It’s understandable that newsrooms might want to offer training. Their goals are often laudable: to improve the quality of user-generated video, for example, or to share ethical guidelines for user-generated content. SPJ’s Citizen Journalism Academy, for example, is designed “to help everyone wanting to practice journalism to do so accurately, ethically and fairly.”
But self-interest is often a big part of the equation. A Michigan newspaper group offered a one-day training session for citizens this summer and then planned to put them to work covering features or police news. The Oakland Press has an Institute for Citizen Journalism
…offering anyone who is interested — from high school students to retirees — instruction in news writing, videography, basics of reporting for news and sports, and still photography. For those who complete the instruction, we offer the opportunity to get your work published online or in the print edition.
Is this kind of thing worth the effort? Not in the least, says Mark Potts, CEO of GrowthSpur and founder of the now-defunct hyperlocal news site, Back Fence. “You can’t train people to be citizen journalists. It fails massively,” he told a group of journalists from around the world meeting in Washington, DC, last week. “They want to be community members, not journalists.”
At Back Fence, Potts tried paying citizens to contribute but it backfired. “That’s not why they do it,” he said. “If you get too professional about it, they stay away.”
Jan Schaffer of J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism agrees that newsroom training programs for citizen journalists don’t work. “The retention rate is virtually zero,” she says, and she should know. Her organization developed the Knight citizen news network and tracked efforts in newsrooms from Kansas to Idaho to train citizen journalists.
So if formal training is a flop, what should news organizations do to get citizens more involved in producing quality content? Instead of trying to train them to do journalism, Potts suggests, offer general tips on writing or photography. Show them how to shoot better pictures or better video of their kids. If that improves the user-generated content on your site, so much the better.
But don’t bother trying to turn citizens into journalists–something they apparently don’t want to be. Take a tip from the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. The vast majority of Americans, more than 70%, don’t think news organizations get the facts straight. Is it any wonder they don’t want us to train them to do what we do?