Story Corps is not your typical citizen journalist website. It is much more structured in that it requires greater involvement and participation on the part of its contributors. A person must make the active decision to have their stories recorded. They must find an audio booth in which to record their story, bring with them the guest they wish to interview (this “close friend or loved one” can be there purely to provide moral support), and devote 40 minutes of their time to recording their story (in addition to the commute time to get to the recording booth and back).
Story Corps makes its reason for being quite clear in its “about us” section, which also seems to serve as the group’s mission statement. They identify themselves as “an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives,” (storycorps.org). Not only are Story Corps’ stories featured on the group’s website but also on weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition. In this way, pieces that start off as citizen journalism are presented on a professional platform. But judging from their mission statement, the group’s raison d’être is more based on philanthropic reasons than journalistic ones. Nevertheless, Story Corps exhibits citizen journalism at its best because every story and all of its content is entirely user generated.
What does that mean for the quality of stories in comparison to more spontaneous citizen journalist sites? Sites like iReport on CNN require minimal dedication where a simple mobile upload constitutes site participation. With Story Corps, however, a user cannot only have the idea to participate; he/she must take a certain amount of steps to see that his/her idea comes to fruition. At first glance such a process may appear to weed out those participants who are not fully committed to have their stories recorded. But that does not necessarily mean that all worthwhile stories will be recorded. Busy schedules and lack of immediate access to a designated recording booth may deter many from participating.
Participation on the site is considered worthwhile for many reasons. One benefit being that each user’s story is now part of the largest oral history project of its kind. Users also receive a free CD of their interview. A user’s professionally edited story is forever archived and able to be shared with future generations. These are the most obvious benefits for those who decide to contribute to Story Corps. But some contributors may choose to record their story out of narcissism; to get satisfaction out of hearing one’s voice on the radio or on a popular website. However, because the website does not allow commenting, a narcissistic reward is limited. Contributors cannot receive public praise for their stories. What is also unique about Story Corps, in comparison to other citizen journalist websites, is the fact that contributors can only participate once. That is to say, the same person cannot keep going to a recording booth interviewing different close-friends or relatives. This limited participation makes the site less of an example of citizen journalism, which typically encourages that its participants continually post.
Daniel Boorstin would have designated Story Corps’ stories as pseudo-events in that the interviews are staged as an event that exists for the sole purpose of the media publicity. The fact that Story Corps encourages its contributors to review its “great question generator” proves that this type of citizen journalism is not based on actual news events rather artificially created events. Many stories that would otherwise be considered anecdotal (for example, a featured story from last week was an interview with the first African-American student at Louisiana State University in 1953) are converted into news pieces. If these interviews were performed at the time, in 1953 let’s say, then it would be considered news. But because there is no direct relevance to the news today, these stories are restricted to profiles and human-interest pieces.
But herein lies the most powerful aspect of the format of Story Corps’ stories: they are human-interest stories told by the actual people involved. Not only do contributors offer up an idea for a story but also they are then the ones who physically tell the story. Whereas a profile in a newspaper is filtered through the eyes of a journalist, Story Corps’ stories are told directly by those who lived through the experience. When you hear a story directly from a father who lost two sons on September 11th, it makes the emotion behind such words that much more genuine and that much more powerful.
Another part of what makes many of the Story Corps’ stories so emotionally resonant is the fact that Story Corps’ editors tailor each and every story to be as powerful as possible. Each report is approximately three minutes long but the “procedure” section of Story Corps indicates that, when recorded, each interview lasts 40 minutes. Only heavy editing can trim down 40 minutes of recording to a short three-minute report. Even if Story Corps’ staff members do not create the content, they ultimately create the final product – a final product that is unrecognizable from its original recording. The editors therefore repurpose and reclaim the contributors’ content to achieve optimal emotional resonance. With heavy editing, Story Corps’ staff members make a story comprehensible but appealing. In this way, the professionals filter the work of the amateurs. I imagine that many contributors appreciate this access to expertise while others may resent the fact that editors are subjectively “butchering” their content.
There are two different strategies for creating the quality content on Story Corps. First, the group (Story Corps) raises the quality of content generated through its strict procedural guidelines. Contributors must come prepared with a list of questions, most likely generated from the list of “great question examples” provided by Story Corps. Having a designated physical space for the recording also improves the quality of a story’s content. From a technical perspective, the recording booths drastically improve the audio quality of the recording. As stated on the “procedure” section on storycorps.org, a total of five minutes is designated for sound check alone. Also, having a physical location for an interview generates more quality conversations because participants can get comfortably situated. The idea of a “professional” space can heighten an interviewee’s awareness, allowing them to put more thought behind their answers. There is a higher engagement quality in a professionalized recording booth than a simple “do it yourself” project. The second strategy for creating quality content is the idea of editing brutally after the fact. Story Corps, therefore, exhibits the “filter before publishing” model of journalism.
A major difference between most citizen journalist sites and Story Corps is the allowance of comments. On Story Corps’ website there is no space for other users to post their responses after listening to a story. If comments were allowed on the website it is possible, and likely, that users would post criticism. Such criticism would deter people from recording in the future. However, without providing a space to say how users relate to a particular story or how they were moved by a story, it limits the amount of connectivity between users. Story Corps states that part of its purpose is to “strengthen and build connections between people.” I believe that if Story Corps were to allow comments on their website it would do just that. Users would be able to listen to a story and immediately comment on how they can relate or how they were moved. A section for comments would also provide a space for public praise. Public praise would appeal to many users’ narcissistic nature and encourage others to record stories in order to receive similar positive attention. Perhaps Story Corps could try allowing comments as long as users create and sign in with a Story Corps account. This way, the website could weed out a majority of trollers and provide a platform for intelligent conversation and reaction. A more restrictive way of allowing comments would be to give only those who have recorded a story through Story Corps (the website states that there are approximately 30,000) the chance to comment on other stories to ensure the sincerity and quality of discussion.
Both patch.com and storycorps.org provide a platform for citizen journalism. How each goes about featuring that journalism is quite different. Fundamentally, both sites are managed by professionals but the level of professional content varies. Patch asks that users volunteer story ideas. Therefore, both websites have amateurs find the content for stories but the professionals go about altering and providing a platform for that content. To contribute to Story Corps and Patch you do not need to have any professional credentials. However, Patch provides a space for amateurs to blog and in this space, their content is not changed by the professionals who operate the site. Story Corps, on the other hand, does not put up any story on the website that has not been heavily edited by professionals. With Story Corps, amateur content will always be filtered. On Patch amateur journalism and professional journalism lie side by side. On Story Corps, amateur journalism and professional journalism are fully integrated.