHollywoodPatch, which has paid writers. The links were passed on to me by a West Hollywood friend who claims he suffered a brain injury trying to read them:

West Hollywood Gets Its Groove
Q & A: Fire Capt. Fred Selmo


Anonymous said...

I haven't reached a personal conclusion on whether hyperlocal journalism is better or worse than what's left of traditional media these days.

But Gary, taking a couple of selective samples from a startup like Patch and holding them up as an example of failed hyperlocal citizen journalism is unfair.

I mean, are either of those stories really worse than some of the garbage on the home page of the LA Times at any given moment?

Took me two mouseclicks to get to this: said...

Professional journalism isn't always scintillating. On the flip side, you'll get some talented people just starting out, or desperate for work, who'll write for little to no wages. But in general, you get what you pay for.

Andrew said...

Let's kill the phrase "citizen journalism." I did not renounce my citizenship to work at a newspaper.

I would suggest "amateur journalism" as an alternative, but that sounds condescending. How about "volunteer journalism" for people who start their own Web-based operations, but are not making money?

If an established news provider makes use of an unpaid writer, the phrase is "unpaid journalism."

That out of the way, Controller John Chiang's order that cities post their elected officials' and employees' salaries online will make this data much more accessible to volunteer journalists.

A lot of story ideas can come from gadflies and political observers who know how to use CPRA. If newspapers are unable to commit resources to the Bells of the world, it's only a matter of time before enough volunteer journalists become entrepreneur journalists and transform the marketplace.

Gary Scott said...


I don't doubt that gadflies and activists will uncover stories - they're often the sources journalists use to get a story started. And having worked on multiple stories with open-government activists like Richard McKee, I know that these people can be crucial to keeping a story on the front page.

But the McKees of the world are rare and they aren't journalists. McKee acts out of principle; his job isn't to report a story from all sides. He has a goal in mind when he files a public records act request - and it's a different one than the reporters. He would acknowledge that.

Lots of people can know lots of bits of information. For useful news to emerge, someone needs to be out there gathering the pieces and putting a story together. I don't care if they're amateurs or professionals, as long as they do a good job. Neither amateur nor professional did well covering Bell until very recently.

As for the Anonymous comment: Find me a Patch story that's newsworthy; don't tell me that the LA Times sometimes runs dumb stories. Here's today's top WestHollywoodPatch story:

And here's the front page:

Anonymous said...


A couple minutes clicking through various Patch sites turns up plenty of newsworthy stories.

Pollution in the local creek, layoff plans at city hall, internal investigations of shenanigans at police departments.

I'm not here to defend the West Hollywood Patch. Maybe it sucks. I don't know. I don't care about West Hollywood, and I couldn't point to any media outlets, mainstream or otherwise, that are producing hard hitting journalism out of that city.

All I can say is that I'd be happy to have a Patch that covered my city. I'd read it. Probably much more than I do the local newspaper, which is produced by professional journalists and is largely irrelevant to my daily life.

The Times catching the crooks in Bell is fantastic. But it strikes me as a fluke in today's media landscape. The Times and other mainstream outlets aren't producing these kinds of stories with any regularity -- at least not anywhere that I care about.

In the meantime, the trend seems to be that the mainstream media will keep getting worse, producing 10,000 stories about celebrities vomiting on roller coasters for every real piece of journalism.

I'm guessing emerging sites like Patch can match that ratio with a little practice and polish, and I'm perfectly willing to keep my mind open to them while they try.

Susan said...

Here's the bottom line: Our government officials need to be watched. Since the mainstream media doesn't have the staff to cover every nook and cranny in its coverage area, I envision citizen and professional journalists working together to make sure incidents like the outrageous salaries in Bell, Calif., don't happen. You can read my take on Bell at:

Anonymous said...

Have you been reading any of the dailies smaller than LA Times? These are the exact same type of stories that are running in every single one of them now -- most written by freelancers since they've laid off most of their trained reporters.

Anonymous said...

What about the LAX exposé? Took real journalists to crack down on locked emergency exits and happy cops chasing raves instead of being at LAX! Also, for all you young journalists who will DO ANYTHING (not get paid or for tickets), to get published. Once you go down that path, you will ALWAYS be expected to give your work away free or very cheaply. This is the reason why salaries are way down or non-existent any more. Young ones who think they can get their foot in the door by going cheap, you will always remain at that level. Think of your careers (if there is any left) and how your choices now will affect you down the line.

calwatch said...

Yeah, the Patch is no different than any of the crap that comes in a Highlander. The SGVN papers do have decent reporters, but they all tend to rotate out quickly. Monica Rodriguez, our local Pomona beat reporter at the IVDB, has stenographic tendencies but she is competent and fair. Nate McIntire at the Star News is a great young reporter, but you have to wonder if paying back the student loans for private college and journalism school is sustainable. Same with James Rufus Koren at the SB Sun.

Citizen activists and volunteer journalists often have more institutional knowledge than the reporter who was parachuted in from some big city. Professional journalists can get up to speed quickly, but they have to want to do it, and the talented ones quickly move out, leaving mediocre reporters to languish in cities as marginal watchdogs for years.