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Guest Column

Patching local news together won't work

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Cartoon by Bill Day

Good news amateur writers with an inflated sense of your own talent...your local news web site that nobody reads wants your contributions. Never mind that you have no actual talent - two friends and your mom (who doesn't actually read what you write) told you how much they love your work, so that should clearly result in a mass audience.

Often called "crowdsourcing," the term refers to the idea that there are lots of local voices just dying to be heard, that people actually want to hear. This concept of turning over your "pages" to amateurs is part of the latest thoughts as to how the newspaper business will be saved/reinvented.

This bit of wishful thinking makes financial sense because actual reporters and professional opinion writers (present company excluded) actually cost money. So, if we can get the public to report and opine for free, then we won't need actual journalists.

Logically, this could work just fine except it's extremely rare to find any actual writing talent willing to participate in this particular scam. Yes, Huffington Post pulls this off, but somehow that site managed to trick celebrities and actual writers to give their work away for free.

When you try this model in hundreds of towns across the country, you end up with web sites populated by amateurs who can't write or tell an interesting story. Basically, this would be like running an upscale restaurant and realizing that the chefs really drive costs up, so you get rid of them and hand customers a pile of ingredients and a stove.

This has not stopped AOL, owners of Huffington Post, from pushing this model on its local patch sites. In general, these local news sites have one editor who writes, assigns stories to paid freelancers and handles everything else. Some patch sites have good journalists doing good work, but most feature either overworked, burned out pros or inexperienced kids.

Now, of course, sourcing material from the community has its place. It's not impossible to find or train local talent, but aside from the occasional lucky discovery, doing this requires resources and training. The local news prototype I run has a 16-year-old intern this summer who ranks just a slight tick below my professional staff in quality and vastly exceeds them in output.

To get that intern, however, we made a significant investment in a school program where we teach teenagers how to shoot and edit video. We didn't just hand her a camera and say go report the news, we taught her the skills and then were delighted to find someone with talent who has become a significant contributor.

Simply going on the notion that because a lot of people blog on a local level that there is a log of great, or even marginally acceptable, content which news web sites can have for free is silly. The "crowd" can enhance your reporting and it can most certainly direct you as to what to cover. But, the idea that the news bus won't be driven by paid professionals will likely end with hundreds of dead local web sites - killed because they thought that just because people are saying something that others would want to read it.

The new newspaper world will feature less walls and more contributions from the audience. Story selection and placement will largely be audience driven and the public will have unprecedented access and control of what news gets reported. The days of crusty old editors making decisions like J. Jonah Jameson from Spiderman are over, but the day of the professional reporter has just begun.

You can't crowdsource reporting and storytelling anymore than you can crowdsource brain surgery or root canals. Sure, there might be some genius who read a book who can handle either of those, but if I need a brain surgeon or dentist - much like if I need a reporter - I'll stick with the pros.

- Daniel B. Kline's work appears

in more than 100 papers weekly. The author of "Worst Ideas Ever," he can be reached at dan@notastep.com.

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