Tuesday, September 27, 2011
The Amateur Hour in Your Home Town
Once upon a time there was a show on radio (and briefly on TV) called Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. It was the American Idol of its time, only with less hype and a smaller payout. For years it provided a brief moment of fame to assorted singers, dancers, and musicians of the type who played melodies on whisky bottles. A small handful of performers went on to amount to something in the entertainment world, but most were Three Day Wonders.
If you live anywhere outside the top dozen media markets in the United States, chances are you’re being regularly exposed these days to the hometown version of the Amateur Hour. It takes the form of the local newspaper. Battered, bruised and deprived of the business model that served them for 150 years, local papers have increasingly taken to using cheap local talent to fill their news and opinion pages on a freelance basis.
Before moving on with that idea, let it be said that 20, 30, 40 years ago, when local papers were thriving monopolies, most of them weren’t that great. And in many cases, family-owned papers were among the worst for the simple reason that it had been several generations since anybody in charge knew what they were doing.
Whatever their quality issues, most of those papers at least tried to cover the public’s business professionally. They sent reporters to water boards, zoning boards and city council meetings. Occasionally those reporters would see something that didn’t make sense, ask some questions, write a story, and generate a public response. Even when that happened rarely, it could make at least some public officials behave a bit better than they otherwise might have.
About 25 years ago, in response to a slow decline in circulation numbers, newspaper consultants began to advise their clients that they needed to reconnect with the communities in which they published. Part of the strategy was to open up the opinion pages to more local commentary by members of the community.
How could anybody argue with that? In theory you can’t — at least if you profess to believe in democratic principles. The problem, as with Marxism, is making an idea that sounds lovely actually work in the real world. What happened all too often was that people whose letters to the editor used to get cut in half ended up with their own columns. Much of the remaining space was taken up by self-serving and not terribly interesting pleadings by local organizations. Editors, at least the more perceptive of them, learned the hard way that the talent reservoir in even an affluent and educated community is not very deep.
About 10 years ago, as the Internet steamroller began to flatten local papers, many tried to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue by cutting back on staff reporters and using more freelance stories. (One paper in Southern California went so far as to outsource its reporting to India, having writers in that country cover a City Council meeting by picking up the community television’s internet feed.)
There is only one thing to be said for this approach: It fills a lot of space on a low budget. There’s plenty to be said against it. Regrettably often, freelancers don’t have the training to ask the right questions; they aren’t able to stick with an area of coverage long enough to really understand it; they’re not in constant contact with more experienced editors from whom they could absorb some knowledge (assuming any such editors are left at the local paper); and since they’re being paid next to nothing, they are apt to cover the stories they want to cover, rather than what the community needs covered. It’s a system geared not toward providing journalism, but toward creating the illusion of journalism.