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Here's tonight's news, brought to you by Chip and Sally from next door

Here's a story from the San Francisco Chronicle about a new direction for television news. In Santa Rosa, a bit north of San Francisco (best known as the hometown of Peanuts artist Charles Schulz), the little TV station KFTY has dumped its news staff and turned its newscast over to what's being called "citizen journalism" -- stories produced by regular, non-journalist, people. This is a subset of another buzz-phrase, "user-generated content," that's being kicked around a lot in newsrooms (including the Miami Herald's) a lot these days. Supposedly there's an enormous audience out there that wants its news media to be "interactive." This post will now pause while I lie down, slightly faint from repeating three idiotic management cliches in a single paragraph.

Okay, feeling better. Here are a couple of points worth making about this story. One is that the shrieks about the loss of KFTY's news desk that you'll undoubtedly here from the news media's vast class of professional Chicken Littles are nonsense. Not every dinky small-town UHF station in America has to have a news operation. The republic will survive.

Second, the whole citizen journalism/user-generated content thing is a fad that will fade fairly quickly. That some folks want a degree of interactivity with their news media is not a new discovery -- that's why we've had letters-to-the-editor for the past 200 years or so -- but they remain a relatively small part of the audience. Most newspaper readers and television viewers are no more interested in doing stories than diners at restaurants are in going back to the kitchen to cook their own steak. Like restaurant customers, they're there to consume, not produce. The corollary is most of them do not want to watch maudlin video essays on their next-door-neighbor's Aunt Tilly and her 17 cats, either.

That doesn't mean a couple small yet significant elements of citizen journalism aren't here to stay. In particular, cell-phone-camera images of breaking news events like the Asian tsunami or the London subway bombings will probably remain a staple of television coverage of disasters, when people are interested in pictures first and analysis later. Even that, though, will go some jarring rethinking the first time TV stations are victimized by a hoax. The Howard Stern idiots who routinely fake their way into breaking-news coverage and then scream, "Baba Booey!" will eventually go to work with cameras and Photoshop software, and some TV network will wind up looking silly.


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