CNN recently laid off at least 50 staff, including several photojournalists, in favor of affiliate contributions and iReport — CNN’s user-generated content department which does not pay users for their submissions. To many inside the industry and out, the move seemed based on flawed reasoning that might best be summarized by Stephen Colbert’s quip on the subject: “Why buy the cow when you can have it shakily videotape its own milk for free?”
The decision is a result of a three-year analysis by CNN that essentially concluded that since consumer cameras are getting better and people are uploading up-to-the-minute photos on Twitter and other social networks anyway, there is less need to dispatch professionals to cover news events.
“They are not thinking this out or growing from what we’ve already been through,” says Judy Walgren, the director of photography at the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s going to fail miserably and they will slowly migrate back to having trained journalists do what they do best.”
Walgren is slightly dumbfounded about the network’s decision. All you have to do is look around at other media institutions to see that relying too heavily on user-generated content doesn’t work, she says.
Included above is a sample of some of the five-year-old iReport’s results so far. They range from earnest, admirable attempts to cover real news like the Occupy Wall Street movement to photos of toilet paper rolls and lobsters.
CNN attempts to mitigate the predictably chaotic and non sequitur submissions from its almost 1 million registered users by offering online journalism tutorials (shown above), but only 7 percent of iReport content is vetted for wider use by the organization. Critics are skeptical these educational efforts are enough to turn iReport into a dependably quality product.
Tim Rasmussen, assistant managing editor for photography and multimedia at The Denver Post, says dealing with user-generated content has to be a balancing act. The Post is glad to use readers’ photos, he says, in instances where they supplement the paper’s coverage — like breaking news events that their photojournalists can’t immediately get to — but trying to use citizen journalists for a major part of your content “is short sighted at best.”
“No other industry has been so successful at [messing] with its content to the point of destroying itself,” says Rasmussen. “It’s like a meth head that is dying to get back to that 30 percent profit.”
In an e-mail response to these criticisms, CNN denies that the recent layoffs were related to cost-cutting. “[CNN] does not view iReport as a replacement for traditional newsgathering,” writes CNN’s Director of PR, Matthew Dornic. “The recent changes at CNN were not about cost savings but shifting resources.”
Cost-cutting concerns aside, sourcing news from novices can be problematic. For Rasmussen, it raises a red flag any time a “citizen journalist” submits a photo from a protest or political event. How can a news organization verify the photographer isn’t also participating in that event? And if he or she is participating, that clearly interferes with journalism’s mandate to be objective.
“There are certainly hardcore ethical issue that photojournalism staff are trained in that the average reader is not,” says Walgren.
To qualify their criticism, both Rasmussen and Walgren say they’re not opposed to change — change is part of every photo department’s reality. However, this particular move strikes them as ill advised.
“The Chronicle went through a major hacking and what’s now left are people that are seriously committed to doing great journalism,” says Walgren. “Lean, that’s where we are now. But we’re also focused and driven.”
Nonetheless, both Rasmussen and Walgren are optimistic about journalism’s future and see opportunities for news organizations to actually take advantage of the current changes.
“Some place are re-defining themselves carefully and thinking it through,” says Rasmussen. “And some places are just not seeing the potential.”