16 Apr 2008 8:40 am   //   Filed under: In the news, Media

Growing bitter about citizen journalism

It’s the political story of the week. Barack Obama (a candidate I like) said some condescending words about poorer voters at a meeting of wealthy donors. Obama’s closed-press comments became public when a blogger/Obama donor named Mayhill Fowler reported them on OffTheBus, a citizen journalism project run in connection with The Huffington Post.

I argue that Fowler’s story should never have run, but not for the reasons you think.

Before I continue, here’s a link to the story: Obama: No Surprise That Hard-Pressed Pennsylvanians Turn Bitter.

Go ahead and read it. I’ll wait here….

Back? Did you like it?

You didn’t finish it, did you? Didn’t think so.

Not until about the 28th sentence does Fowler get to the only part of her article that makes any sense: “Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience.” Yes! That’s your lead! Sell it! Get people fired up! Don’t waste your readers’ time!

But a waste it was. Fowler wins points for taking advantage of the sweet access she had, and for getting Obama on tape. This is where citizen journalism comes very close to greatness. Unfortunately, Fowler and her editors turned an exciting scoop into a 1,400-word slog, followed by a three-minute audio recording, followed by a 480-word transcript, followed by thousands of reader comments.

Fowler’s story shouldn’t have run because it was super boring. A good editor would have killed that rambling blog post and just posted the audio and the transcript, along with perhaps 100 words of fair explanation (“Listen carefully to Obama’s comments about poor voters…”). Let the pundits and commenters take it from there. You can’t lose.

Jay Rosen, the NYU professor behind the OffTheBus project (and a nice guy who once bought me a beer after a citizen journalism meetup), has an interesting take on Fowler’s story here. Rosen explains that Fowler only felt comfortable publishing Obama’s remarks if she could “contextualize” them, and editors couldn’t force her to rewrite it since they weren’t paying her anything.

But the main point of Rosen’s story is to ask why his citizen journalism network didn’t get credited when Meet The Press picked up their scoop. It’s fair to ask that, but he’d have a stronger case if the story in question was actually good. The important words were Obama’s, not Fowler’s. Does she really deserve credit for pressing the record button?