Should investigative journalism be left to the pros, or can “citizen journalists” take on the task too? Launched in June, Watchdog Wire, a program of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, is an ambitious program to train volunteers in the best practices of investigative journalism, pair them with professional editors, and publish their stories for an audience that misses the “watchdog” stories that were the bread-and-butter coverage of local newspapers for a century. Coverage focuses on waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars at the state, county and municipal levels.
The site launched with two Franklin Center staffers cranking out stories. Now, it’s in the process of expanding, hiring part-time editors at a stipend of $500 a month to recruit and work with “citizen watchdogs,” and write one to two stories a week themselves. Watchdog Wire (ed: also written on the site as one word, get your style straight!) is funded by donors, and its future depends on continued funding, according to Mary Ellen Beatty, director of citizen outreach at the Franklin Center, who says Watchdog Wire aims to fill a gap in investigative reporting left by the decline of newspapers.
“Due in part to significant cutbacks, traditional media has failed to cover issues of importance to its audience. One major casualty in the cutbacks was statehouse news reporting, and as a result, there are fewer reporters keeping watch on state and local government,” she said. “While a state reporter may only travel to a handful of counties in a year, citizen journalists living in these communities often have a better grasp on local issues. They bring a unique perspective to local government that reflects concerns of the people living there.”
Beatty said that Watchdog Wire editors are interested in citizen watchdogs who, for example, often write letters to elected officials, go to school board and local government meetings, participate in special elections and write letters to the editor of local newspapers.
Franklin staffers teach contributors the principles of journalism, as well as basics such as writing and grammar guidelines from the Associated Press. Training sessions also provide information about open meetings and freedom of information laws, and explanations about how government works.
“We encourage them to seek multiple sources to back up their claims. Citizens who do not comply are not given posting privileges on our news site,” Beatty said.
According to Beatty, AOL, Yahoo! News, Fox News, and other media outlets all have implemented citizen journalist programs. What’s unique at Watchdog Wire is the level of training it provides, she said.
Rick Edmonds, business analyst at The Poynter Institute, said there is room for experiments such as Watchdog Wire, but the reality of citizen journalism has often failed to live up to high expectations.
“Citizen journalism projects have often failed,” he said. “One of the most common problems in localized ventures is that recruits are trained, do a little work, then drift away. I would be a little skeptical that non-professionals can be quickly trained for the demanding work of full-fledged investigative journalism.”
However, Edmonds isn’t ruling out success for Watchdog Wire, saying that non-journalists can just as easily track down data from records.
“If the center has a conservative tilt, as I have seen reported, that may be a plus for fundraising and point their troops to projects that may not get attention from mainstream media,” he said.
John Triplett, content partnership editor at the Arizona Republic, said his publication recruits contributors from the community but leaves investigative reporting to the professionals. Since last February the Arizona Republic has recruited a team of 650 “neighborhood contributors,” from individuals such as concerned parents and small business owners to organizations like local nonprofits, police departments and schools but, says Triplett, he doesn’t label them citizen journalists.
“We find they [contributors] are best at posting Facebook-style items about their neighborhoods” such as items on pets, potholes and fundraisers, said Triplett. “They really do not venture into hard news, and if they do, we tend to take the tip and pass it on to our full-time journalists to pursue.”
Triplett said that training the public to do investigative journalism is difficult work; it’s more efficient to have them make contributions to crowd-sourcing projects.
“As a former investigative editor, I would be very concerned about the time and effort to train them,” said Triplett.
Triplett’s concerns may be self-evident at The Republic itself. Currently, the newspaper reviews contributors’ content before posting it to make sure it’s not obviously inaccurate or offensive but does not edit the content, according to editor Melissa Farley, who oversees the neighborhood contributors. That’s a far cry from what The Republic advertised as “a coaching, teaching and mentoring job” in late 2011, if this Society of Professional Journalists job posting is to be believed (it’s the one marked Neighborhood Content Editor/Producer).
Front page stories on The Republic’s neighborhoods site as of press time: a handful of press releases from the City of Mesa and the headline “Patsy Watsy is such cutie-patootie you’ll want to play patty cake with her all the live-long day.”
A hard look at municipal pension liabilities this is not.
Farley, the Republic editor who oversees the neighborhoods sites, said Watchdog Wire has the potential to be successful, but it will take time. Her advice to the startup: “You should expect a high turnover rate and the need to supplement content. Give value and attention to committed citizen journalists as often as possible both publicly and privately.”