Poll: Social Networking or Public Journalism?

(Note: you must be registered to vote. If you’re not sure about the terms, you may want to read the post before voting.)

The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade, with ownership concentrating in fewer corporate hands, and with declining newspaper circulation and ad revenue. Eric Alterman eulogizes the late, great big city daily in a recent New Yorker.

Our home-town daily struggles to maintain relevance with a proxy Web site, and tragi-comedically cautious style which has seen them sit on important stories (see Packwood and Goldschmidt) to protect their powerful friends, even as they pursue Pulitzers for fluffy human interest reporting.

Meanwhile, blogs have sprung up like weeds in the fertile soil once covered by paid journalists, with citizen journalists pouring forth millions of column inches daily, completely free of the stodgy old constraints of artificial objectivity.

The internet and cheap home computers have made the printing press ubiquitous and available to the masses. I have one in my office, and any joe with an e-mail address can borrow time for free on any number of commercial blog platforms.

With these printing presses, you can write any damn thing you please, ranging from what you had for breakfast, to an exposé of a high-ranking government official.

At one end of this spectrum is what I consider social networking. Sites like MySpace, Facebook and LiveJournal are full of OMG! and LOL!

At the other end is what I call public journalism, as practiced on large and small scales on many sites around the world. Writers cover issues that are important to them, with a clear point of view evident in their work. Credibility is earned through diligence and reflected in networks of interlinked blogs.

Metblogs, in my view, has walked the fuzzy line between the two, but has tended more toward social networking. My own posts here have often been fluffy (though I think I’ve occasionally engaged in some serious citizen journalism and commentary).

To be clear, nobody needs Metblogs to be one thing or another. My personal printing press allows me to regularly engage in public journalism on school equity issues and local politics (and hockey). I could do that kind of work here, too.

For example, there are contested city, county and Metro elections on the ballot next month, not to mention primaries for statewide offices and the US Senate, but there has been nary a peep about these races on Metblogs. I go to debates and talk to candidates. I could write about this stuff here. Does anybody care?

Personally, I see great potential for Metblogs to be a collaborative source of local (or hyper-local) news, policy analysis and commentary. If I owned it, that’s the direction I would steer it. But I don’t own it; I just write here.

What do you think? Social networking or public journalism? I’ll use the community’s response as a guide to my future here.

8 Comments so far

  1. dieselboi on April 9th, 2008 @ 4:39 pm

    I vote for both because that is how I approach the blog. My perspective is that writing here is about my experience in Portland. That experience could be a good meal, it could be a concert, it could be about the crazy lady down the street who walks her cat. Is any of that professional journalism? I personally don’t think so as I don’t feel I am a journalist.

    I really believe it depends on the authors. As you stated – anyone can have a voice and I ask anyone who has that voice and wants to write to become one of our authors. Here’s a venue.

    My 2 cents. Great post by the way. Brings up some good questions.

  2. Steve (steve) on April 9th, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

    Citizen journalism is not necessarily professional journalism, though it can be.

    If I owned the site, I’d probably work out a revenue sharing model model based on page impressions, which would be one way to lure and retain quality writers, not to mention rewarding contributors who drive traffic with interesting articles.

    Restaurant or concert reviews can definitely be citizen journalism, but there’s a line somewhere between a well-written review and a fly-by "I ate at such-and-such and OMG it was great!"

    I’m not looking to define things as one or the other, just wondering which general direction readers prefer. So far it looks they want both, with a clear bias toward public journalism. I could live with that.

  3. tODD (stadler) on April 9th, 2008 @ 11:07 pm

    What I want from this site is what I want from any site I visit: what I can’t do myself or get elsewhere. There’s certainly room for silliness or fluff or "what I did today", but lots of that I can get elsewhere (from people I know better) or even write myself.

    What I can’t get — and why I originally threw Metblogs into my feed reader — is a feel for what’s going on in Portland outside my home and workplace. I stopped getting the newspaper a while back, in part because I wasn’t finding time to read it, and in part because I felt the Internet could make up for what I needed to hear. I think Metblogs could be a great local source — not just for news, but for what’s going on around town.

    But then, it’s a lot easier to make it a group blog loosely centered around the idea of Portland than it is to make it a center for citizen journalism. I mean, if citizen journalism were easy, I’d be doing it, right?

  4. daaaaave on April 10th, 2008 @ 7:24 am

    I’d go for "Anything that provokes a conversation" personally.

  5. Betsy Richter (betsywhim) on April 10th, 2008 @ 7:48 am

    Hmmm….I don’t like the term citizen journalist or public journalism, and I say this as someone who used to be a journalist. Journalism presumes that you’re presenting all sides of an equation – but it also leaves out room for providing your own personal POV, or the experiences or anecdotes that may fully flesh out an issue.

    I wouldn’t describe the work you do, Steve, as citizen journalism – it’s very clear where you stand on an issue like school equity, for example. Reading a similar article in The O has all the good stuff bleached out of it, while simultaneously containing filler information pulled in as an attempt to provide a ‘balanced view.’ I’d rather read your stuff at the end of the day, even though I may disagree with you – and I’m betting I’m not alone, given the decline in newspaper readership. Why look to emulate *that* model?

    I also think the term is offputting to most people, & means different things to different people. I wouldn’t call the one and only piece I’ve done in the last few months – the bit about dining out in PDX restaurants amidst a supposed restaurant slump ‘citizen journalism’, and I don’t think it would qualify under your definition, either. But it was fairly immediate (had the experiences, blogged about them), pulled in a larger contextual discussion in PDX media (the WW cover story & discussion over on PFD), and was personal – I didn’t have to force it into an objective voice, or do exhaustive studies before presenting my findings.

    I also wouldn’t call the stuff I do ‘social networking’, either – so the poll sets up a false dichotomy. To me, it sounds like you’re asking me which fruit I want to have with my lunch today and every day – pineapple or tomato?

    What if I want berries today and a grapefruit tomorrow? What if I hate pineapple and would rather not go near a site that will now be an ‘all tropical fruit, all the time’ kind of place?

  6. divebarwife on April 10th, 2008 @ 9:11 am

    I agree with Betsy in that I don’t really see it either of those terms.

    To me – a social networking site means a place where you can meet up with those of similar interests and have discussions, collaborations, etc. Metblogs has a variety of voices who may have very dissimilar interests other than being in Portland.

    Journalism – "public" or otherwise – means that what you are reporting is fact. You provide information with no personal bias or opinion. I don’t think most things on Metblogs fall in that category.

    I read the site because I like getting people’s opinions and personal views. Getting reviews of new places, odd things around town, emotions and opinions on what’s happening in the city whether its politics or beer festivals. It’s interesting to glean information I might not have otherwise had from posts – but I’m getting them the same way I would from a friend chatting over beers. What they know, what their thoughts of it are – and then in turn I can add my two cents. The posts I love most are the ones that generate big discussions (I do enjoy a good row sometimes!)

    And that’s how I write most of my posts. I may look up an item or two to clarify something or to link – but I don’t ‘research stories.’

    I write for work all day long – I have to research and be factual and use very proper grammar and punctuation and follow style guides. I write for Metblogs for fun… where I can spout off my opinions, rant and rave about things I love and hate… use all the ellipses and dashes I want… ’cause it’s like chatting with a friend.

    In your example of all the local elections not being mentioned here – I think Amy at the Mercury are doing a fantastic job of covering all that and by doing so on Blogtown – can get comments and reactions and have that public forum. Because I see that being done already – I don’t miss it on Metblogs.

    And as far as your comment about revenue sharing to ‘lure and retain quality writers’ – I have a deep commitment to Metblogs – I love being a part of it – but if I were getting paid to do this… I think it would become… well… work. And that’s NOT why I’m here.

  7. Steve (steve) on April 10th, 2008 @ 10:28 am

    Re. the what qualifies as "journalism," I encourage people to read the Alterman article in the New Yorker. The idea that you can write without a point of view is absurd, and is actually a fairly recent concept.

    If having a point of view means a piece isn’t journalism, was I.F. Stone not a journalist? What about the investigative work done by magazines like The Nation? Is that not journalism?

    These are examples of a very strong tradition of advocacy journalism, which is essentially well-researched, well-written work exposing injustice. Yes, being in favor of justice is a point of view, but it doesn’t change the factual basis or rigor of the reporting.

    I didn’t mean to create a "false dichotomy" with this poll, hence the "neither" and "both" (and "beer") options. It’s helpful to hear what readers like tODD and daaaaave come here for, and also the perspectives of other writers.

    And I certainly didn’t intend to demean casual posting; that’s mostly what I’ve done here myself, as I mentioned.

    My thought is that as part of the emerging digital media milieu, Portland Metblogs is well positioned to capture a piece of the Portland market. A plurality of poll respondents seem to want that, but most of the commenters seem to want things to stay pretty much the same as they’ve been, i.e. casual posts about life in Portland.

    I’m not trying to rock the boat; just figure out if/how I fit in here (I already know how some of my fellow Metblogs authors feel about me, but this is much bigger than that).

    Thanks for helping me suss this out!

  8. Udayan Tripathi (udayan) on April 11th, 2008 @ 9:25 am

    Remember that social networking posts are great, but Metblogs USP is that it is a slice from a certain foreign place. Turning Portland Metblogs into something other than a rich-Portland-culture blog will dilute its appeal. You’ve got a great niche, don’t spill over into other interesting stuff, otherwise you’ll lose your way.

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