The news as food: An analogy for the citizen journalism debate

Jay Rosen recently interviewed Dirck Halstead, editor and publisher of The Digital Journalist, about that publication’s December 2009 editorial, titled “Let’s Abolish ‘Citizen Journalists’.”

Others have done a far better job than I can of addressing the editorial’s arguments (see both story links above), but I want to zoom in on one particular passage:

We advocate abolishing the term “citizen journalist.” These people can call themselves “citizen news gatherers,” but it is no more appropriate to call them citizen journalists than it would be to sit before a citizen judge or be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon.

That analogy struck me as a poor fit. I believe in the value of what journalists do, but it’s just not analogous to the work of a judge or a brain surgeon. So I started thinking: What comparison would make more sense?

Here’s what I ended up with. I think it demonstrates both the function and value of citizen journalists and the reasons why those of us who get paid to do journalism full time don’t need to find the concept of citizen journalism threatening.

Does the analogy work? Let me know.

SCENARIO: GABLE’S GROCERY AND DELI

grocery storeI’m the owner and proprietor of Gable’s Grocery and Deli, a nice little store in Analogytown, USA.  I employ a dedicated team of talented sandwich artists who can make you the best lunch you’ve ever had. I also have a supplier who sends a load of delicious, fresh produce to the store every morning for you to buy and take home.

The grocery and deli: A traditional news organization. The sandwich artists: Reporters, photographers and editors. The produce supplier: The Associated Press.

CASE 1: MRS. JOHNSON’S BROWNIES

brownieSome of my customers would love to have a little dessert to polish off their lunches. Now, I have limited oven space … and besides, my small staff doesn’t have enough hours in the day to add baking to their list of responsibilities. Since profit margins in the grocery business are generally pretty slim, I can’t afford to hire anyone else.

But I happen to know that my neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, makes excellent brownies. She certainly wouldn’t mind a little extra income, so we enter into a little business deal: Every night, she’ll bake a fresh tray of brownies, wrap them up, and bring them by the store in the morning for me to sell. She benefits because she has a place to sell her products; I benefit because I can offer my customers something I couldn’t before; my customers benefit because now they can buy brownies to go with their sandwiches.

Mrs. Johnson: A correspondent or freelancer.

CASE 2: DOUG’S TOMATOES

tomatoesDoug owns a big patch of land just outside town. He’s known for his huge vegetable garden, where he spends at least two or three hours a day.

This year, Doug has a bumper crop of tomatoes. I mean, the yield is huge. It’s way more than he and his wife could ever eat, even if they canned some for winter. He tells me he’s thinking about setting up a little roadside stand to sell off some of the excess, but I ask him if he’s like to sell his tomatoes inside my store.

Doug: A citizen journalist.

CASE 3: THE HIGH SCHOOL BAKE SALE

bake saleThe students at Analogytown High School want to hold a bake sale on Saturday. (They’re raising money for new SAT prep materials — just because they live in Analogytown doesn’t mean that stuff comes easy.)

They could set up in the school parking lot or in somebody’s front yard, but let’s face it — they wouldn’t get much traffic besides a handful of parents. So they ask if they can set up their table outside the grocery store. All Saturday, they do a brisk business, and so do I.

The bake sale organizers: Again, citizen journalists.

WHERE IS THIS LEADING?

As the owner of this fictional grocery store and deli, I can respond two ways to, say, the idea of a high school bake sale or Doug selling his tomatoes at a roadside stand.

I can immediately go on the defensive: “What — somebody else selling food in the area? That’s competition! Why would I let you use my property?”  Maybe I can even make a stink about them not having the appropriate permits, and tell people that amateurs getting into the food business will ruin everything.

Or I can realize the advantages I could reap by hosting to the bake sale and bringing Doug’s excess tomatoes into my store. In the case of Doug’s crops, people will remember that my store is where they got all those delicious tomatoes last summer. In the case of the bake sale, chances are several of the students will have a parent or grandparent stop by … and not all of those parents and grandparents will be people who’ve been to my store before, meaning I have a chance to get them hooked on my award-winning Reubens.

Am I going to consider laying off my purchasing manager on the grounds that now I have Doug bringing in tomatoes? Of course not. Doug’s tomatoes are great, and they’re a valuable addition to my store, but they’re only available a few weeks out of the year.  I need both that seasonal variety and the dependence of year-round produce to make my business healthy, and I know it.

We can view the development of more and better tools for citizen journalism as a threat — or we can see it as an opportunity. I think I have a pretty good idea which way will turn out better.

(All photos from stock.xchng. Grocery store by OBMonkey, brownie by tazzmaniac, tomatoes by edmondo, cupcakes by tam_oliver.)

5 thoughts on “The news as food: An analogy for the citizen journalism debate

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  2. Michael Andersen

    I like the analogy, Erik. But to extend it: the independent local-food retailers I know seem to take a lot of care selecting their suppliers, making sure that whoever’s tomatoes they’re selling are up to snuff and won’t damage their shop’s brand.

    There’s also the New Seasons model, where the shop brands the hell out of their partnerships with high-quality local farmers, then charge a premium for the warm fuzzies.

    I’m all for traditional news organizations opening up their storefronts. But in both cases, the question is whether there are enough of people growing quality tomatoes to make it worth their time to deal with them. Right?

    Or maybe the question is: how does a traditional news organization build a storefront that makes it sufficiently easy for lots of people to find it worthwhile to start growing and selling quality tomatoes?

  3. Erik Gable

    To practice quality control on those tomatoes, future newsrooms will probably need to have a greater proportion of editors — people to pull together the disparate threads and make sure information is trustworthy. These editors will probably have a lot more contact with people outside the newsroom than they have now, putting more effort into creating the networks that will lead to more content (and, more to the point, more GOOD content) being submitted.

  4. Will Merydith

    I think your comparison is more on target.

    One of the elements I find missing from the whole citizen journalist vs. “professional” journalist discussions is an updated job description for journalist. I get the impression that most of the professional journalists ranting about citizen journalism have not updated their own job description to accurately reflect the times.

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