A recent blog post by the Lorain, Ohio Morning Journal’s editor Tom Skotch, in which he appealed to local writers to contribute to the newspaper’s blog for free, has brought up the controversial debate of “hiring” citizen journalists. While many comments from professionals claimed it devalued the work of journalists when a publication tried to solicit pieces without payment, Skotch’s appeal does bring up the important point that writers who want to get their opinions known might as well jump at any opportunity to write for an established newspaper or magazine because people they’ll have a wider readership – and that should be payment enough.
I see nothing wrong with working for free for clips and bylines to establish a reputation – trust me, I know more about this that almost anyone else: I’ve done nine internships, not including numerous freelanced pieces that I basically did for nothing (if not for free). Part of working gratis at an established media outlet is getting the opportunity to work with journalists and editors who can help you learn from your mistakes. What bothers me about Skotch’s post is not that he’s not going to pay his writers, it’s that he’s going to let any member of the public write anything they want without editing it. “We don’t screen, edit or review what they say,” he wrote in the piece. “[The posts] belong to the bloggers. The bloggers can write them at home. Of course, we ask only that the bloggers follow some common-sense basic principles of good journalism that we outline.”
I do see why Skotch is offering to not edit any work. If a blogger has to worry that someone is going to change their work, they will constantly fear that they’ll never get to write whatever you want and opt to go on their own venue. It’s less work for your publication if you don’t have to edit pieces, you’ll get more stories on a daily basis all the time saving and resources. But, allowing just anyone to write whatever they want in exchange for free labor touches on dangerous territory, and it’s not worth the risk of ruining the standards of your publication. Opening up the door to bloggers with little to no professional experience is fine, but the problem comes when you allow unfiltered material to pass under the name of your media outlet. Anyone’s blog can become a vehicle for self-promotion, which can lead to unbalanced and even fake stories. People go to a reputable media source because they agree with and respect the stories and opinions written by the staff and contributors; the least that publication can do is read over that post and see if that piece is valid and true. Even though you might not be legally responsible for published comments by people not under your masthead, the public will still hold you accountable if they see the piece published under your title.
Skotch is right when he wrote that it’s true that there’s no money in journalism. If you’re aspiring for a job where you can get paid a fair wage and get home on time every night to make dinner and watch your favorite television show, well newsflash: This isn’t the career for you. For the few of us who do really love the job and strive to do our best no matter what the pay, I think I can safely say we try to uphold certain standards in order to produce the accurate work. I’m not saying that you have to go to school to learn journalism ethics, but there is some validation and importance of having edited and reviewed work – even if it comes at a cost. It’s your media outlet’s reputation at stake.
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