Who needs “real” journalists when there’s all that free stuff?

It started with letters to the editor — missives from newspaper readers that are equal parts tinfoil hat and insightful commentary. Letters to the editor were the first “user generated content.”

Add in a couple pounds of the ubiquitous “press release,” a tablespoon of original poetry, a cup of weddings, engagements, anniversaries and obituaries and a handful of dead deer and big fish photos and newspapers had a ready-made recipe of content provided by their readers.

Oh, and from the really olden days, pick up a pinch of the “local correspondent’s three-dot column” that included such closely followed items as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their four children returned this week from their summer vacation in the north woods.”

There’s nothing new about what we today call “user generated content” or UGC for short. Newspaper readers have always been happy to send along items for publication, proud to see their efforts rewarded with a bit of newsprint and ink. Or, in the case of those far-flung local correspondents (also known as housewives back in the day), 10 cents an inch or a penny a word.

I like that stuff. It connects a community and reflects its collective life. Weave it together with the work of the professional journalists and one has a strong partnership that serves the First Amendment well.

Here’s the rub. User generated content is replacing professional reporting. What worked well as a partnership is morphing into a “well, if we can get it for free, why the heck do we need to pay professionals” strategy for saving money. No news organization these days escapes the spreadsheet directive to lop off professionals and replace them with free UGC.

Stephen Colbert does a most excellent riff on the expense cutting addiction to user generated content in his video commentary on the layoffs of 50 CNN editors and photojournalists. As always, Colbert’s hilarious until he smacks you like a two-by-four to the head.

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