Friday, April 07, 2006


Citizen Media Conundrum::If You See News, Where Do You Report It? | PBS


If You See News, Where Do You Report It?
April 7, 2006

By Mark Glaser, 1:49PM
MediaShift PBS Blog

One of the ideas behind citizen journalism is
that anybody who witnesses something newsworthy can photograph it, videotape
it or write about it for the rest of the world. But one of the conundrums of
citizen journalism is where do you do that?

You could start a blog or put the information on your existing blog. You
could try a citizen media service such as NowPublic or try to sell your
story to a mainstream or local news outlet. And now there are even
specialized agencies set up to handle photos from citizen journalists.

I believe there's a big opportunity for somebody (or somebodies) to step in
and become the place for citizen journalism, but it will take a lot of
marketing and outreach before the average person thinks that this is the
place they should send their news. Meanwhile, the places for citizen
journalism continue to multiply.

I recently had an email discussion with CEO Rich Skrenta (pictured
above), who had pointed to his siteÿÿs news forums and their recent booming
success thanks to taking off a registration requirement. Skrenta was
particularly impressed at the 200+ posts about a tornado in Caruthersville,
Missouri, including many eyewitness accounts from the scene of destruction.

What ensued was a back-and-forth about how citizen journalism sprouted on
Topix forums, and how future efforts might become professional/citizen
hybrid collaborations in journalism. Hereÿÿs an edited version of part of
that conversation.

Skrenta: I wanted to follow up with two recent posts weÿÿve done on the
continued growth of our forum system. Weÿÿre thinking weÿÿve created the
largest local citizen journalism system on the Net with our forums. Forums
often donÿÿt seem to get the nod from journalists proper to being real
citizen journalism. Iÿÿd be curious on your take here.

Glaser: Fascinating stuff. I think the big question is at what point people
in a dire situation think about Topix as the place to reach out to others.
At the moment, I canÿÿt imagine that would be the case, but maybe that will
change over time. I think right now there isnÿÿt one particular place where
people go to connect online with loved ones they think they might have lost.
Maybe thatÿÿs an opportunity waiting to happenÿÿ

Skrenta: Itÿÿs true that weÿÿre seeing success which exceeds what our audience
reach footprint would suggest. What I believe is happening is that, when
events such as these occur, people are drawn online to find more information
and to connect with others. If there is an existing, dominant communication
system for the location or topic already, people go there. But if there
isnÿÿt an existing system, the audience finds our forums, since we have
created a ÿÿdefaultÿÿ news and community resource for every place and topic.

Weÿÿve seen this over and over again, where we will have multiple witnesses
to a news event end up in our forums. It canÿÿt be explained by reach
fraction [of our overall audience], yet people are finding ways to converge
on our forums.

Glaser: You become the accidental center for citizen journalism. But one
other question: How do you trust the info that you get, the eyewitness

Skrenta: Yeah, thatÿÿs always a big question that real journalists ask. The
public doesnÿÿt have the same issue though. Theyÿÿve gotten savvier. They can
appropriately judge the sources of what they read. You read online forums
ÿÿ or blogs for that matter ÿÿ with a grain of salt, and with skepticism. The
public needs to be their own editor.

This mirrors the elimination of the middlemen in other online activities. No
more travel agents ÿÿ we all have to use the seat selectors on Expedia
ourselves now, and suffer the consequences if we botch our vacation plans.
No more stockbrokers to tell you what to invest in; hereÿÿs the Schwab
website, read some articles and make your own trades. And hereÿÿs a big pile
of first source accounts ÿÿ blogs, press releases, forums, a spectrum of news
sites from Fox to the NY Times. Read it all and make up your own mind;
everyone has to be their own editor now.

Journalists, being the middlemen, are wary of this progression. Like travel
agents, real estate agents, and others being cut out of the chain by the
Internet, they are defending their value-add. Regardless of the merits, the
trend seems clear to us.

Glaser: I understand what you mean about journalists losing their place as
the middleman. But then what will be their place in the future? They canÿÿt
be completely eliminated, but what happens to them and their authority?

Skrenta: I definitely believe thereÿÿs still a role for them. A lot of the
story collecting ÿÿ reporting ÿÿ simply wonÿÿt happen without full time
journalists paying attention and doing their jobs. Especially on local
politics, investigative journalism, consumer advocacy. I also think there is
value to the analysis that good journalism can provide around a story.

But journalists wonÿÿt have a monopoly on the newsfeed to the consumer.
Theyÿÿll be just another channel.

Glaser: My biggest question in this area is how can pro and citizen
journalists work together to do better work, and support themselves
financially? You are basically bringing them together in one way with
aggregation, but not in a face-to-face way to collaborate. Whatÿÿs the next
step here?

Skrenta: I have an answer (or answer-in-progress) for the revenue side, but
not the collaboration side.

I do think professionally produced news is very valuable, consumers want it,
they miss it if itÿÿs not available, but the delivery channels are changing
now and the monetization hasnÿÿt caught up. In print, classifieds paid for
the newsroom; online, classifieds and news have little to do with one
another. But I still believe the news is valuable, and can support itself
financially. But not with 468×60 CareerBuilder ads on the header.

Glaser: So how can original news production support itself financially
without the classifieds? With relevant ads?

Skrenta: Yes. We obtain performance monetizing news stories directly 10
times above what we see on newspaper websites. We do this by using our
categorization engine to program the advertising.

Apart from the specifics of our case, however, I think the broader industry
issue is to focus on growing incremental revenue per visitor from the web
delivery channel. Part of the reason, we believe, that news websites are not
strong in this area is because itÿÿs simply taken a back seat to other
initiatives. But focusing effort and attention in the right way can lead to
dramatic improvements.

If the news online canÿÿt pay for itself, funding the newsroom will become
challenging. Itÿÿs critical for the industry paricipants to focus their
engergy on this problem. Of course, Iÿÿm not saying anything particularly new
here, but the problem hasnÿÿt been solved yet.


What do you think? Will journalism survive and thrive online with new
business models? How will citizen journalism fit into that mix? What do you
think about Topix.netÿÿs mix of news aggregation and open forums on specific
topics and locales?


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