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I'm an assistant professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, where I teach and research how news sites can better reach their audiences. I received my Ph.D. from the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri where I was one of the founding editors of MyMissourian.com, a citizen journalism site for Columbia, Mo. Before graduate school, I worked as a community newspaper editor in Southern Utah and Southern California.

Pioneer succumbs to economy?

I know I’m a little behind on this one, but I had to mention it. I should have publicly questioned the Bakersfield California‘s plan to combine its Northwest and Southwest Voice citizen journalism sites because the merger reduced the resources dedicated to working with citizen reporters and cost the organization a dedicated editor who had once been a contributor herself. But now Paid Content is reporting the Californian is thinking about shuttering the Bakersfield Voice and Bakotopia.

The comments section of the story has questioned Paid Content’s original report, and like many, I hope the story isn’t true. The Californian deserves a lot of credit for being the first to try the citizen journalism model in the United States. While I was never privvy to financial information, I always considered the site a success, a least in fostering a vibrant and supportive online community. In fact, my master’s thesis found a strong connection between reading the print edition of the Californian and joining the online community associated with the Northwest Voice.

But I guess in today’s economics that’s not good enough. John Wells, the Californian’s vice president of Sales, Circulation, Marketing & Operations, said he  believes that the citizen journalism sites would have been profitable if the recession hadn’t hit. But I have to ask, as Paid Content’s Staci D. Kramer did, what Wells thinks “profitable” means:

But that kind of reductive thinking ignores the value of a committed, engaged community of members who spend their own resources—energy and time—not just a few seconds clicking on a page. I’d like to know the role that plays in a decision.

After having working with the former editor and some of the site’s members pretty closely for classes and my thesis, I can definitely attest that the Bakersfield Voice has built a strong online community. In a blog post, one of the site’s founders Dan Pacheco, agrees. He says the focus is on the print editions that accompany those sites and not the sites themselves. But is has always been my understanding that those print editions make the Web site possible. In fact, the Cyberbrains examined the effect publishing citizen journalism content in a free TMC or total market coverage publication had. We found adding fresh, citizen produced content increased pick up rates by more than 50 %. To me, it seems the site and the print product are interconnected and it’s misleading to characterize this discussion as only affecting one or the other.

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