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Citizen Fed

Would citizen economists be able to do a better job than the jaded professionals who’ve missed the last two stock market bubbles and the recent housing market meltdown?

The venerable Ladies Home Journal has just announced that, starting with its March issue, the majority of the 128-year-old magazine’s content will be supplied by readers. Seemingly, the Journal will trawl the Internet for pertinent material written by non-professionals, quasi-professionals, gifted amateurs, self-starting neophytes and perhaps even enthusiastic hobbyists.

This is a practice that has already been used with considerable success by airline magazines, which discovered ages ago that nobody reads those stories about 112 places to eat in suburban Budapest anyway. Cynics might suggest that the Journal’s new policy is a cunning ploy to trim editorial costs by soliciting material from rank amateurs and just plain folks, sometimes referred to as “citizen journalists.” But cynics are always being cynical.

The truth is, no matter how badly the material is written, no matter how poorly it is organized, and no matter how many times the author cites the canny wisdom of dear old Aunty Miranda, even the most incoherent or fatuous writing can be whipped into shape by experienced editors, provided the material itself is informative, enlightening, groundbreaking or amusing. The magazine itself is on record as saying that its new editorial policy will further empower women, in part by allowing the voices of ordinary people to be heard.

As a professional journalist, I should be expected to deplore this development, seeing as it sends even more of my colleagues to the sidelines. Nonetheless, I do not deplore this development; in fact, I welcome it. This is a harsh, Darwinian world we live in, and we must all get used to it. The Internet has changed the way the press does business and that change is incontrovertible, so there is no use crying over spilt milk.

The long and the short of it is: If amateurs can do a better job than professionals, then the professionals had better start doing a better job themselves. Otherwise, they’re all going to be out of work. To which I say: Good riddance!

Many, perhaps most, contributors to general interest magazines are slothful hacks, and this will either light a fire under them or force them into another line of work. Gardening, perhaps. The same goes for sportswriters, an oxymoron if there ever was one; anybody armed with a television can do what most of them do for a living. In fact, I am so enthralled by the idea of citizen journalists that I would like to see the concept expanded to various other fields.

Am I the only one who thinks that citizen economists might be able to do a better job than the jaded professionals who’ve missed the last two stock market bubbles and the recent housing market meltdown? Take a gander at these ding-dongs’ predictions for the last couple of economic cycles and tell me that citizen econometricians couldn’t do a better job. To their ranks might readily be added citizen interestrate forecasters, citizen technical analysts and citizen pension-fund managers.

You only need to take a peek at what’s been going on in Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Spain and Portugal to realize that professional economists, stock market analysts and rating agencies have persistently missed the mark in the past few years—and it’s cost investors plenty. That’s why I think we should all take a page from Ladies Home Journal and try something bold, iconoclastic and new. Out with the pros! In with the amateurs! The worst that can happen is that they fail. Big deal. Join the club.

Are there any other areas where amateurs could bring greater energy, more vim and vigor, and a welcome, new perspective to the table? Sure. Citizen alternative fuels experts can’t do any worse than the pros who brought you ethanol. Citizen computer manual writers couldn’t possibly be any less helpful or less communicative than the guys who write PC user manuals today. For similar reasons, I am also in favor of citizen attorneys, citizen mortgage bankers, citizen landscape designers, citizen wine critics and even citizen tribute bands.

Not all human activities lend themselves to this dynamic, of course. Citizen heart surgeons? Not so sure about that one; it could get messy. For similar reasons, any attempt to replace seasoned root-canal engineers with citizen orthodontists must be viewed with trepidation, if not outright horror. I’m also not so sure about citizen proctologists, citizen airplane pilots, citizen nuclear power plant monitors and citizen SWAT teams. I’m just not convinced we want amateurs handling AK-47s.

On the other hand, citizen veterinarians doesn’t seem like such a bad idea; only Fido and Fifi are going to be any the wiser, should things take an unpleasant turn. Same deal with citizen chefs. Last but not least, I think we should all give serious thought to establishing a Citizens Federal Reserve. Greenspan and Bernanke messed up big time with the subprime housing mess, so; let’s give Mr. John Q. Public a shot at it. Actually, I think that’s what Rick Perry was proposing all along.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.