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Viewpoints: The cost of 'free'

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Oct 4, 2013


A few months ago, there was an industrial accident near where I once lived. While the news media gathered information, a website primarily devoted to fan chatter about a local sports team featured rapid-fire posts on the accident, including a headline that caused confusion about where it happened.

It was difficult to know whose information to trust, as most members write under pseudonyms. Although perhaps a few people knew whether Cat-Daddy458 was more credible than FishGuy1204, most people stumbling upon the site had no way of vetting these providers of “news.”

Some claimed to be at the accident site. More than one person said there were “confirmed fatalities.” One wrote “men died today.” Another wrote he heard “at least 13 dead.”

As time passed and the mainstream media had yet to report the information, regulars on that message board repeated their familiar refrain that local media outlets were worthless, and their message board was the place to find breaking news.

The truth can be a moving target in the early stages of reporting on such an incident, and local media cited official sources as details about casualties, including the number of injuries, changed. State police eventually confirmed one death. It wasn’t until more than 24 hours after the accident that a second man died. Those two were the only fatalities.

Nobody on the message board noted that much of what passed for “news” immediately after the accident on that website had, in fact, been misinformation and irresponsible speculation. There was no acknowledgment of the traditional media’s restraint, its desire to confirm information before reporting it. Nobody said, “Sorry, I was wrong about that.”

Sadly, I’ve seen far worse examples of deeply flawed, wildly conflicting reporting of breaking news on such sites over the years.

Why am I telling you this?

The News-Register asked me to write about the “sports-related issue of citizen journalism” in connection with the growth of such websites as BleacherReport.com and others. However, after initial efforts to stay within the parameters of the assignment, I surrendered to the thoughts that kept intruding upon the writing process.

I decided to write about citizen journalism within a larger context.

I kept coming back to what someone said to me at a workshop for job seekers — that being a population I was thrust into without warning in late July. The workshop leader said this after learning I was a career newspaperman searching for a place in a rapidly changing industry and job market:

“Information wants to be free,” he said, explaining to me the current media landscape.

For now, let’s set aside that the workshop leader is trying to build a website for global “news” into a lucrative source of income. I won’t dwell on his subtle but unmistakable mention of a possible place for me in his venture.

Instead, let’s dig deeper into the idea that information wants to be free — and how that relates to citizen journalism.

Much of citizen “journalism” is built on the backs of paid professionals and their reporting. Many websites, past and present, saw how easy it was to take stories from legitimate news organizations and let a largely volunteer (or poorly paid) workforce of citizen journalists, sometimes called bloggers, launch their “take” or spin.

Aggregated news, repackaged as something pretending to be news, is a low-overhead enterprise. It enjoys the benefit of letting professional journalists do the heavy lifting.

The easy lifting — taking a few paragraphs from an actual news story and spicing it up with incendiary commentary, a (lifted) photo or two and links to other sensationalized “reports” — is a necessary part of information being “free.”

Let me tell you about free information: Someone has to bankroll it to sustain it over the long term, at least if you want it to have context, meaning and perspective. Whether through advertisers, subscribers, deep-pocket ownership or a combination of the three, news gathering is a professional enterprise that needs sustainable funding to be done properly.

Sadly, much of traditional journalism today, in large part because of budget cuts and layoffs, is like cooking with a microwave. Push the right buttons, and you’ve got an almost-instant serving.

It’s barely a notch above stenography — the mere taking of notes of what an official says in an official statement. No wonder people are hungry for more.

But what is filling the void is mostly candy, lacking in substance and sustenance.

Anyone can “cover” city hall from his or her couch, armed with a few news reports, a personal agenda and a laptop. Mature, nuanced coverage is slow cooking over time. It’s measured and unsexy, has a frustrating number of dead ends, of tips that don’t pan out. Responsible, professional news reporting requires patience — and money that backs such patience. It can take years of building relationships and trust before that patience is rewarded in the form of a major investigative piece.

As mentioned earlier, professional journalists often distinguish themselves from the citizen variety through restraint, by knowing when there’s nothing yet to publish.

The French composer Claude Debussy is credited with saying, “Music is the space between the notes.” Journalism is the space between reports, the investigative time before the writing.

A former sports editor at a paper where I used to work told this to young reporters during a seminar: “Words won’t bail you out. Material will. Get more than the next guy.” He was talking about the work of reporting, which comes before you can write the story.

Citizen journalists typically have plenty of words but not enough material, at least not their own. Take away the content provided by professional journalists and the citizen brigade would have a hard time figuring out where to start the next post.

Then again, we too often are reminded that even traditional newsrooms make rookie mistakes during breaking news. Errors after the Newtown and Navy Yard shootings were just the latest in a series of shameful credibility hits for traditional media outlets. They should all keep this in mind: Nobody remembers who was first, but everybody remembers who was wrong.

Local media reporting the industrial accident a few months ago were careful to cite sources, something you rarely see in citizen journalism. Attributing the source of information helps readers and viewers gauge its credibility.

There are great amateur bloggers, and there are lousy professional reporters, and we could find extreme examples to illustrate one being better than the other. Over the long haul, though, information is better when it’s measured, assessed and reported by those who know what they’re doing.

The Huffington Post and Bleacher Report turned aggregating and repackaging of professional news content (and slide shows) into eye candy that enabled those sites to be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. Their continued efforts to add legitimacy have included the hiring of veteran reporters and expert freelance contributors.

They are finding that, although information may well want to be free, there is a lot of it out there, and it’s not always accurate. They are learning there are countless hidden costs in separating the truth from the increasingly ubiquitous misinformation becoming more accessible every day.

Guest writer Carl Dubois was sports editor of the News-Register for two years. He has done freelance work for dozens of publications and websites, and worked as a copy editor for CBSSports.com after leaving the News-Register in September 2012. His 70-plus writing or journalism awards include Story of the Year and Columnist of the Year for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association, and Best Sports Story for the National Newspaper Association. He lives and works in southwest Washington and enjoys visiting friends in Portland and Yamhill County as often as possible. In his spare time, he imagines what he would do with more spare time.

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