I got some polite beef, via e-mail, from Vocalo staff over a recent post in which I kind of let them have it about their first few days on the air and online. Thinking about it, I’m wondering if that was unfair–not the specific criticisms, which were legit, but in criticizing it at all.
What Vocalo plans to do is develop, slowly, as a quasi-online community. A number of the Internet’s biggest success stories, including such citizen-journalism sites as Talking Points Memo and Firedoglake, started modestly as blogs and evolved to the point where they were doing actual journalism. The former started as the Web side project of an established if not especially prominent political journalist named Josh Marshall and has since taken on employees and spearheaded investigations into the U.S. Attorney scandal. The latter began as a place for a Hollywood producer and a West Virginia lawyer to obsess about the Valerie Plame affair and has since become a go-to site for up-to-the-minute live blogging of the Scooter Libby trial and various hearings.
Pitchfork, possibly the most widely read indie music site on the Web, also started small. It sucked when it started. When I profiled founder Ryan Schreiber a few years ago, he mentioned that he didn’t really have any idea what he was doing and wasn’t a particularly good writer, but he just stuck it out because that was what he wanted to do. The reviews got longer and better and gained more readers as the years went by. It never really “broke” or “exploded”–its readership just grew steadily as the product improved.
This, it’s clearer to me now, is what Vocalo wants to do. Rightly or not, however, it’s much harder for established media organizations to grow a project quietly from an experiment into a full-fledged source of content. The early, bad Pitchfork didn’t get buried by criticism because it was just some dude’s thing, so no one cared if it sucked because no one expected it not to. Chicago Public Radio can’t do that, or at least people like me haven’t allowed them to. It’s at least worth asking whether they should be given the same right to suck as everyone else.
It’s worth pointing out that here that radio is a difficult medium for citizen journalism. Almost everyone writes; almost everyone takes pictures. That doesn’t mean that anyone can be a journalist or a photographer, but it does mean that lots of people have exposure to the fundamental building blocks of those media. This means that the pool of skilled amateurs is large, and it’s skilled amateurs who become “citizen journalists” and also actual professionals.
But not many people record sound for fun, and that’s what radio is. If every family in America had a tape recorder and mic laying around, if every cell phone being made nowadays had a voice recorder, that might be different. But as it stands, radio is a medium that people are less likely to play around with, and thus they’re much less likely to pick up the basic skills inadvertently.
Which isn’t to say that dooms Vocalo, just that the burden of finding talented contributors from the general public will be greater than if they were working with text, photographs, or even video. As such, I expect that Vocalo’s development will be slow, particularly by professional media standards and even by community journalism standards, and so maybe we’re all going to have to be much more patient with it than we’d normally be with a mass-media venture.