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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: MyMissourian becomes a new section called 'From Readers'

By Clyde Bentley
February 9, 2012 | 4:25 p.m. CST

For a parent, the joy of a child's birth is matched only by the pride of watching the adult stride into the world.  That's why I will shed only tears of joy when our internationally-known citizen journalism site "graduates" this week.

MyMissourian.com is a unique part of the journalism world to which the Missouri School of Journalism gave birth, but that the people of Columbia reared. But after seven years, it is time to close the site. Instead, the stories, recipes, photos and memories that you have shared with your neighbors will take their place with the rest of the news in the Columbia Missourian under the heading "From Readers."

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When MyMissourian launched in 2004, the notion of letting nonjournalists publish in a product operated by a traditional media organization was radical, even heretical.  Journalists are trained to collect information thoroughly, sift fact from fiction and craft prose free from typographical or factual errors. The pros in the newsroom assumed that lay people could never match that quality.

That and other assumptions by "Big J" journalism went out the window with the advent of blogging. Like it or not, everyone now had the access to the digital presses.

The stage for change, however, was set by a Korean visionary named Oh Yeon-Ho. Oh successfully combined the traits of traditional journalism and blogging with OhMyNews.com. He recruited thousands of volunteer reporters to gather and write the news under the tutelage of a team of professional editors. The concept hopped the Pacific to the Bakersfield Californian, which opened its columns to its readers via its Northwest Voice edition.

When this new "every citizen is a reporter" concept roared through the professional journals in 2004, Dean Mills, the Missouri School of Journalism dean, asked me to organize a class to explore it. As unpopular as this growing phenomenon was with many in the journalism profession, the Journalism School takes seriously our duty to prod, research and test any development that might impact the mass media and its consumers.

That summer, my colleague Curt Wohleber and I assembled a team of graduate students to help come to grips with the challenge.  Most were veteran journalists here to earn master’s degree and all were very opinionated about what opening the presses to public meant to journalism.  Their top questions were:

We decided that spell-checking programs on the writers' PCs would handle most of the first problem. Even a quick read by an editor would catch the profanity or content generally considered inappropriate in a community newspaper.

Commercialism challenged us, as journalists are ingrained with the concept of a "wall" between advertising and news. But we decided that as long as someone wasn’t actually pitching a sale, business was a vital part of community life. We would just live with it.

And the stupid stuff? Journalists have little to stand on when they attempt to judge what is silly and what is not. If the story was too far-fetched, we could post it under an "oddities" heading and let readers make the call.

So after weeks battling over fine points, we decided the citizens of Columbia could submit anything they wanted to our new website, with four simple exceptions:

The last two were to ensure the same civility we try to maintain in the Columbia Missourian. A student journalist would work with each submitter — not as an ax-wielding editor, but as a partner who helped the citizen share with the public.

"Share" became our mantra, and MyMissourian became our name. From the beginning, we wanted the readers to be part of the award-winning Columbia Missourian.  The traditional paper was ours, but MyMissourian was yours.

And share you did. Through the years we found that almost everyone has a recipe they think others would like. While the Columbia Missourian photographers gave you stunning pictures of calamities and celebrities, citizen photographer John Hall opened our eyes to the beauty of cows and old barns. Then there was the photo snapped by a motorist of a trailered boat on I-70 with a coffin in the cockpit. That led to a daughter’s poignant story of a bass-fishing dad's last trip to the lake.

You brought the community to a community newspaper. And the world responded. A stream of theses, dissertations and academic papers flew from my team of researchers. Magazines, professional journals and blogs from around the world wrote of the Missouri experiment. I was even invited to go to Korea to showcase our effort to Oh Yeon-Ho and his citizen reporters.

Like MyMissourian, that special team of graduate students has gone on to bigger things. Jeremy Littau, Hans Meyer and Brendan Watson added doctorates to their newsroom experience and are now professors in their own right. Beth Welsh is at the Kansas City Star, Ben Poston is at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Brian Hamman is at the New York Times. Amanda Hicks, who joined the team a short time later, is at Congressional Quarterly’s Roll Call Group.

When we started MyMissourian in 2004, however, it was with the dream that we would someday scratch the "citizen" and just make your participation a part of everyday journalism. Seven years later, the rancor among old-line newshounds and the doubts among researchers have died down. Between blogs, Twitter, Facebook and MyMissourian, people just take it for granted that they have a voice in the public forum. Today almost every major and minor news organization has some sort of participatory journalism element.

So we are there. Not citizen journalism, not yours-and-ours journalism. Just journalism. Thanks, MyMissourian. 

But more to the point, thank you.

Clyde Bentley is a professor at MU's School of Journalism and founder of MyMissourian.