Okay, forget all the pontification, the bloviation, the hand-wringing and the business modeling of "user-generated content" for a few moments.
Consider one case of great user-gen and its connection to journalism, and, dare we say it, democracy.
Last week, All Things Considered's Robert Siegel did a good, little piece about compact fluorescent light bulbs. They are now starting to sell, as fickle Americans turn a bit green. They save lots of energy and last a while, even if they are more costly than the familiar incandescent. Yesterday, Siegel recounted some listener reaction to the story. One writer bemoaned the fact that Americans take to such new phenomena -- smaller cars, compact fluorescent lights -- decades after people in other countries and then are self-satisfied at their innovation.
The writer though that was really interesting was one Karen Ellis of Mapleton, Georgia. She wrote to say [you can hear her letter here, at 3:00 minute mark] that she wanted to be as green as her neighbor, but was troubled by the fine print on the flourescent bulb packaging. The fine print said: mercury. You know, the stuff that limits our fish intake and plays havoc with that resource called the human nervous system.
She wondered what she was supposed to do with these mercury-laden bulbs when they inevitably burnt out; could she recycle them?
That's user-gen. Sure, you can call it an old-fashioned, letter-to-the-editor, but in web talk it's user-gen. A "comment" maybe.
Here's where it gets interesting -- and promising.
After reading the note, Siegel said that it was indeed a great question and one that NPR had referred it to its environmental reporter, Elizabeth Shogren. She came on air and described how she'd missed the mercury angle in her initial reporting, but how she had then taken Ms. Ellis' observation and done additional reporting.
Short story is that yes, all these bulbs have mercury. No, you can't create them without it. There's no specific recycling program or law that covers them (and few standard recyclers will take them). And that the government was relying on the fluorescent makers (GE+) to the sellers (Walmart+) to figure out a solution....but that they hadn't in twenty years. Shogren's reporting brought it to the attention of a number of people and now GE and Congressional aides are talking about what to do.
So there you go.
Journalism, a story on compact fluorescent.
User-gen, or reader feedback, raising questions the journalists had missed.
Journalism taking on the reader point and doing more -- and better -- journalism.
That's a virtuous cycle.
So kudos to Robert Siegel and NPR, and a reminder to the rest of us. Sometimes this stuff doesn't have to be that hard. Sure it's becoming a Pro/Am world where journalists share the stage with informed, often well-expressed amateurs. Let's embrace this new world, and connect it up to the journalism we love -- bettering it along the way. Yes, newspapers, NPR and other media have listened to readers for years. The difference is that readers and listeners are now eagerly joining the conversation and inviting them in enthusiastically can be a winning proposition all around.