News organizations look to readers to develop new content

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Observer photo by Andrew Knapp
At the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference in Washington on Wednesday, editors said one of the ways to gather new content for news Web sites rests in the consumer.

by ANDREW KNAPP

Journalists should use multiple tools to gather and distribute information to readers, but new weapons that should be added to their cache are the readers themselves, a group of top news editors said Wednesday morning.

Citizen journalism became well-known when witnesses took photographs of the London subway and bus bombings in July 2005. While the concept was initially ridiculed by traditional journalists, some news Web sites are allowing consumers to get involved early in the journalism process and contribute to the final product, Web-focused editors said at the American Society for Newspaper Editors convention in Washington.

Facebook, MySpace and other social networking Web sites could be a useful tool in transforming journalism into a more interactive process, they said. The medium would open a two-way path of communication between journalists and readers that allows readers to provide information to reporters working on more in-depth coverage.

Larry Coats, the vice president and general manager of The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune’s companion Web site Tampa Bay Online, said content at some weekly newspapers owned by the company may soon employ 60 percent of staff-generated material while the remaining 40 percent may come from readers. He said the role of citizen journalists is to find content that otherwise cannot be obtained through staff reporters.

“We focus a lot of time on the people on the stage,” Coats said of coverage of well-known public figures. “What we don’t do very well is cover who’s in the crowd.”

Jennifer Carroll, vice president for new media at Gannett newspapers, mentioned the British Broadcasting Corp.’s use of social networking to facilitate information exchange in Great Britain. She said BBC has developed a large audience in the United States because of the “multiplicity of viewpoints” that social networking offers.

Last fall, Gannett unveiled its own take on social networking, which is more popular with young audiences. The company started an online community for mothers through the The Indianapolis Star Web site. Mothers use the tool to share advice for topics ranging from marriage to dealing with a child with bi-polar disorder.

Gannett’s concept of the mobile journalist has also garnered attention at The (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press. In that scheme, reporters focus on hyper-local news by immersing themselves in the community and distributing information through various media. It requires reporters to develop broad technological skills, including digital photography, video and audio.

This tight-knit connection with communities is also being used with some tangible results for Gannett newspapers, Carroll said. At the Asbury Park Press and Florida Today, editors routinely publish short stories online that lead to larger, investigative news articles published later in print.

“Their First Amendment coverage has been robust and vibrant” because of an initiative in which readers can “bet on citizen journalism, bet on public service and bet on the watchdog role,” Carroll said. “Those smaller stories from readers add up to big stories.”

The American University School of Communication Graduate Program in Journalism works to prepare students for the realities of today's news and information space and the challenges of tomorrow. Find out more by visiting us online at soc.american.edu

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