Portions of this column were originally written for the January-February 2014 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
January-February 2014, Volume 125
By Mark Loundy
"I'll have what she's having"
St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the continental U.S. After centuries of history on Florida's Atlantic coast, the St. Augustine Record has reached a new low in newspaper management technique.
Scoffed at by locals for error-filled columns, the paper's publisher has had enough. No, she's not adding to her staff of four overworked copy editors. Instead, she's buying dinner.
Since its readers have claimed that they could edit the paper better themselves, the 120-year-old daily is taking them up on the offer. Every evening, from 8 to 11, it's inviting locals to come in and work a shift proofreading the paper. They're not hiring them as proofreaders; rather they're having them compete against each other for the grand prize of a dinner for two for the volunteer who catches the most errors. Talk about a cheap date!
Back in the late 1990s, America Online ran into a problem with labor authorities for using volunteers in a for-profit operation. Soon after, the group that I was working for at Yahoo GeoCities had to shutter its Community Manager program for similar reasons. How this contest scheme got past the Record's lawyers is a mystery.
After a day of blistering online criticism, publisher Delinda D. Fogel emailed media writer Jim Romensko that they would pay the citizen-editors and that the whole thing is a "temporary exercise aimed at process improvement."
While I do see it as a ham-handed effort at community engagement, I can't imagine how temporarily injecting a group of "retired English teachers" into an already overworked copydesk can improve anything. A better approach would have been to invite some of the community critics to observe the copy editing process and casually ask if they would like to take a crack at some raw copy.
The desperation sadly drips from the Record's efforts. Last October, it instituted a paywall charging $15.95 for print-digital access to a product that is already criticized by readers as being thin on local content. The comments under the publisher's column announcing it were almost exclusively negative.
A paper this far into the terminal drain spin needs to seriously consider progressive heroic measures like dropping all non-local news and concentrating on a digital-only local product. Since the paper is already printed by the Florida Times-Union, it would be simple to shed the print operation. The reduction in cost would more than offset the loss in print ad sales. But is owner Morris Communications sufficiently brave and visionary to make the jump? Probably not.
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