We could also afford it because we got a lot of free work from interns and, increasingly, from the community. But this was where things got unpredictable. This is where the revolution has yet to be realized—and may not be.
“Citizen journalists” are almost always citizens, but they are rarely trained journalists, hence our use of Ilfeld’s coinage, “community contributors.” Perhaps in a larger, more media-savvy city such as New York or even San Francisco, there would be a larger pool of excellent writers dying to write for free—perhaps not. But in Sacramento, even in the downtown core around the state Capitol, there is a dearth of such folks. And consequently, we got a lot of weak work.
The way we tried to hold the line on quality was by laying out the front page each night, choosing the best stories and letting the rest fade away. But we had to have five or six good ones—which we sometimes did, half of them written by our reporting staff—and when we did, I was proud of what I saw in the morning.
But many times we didn’t have enough stories, and we were forced to layout some pretty heinous pages. Press releases from the city (which we accepted as “primary documents”), journalism assignments from a local junior college (a flurry of stories on cupcakes was one memorable result), and the adventures of a local self-promoting “ghost hunter” with a penchant for interviewing attractive women were among what came.
This got us in some trouble with our fellow local journalists. Some had minimal journalism credentials themselves, so they were fairly easy to ignore. Others seemed willfully to ignore everything good my staff did, and focused on the junk that showed up, of which there was, admittedly, plenty.
Our weaknesses were certainly clear, but I felt that what we provided in terms of increased coverage, as well as a greater depth—particularly in city government and business coverage—was worth the trade-off.
What concerned me most was that, other than a system of “badges,” placed on stories to identify who was a pro and who was a CC, the casual reader had no idea who was a journalist with journalism training and who was…not. On our front page, the stories all looked equal.
But they were not equal. Despite today’s proliferation of sites that are open to anyone, not everyone is a journalist, let alone a good one. Journalism is hard work, and finding good sources, quoting them accurately, and putting a readable story together without letting one’s biases influence the telling takes skill and a grounding in journalism standards. This should be apparent, but even now, the average reader is not particularly sophisticated when it comes to what they read.
On the other hand, a handful of our CCs were actually better informed, and better writers, than a lot of the journalists I’ve read. They knew their topic and they wrote marvelous pieces out of the best amateur impulse: Love of the subject. They remain one of the best reasons to read The Sacramento Press. But they are a minority.
Some of our critics had another good point: Writers who write well should be paid. I usually have been, and it was always hard for me to talk to good writers and ask them to contribute for free. Or for $25. Or $50. This is, in some ways, the new reality in journalism, and many start-ups and even established publications pay poorly.
But in general, here’s another “legacy” adage that holds true: You get what you pay for.