The Swarm

Mix it up with The Bee's editorial board.

August 10, 2011
Reading Rack: Are Web-powered citizens the new muckrakers?


"Are newspaper reporters still necessary?"


That provocative question begins an intriguing piece in the Summer 2011 edition of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, but it turns out to be misleading because the answer is actually yes.


Conor Friedersdorf, an associate editor at The Atlantic magazine, declares that California is "the most fertile ground for innovation" in watchdog journalism to make up for the decline of newspapers.


He cites California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The Bee has collaborated with the center and published some of its work in the last few years. He also mentions Cal Watchdog, the Voice of San Diego and the startup in his article, entitled "The New Watchdogs: Can the Web drive investigative journalism in a post-newspaper era?"


He points out that the first report of corruption in the city of Bell came from a blogger on a citizen website -- not in The Los Angeles Times, which in April won journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize for public service, for its Bell coverage.


But Friedersdorf ventures onto shakier ground when he suggests that the gap left by downsizing newspapers could be filled by an army of volunteer "civic watchdogs" who "behave more like detectives or auditors than like reporters."


He says an enterprising nonprofit could fund such an operation (including lawyers to sue officials who don't cough up public documents), but he never quite explains who would command it or how to make sure it's not a partisan zealot.


Call me old-fashioned, but what he's talking about is pretty much how the news business has worked for eons. There have always been citizen watchdogs; the Internet just makes it easier for non-journalists to dig up information.


But many times, it still takes the resources and reputation of a newspaper to turn tips into actual stories that have real impact.


The Bell scandal proves that, as Friedersdorf concedes when he writes that the amateur citizen-journalists "couldn't dig as deep or growl as menacingly as newspaper reporters backed by a powerful regional publication."


The media landscape continues to evolve, but the citizen journalist revolution hasn't happened quite yet. Like it or not, it still takes trained, experienced reporters to do the heavy lifting of muckraking.


To see other suggested readings from The Bee's editorial board, check out Reading Rack in California Forum this Sunday.



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About The Swarm

The Swarm is written by members of The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. They meet daily and are separate from the newsroom. Views included here are those of individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of a majority of the board or the positions expressed in The Bee's editorials.

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