The democratization of media is messy. Activists, software entrepreneurs and incumbent media players are locked in a high-stakes search for the next new thing. Innovation has been largely at the edges with novel combinations that have not always gone together, but have an appeal to them.
The secret sauce remains elusive, but there is general agreement on the recipe: Content that connects users together in online communities, often driven by a cause, if only at the neighborhood level. All these alliterative words can also produce confusion.
Take, for instance, a blog post on The Topeka Capital-Journal’s website that sharply criticized Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback for a proposal to shift federal funds to a reading program at the cost of curbing incidents of child abuse. The blogger, identified only as Keri, also called on Phyllis Gilmore, the state’s secretary of the Department of Children and Families, to resign. This demand and other screeds against the administration are repeated in other posts.
The governor’s office declined to comment for this column, apparently preferring not to respond to or comment on criticism from an anonymous blogger. Capital-Journal Online News Editor Sherman Smith can understand that kind of reaction. “When you allow anonymous [bloggers],” he says, “you do it with an understanding that you just can’t treat the value of what they’re saying the same as somebody who puts their name to it.”
The paper gives bloggers a wide berth, but there are parameters about what will get them kicked off the site. “It is a constant struggle with commentors and bloggers,” says Smith. “You want them to be accountable for what they say, but you also don’t want to quash a conversation that wouldn’t exist without them.”
“In certain cases, it provides a release for them,” he says.
“Instead of dogging a bunch of our reported political stories in the comments section, it gives them an outlet to go throw daggers at each [other] on Keri’s blog” or one of the other blogs on the site.
Doesn’t this free-for-all confuse readers? Smith says the risk was higher when community blogs were mixed in with staff blogs. But early in his tenure, he decided to separate them into two categories on the website’s home page.
Still, if you bypass the front page by following a search result or link from another site, the community blog posts appear below the masthead with no explanation or context. Smith says he trusts readers are smart enough to tell that what they are reading is not news. “Community blogs have their own tone and, frankly, are not at a high enough standard for people to confuse them with the staff blogs or the paper’s reported stories.”
The Capital-Journal is not alone. Its sister papers in Alaska, Florida, Georgia and Texas all invite reader participation with a “Begin Blogging Now” button on the front pages of their respective sites. Hyper-local user-generated news and views are also components of larger digital media platforms, including AOL’s Patch, Nextdoor and Google Now.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, sees a “media organization creating mechanisms for members of a community to communicate with it and one another as central to the future of journalism.” And she says that as journalism changes, it becomes more important to provide readers signposts so they can determine what they’re reading, its source and evaluate for themselves its credibility. On that last point, disclosure by media outlets and a little labeling can help.
Smith says the only confusion he’s seen was created by political candidates who attributed the opinions of community bloggers to the paper itself. “In those rare instances,” he says, “it has been used to serve their interests.”