What news coverage of the Paris riots needs is citizen journalists who live within the troubled suburbs and are willing to contribute, anonymously or not, to a blog or a newspaper Web site or any other forum that lends insight into the mindset and tactics of the rioters.
The French police say that unlike the 2005 riots the rabble rousers are organized: they're targeting officers with shotguns and gasoline bombs, for example, and looting while the cops are distracted.
Is there some sort of plan? What happened among disaffected youth between 2005 and now? Since international media mostly punted on the story these last couple years -- it's a tough beat for Western reporters -- we've a lot less idea what they're thinking than their first grade teachers or childhood classmates or neighbors or part-time employers.
Consider the information we've got as 1,000 police officers brace for a third night of being shot at, pelted and cursed. "A line was crossed last night, that is to say, they used weapons, they used weapons and fired on the police," the International Herald Tribune quotes a police union leader saying. "This is a real guerrilla war."
As police insist that they won't be fired upon indefinitely without responding, the question of whether lives will be lost when darkness next falls turns on a community of which we know precious little.
That's an information failure most easily solved -- the next time around, anyway -- if news organizations like AFP and AP and Reuters and the International Herald Tribune, or upstart news organizations for that matter, pay a few hundred dollars to people inside affected neighborhoods to offer dispatches or eyewitness accounts or even rumors that shed light on their mindset. I'd pay $25 for a letter written by a resident, as if to faraway relatives, describing what's going on, and I suspect there are plenty of enterprising residents who'd be willing to provide that service if only there were some way for us to connect.
We need not pay rioters, who are violent minorities in their communities, but their less violent peers, many of whom will rail against the murderous outbursts and others of whom will wrongly sympathize with them.
There are drawbacks to this incomplete method of information gathering. It'll be impossible to separate out every false rumor or attempt at propaganda, some correspondents will analyze events in ways that offend one sensibility or another and we should all be sickened by the risk that these dollars might find their way to nefarious uses, and safeguard against it.
But professional reporting from inside these neighborhoods so far doesn't exist, at least not on the details I'm after.
The modern news consumer is sophisticated enough to understand that some citizen journalist blogs or e-mail dispatches, while less reliable than traditional news accounts, can help to inform and deepen understanding. And enough unofficial accounts in the same place would afford some ability to ferret out untruths.
Everyone wants to know what people in those suburbs are talking about on their corners and around their dinner tables.
Why not pay them to tell us?