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Sunday, March 23, 2008

MSMbarrassing

Posted By on Sun, Mar 23, 2008 at 6:38 PM

It seems crazy now, but as recently as a few months ago, local bloggers I knew would sometimes mutter darkly about the all-powerful MSM -- those consent-manufacturing media gatekeepers who, the bloggers worried, were hell-bent on suppressing the voice of the digitized masses.

Hasn't quite worked out that way, has it?

This morning, for example, I opened up my Post-Gazette to the Forum section's "Cutting Edge" feature. Cutting Edge offers a weekly wrap-up of the posts from the wonderfully diverse world of Pittsburgh blogging. But I wasn't exactly surprised to see, yet again, an excerpt from a post by the Burgh Blog's ubiquitious "PittGirl" -- who's been mentioned in the weekly column three times the last month, and who has been the subject of a P-G profile.

PittGirl is a fun read, and while we here at CP prefer our prose to be jingoistic and shrill -- it's an old lefty tradition -- I certainly don't begrudge her success. If anything, I hope she's billing the P-G for providing them with so much copy. Maybe there's a PG/KDKA-style "media partnership" in the offing. The paper's Bill Toland was just featured on her site ... proving yet again that the "Burghosphere" is just like the Burgh itself: Everybody seems to know everybody else.

Even if PittGirl doesn't get paid, I can't complain. City Paper has been running a "best of the blogs" feature for awhile, as has the Tribune-Review. So while I might question just how cutting-edge "Cutting Edge" really is, I certainly couldn't fault its treatment of contributors.

But the P-G has now taken this whole open-source journalism thing a step further. The paper recently announced a new feature called "Voxpop." When last I checked, that was the name of a City Paper column, but apparently it is NOW a paradigm-shifting technology that will allow you, the citizen, to furnish election coverage this year!

Voxpop, we're told, is a cellphone-based effort "to enlist large numbers of citizens in providing news, observations and opinions about the important Pennsylvania presidential primary." You can provide audio of campaign events or text-message your thoughts about the campaign, and the P-G will put post 'em online! At no expense to its publishers! Thanks, Post-Gazette! Back in the old days, if I had observations I wanted to share with a newspaper, I'd just ... write a letter to the editor. But this is much better because it's, um, on the Web! Where no one will see it!

Do I sound cynical about what the P-G calls "a bold step in providing a forum for our readers and Web visitors"? I guess, but since "voxpop" appears to have recruited a whopping eight contributors in its first couple weeks, perhaps I'm not the only one. And some of the Mr.-Smith-buys-an-iPhone rhetoric sounds a little shopworn when you read the fine print. The Voxpop guidelines note that "[a]ny content you provide becomes the property of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has sole discretion over its use, which could include use in advertisements for the newspaper [or] Web site." Nothing there about getting paid, so I guess your reward is that of any good citizen: knowing your democratic participation has enriched your community … and maybe sold a few newspaper subscriptions.

Some time ago, the Pittsburgh Women's Blogging Society asked whether bloggers were being exploited by the commercial media. I took part in that debate at the time, and I won't reprise it here except to say I think the answer is different for different bloggers. And anyway, half the time a print publication tries to reach out to online readers, I end up feeling sorry not for exploited bloggers, but for the newspaper itself.

I probably don't have much right to make fun of the P-G's online strategy. They have resources superior to CP's, and they've used them much more aggressively online. Your CP may be the last paper in the free world (and probably much of the not-so-free world) to add blogs to its Web site. But still, the daily's embrace of new media has been awkward at best. Until recently, it broadcast a wince-inducing online-video version of the day's headlines, and when Myron Cope died, its site offered a musical homage set to the tune of U2's "Pride." ("In the na-a-a-a-a-a-a-me of Cope / One more in the name of Cope.")

More tellingly, the paper can't seem to let go of its need to be in control. The P-G site has blogs, sure, but you can't post comments on them -- let alone on the stories themselves. The paper will let citizens furnish content, but they must abandon their rights to it. And yet one still detects an almost plaintive desire to be loved in their shout-outs to the Burghosphere. The P-G's obsessive attention to PittGirl, for example, comes across not as an effort to introduce newspaper readers to her blog … but as an attempt to introduce her blog's readers to the newspaper.

And hey, I sympathize -- almost enough to hope this blog post helps sign up more voxpoppers than the P-G's print ads have done. (Note to P-G: The people who are going to file reports by cell phone probably ain't reading your print edition.) Anyone in the fishwrap business can't help but worry about where the next generation of readers are coming from, and the long-term economic trends of the business. How are we going to pay our writers a decent wage as the 21st century rolls on?

So in the name of economic justice, I'm happy to announce that, effective today, if you capture an election-year scoop on your cell phone, City Paper will be happy to publish it on our Web site instead. And if we use it, we'll pay you TWICE what the P-G is offering.

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