By Cox, Craig
Nieman Reports , Vol. 60, No. 4
Late in July, when a former member of the Minneapolis City Council went on trial in a high-profile bribery case, I received an e-mail from a local community activist alerting me to a woman who was determined to sit through the entire proceedings and describe the finer points of a trial that was headline news in the Twin Cities media.
I went to the blog site where she was filing her report and spent the next half hour or so riveted by the excruciating detail she was providing. For better or worse, her words were the closest thing to a court transcript the public would ever see. And as the editor of the Twin Cities Daily Planet, (1) a new online publication covering local news, I coveted any sort of reportage on a case that had been awash in controversy for the past six months.
I dashed off an e-mail to the blogger, a south Minneapolis political activist named Liz McLemore, and asked her if she would allow me to publish her courtroom chronicles for our Daily Planet readers. She was predictably flustered, curious as to why I thought her work was worth publishing, and keen to reveal her own political biases (she had worked on the campaign of the defendant's opponent in last year's election). But she eventually agreed to a deal: She would crank out her daily report on the trial, and I would grab it and post it on the Daily Planet.
The following day, we offered the most detailed description of the trial available in the Twin Cities, trumping the sound bites of TV news and the 20-inch summary on the Minneapolis Star Tribune's front page. It was, I believed, the Daily Planet's first real testimony to the power of citizen journalism. But when I went to McLemore's blog to gather up her words about the third day of the trial, I found Day Two still sitting there like a day-old salad--interesting to look at, but with little appeal. My zealous reporter, so determined to chronicle history, was already burned out. The stress of all that reporting and writing was a bit more than she had expected. And our big scoop quickly became yesterday's news.
The McLemore "scoop" is an object lesson in the way citizen journalists can captivate and confound editors trying to build and maintain the credibility of their publications while encouraging ordinary citizens to tell their story. Captive to the vagaries of personal schedules, political biases, and reportorial limitations, these amateur reporters can require delicate handling even as they bring greater passion than many veterans.
Journalism Isn't Easy
There is much to applaud about the rise in citizen journalism. From CBS News to our local newspapers, a lot of people are exploring new ways to bring news consumers into more active roles in shaping the media. The "blogosphere" is now a major influence on our political culture, and pretty much anyone who has a computer and Internet access can publish his or her views.
But this progress in democratizing journalism doesn't necessarily translate into more or better news coverage--at least not yet. Here at the Daily Planet, a publication of the nonprofit Twin Cities Media Alliance (TCMA), launched last fall as a way to encourage citizen journalism and highlight the work of the neighborhood and ethnic press, we've struggled to recruit and sustain a stable of citizen-reporters and develop a workable editorial planning process.
In my nearly 30-year career in journalism, I've logged plenty of hours assigning and editing stories by amateur reporters. They typically bring lots of passion to their work and are genuinely appreciative of constructive editing. They even pay attention to deadlines, most of the time (and I know some pros who don't). But no matter how dedicated they might be to following a story--and even learning the trade--very few are able to sustain their participation for very long.
That's not because they lack the necessary discipline or commitment to following through with assignments (though some do). …