AP: Traditional news organizations experiment with citizen journalism

Sunday, October 09, 2005

By Anick Jesdanun, The Associated Press

NEW YORK -- MSNBC invited viewers to share photos of their interactions with the late Pope John Paul II, while The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., anointed eight readers with the power to publicly criticize the newspaper's coverage on its very Web site.

Newspapers in Greensboro, N.C., and Boulder, Colo., are even letting citizens write their own news stories -- on weddings, awards, even a missing cat named Banjo. Most go on the Web, but the best of the "hyper-local" news stories get printed.

Traditional news organizations are dipping their toes in citizen journalism, engaging readers and viewers in news production with the help of the Internet, camera phones and other technologies.

Yet there's frustrations in some circles that so-called mainstream media aren't going far and fast enough.

"It sort of requires a rethinking of the entire traditional news process, and that's hard for news organizations to do," said J.D. Lasica, a veteran journalist who co-founded Ourmedia.org, where citizens freely exchange digital works. "In citizen journalism the traditional gatekeeper role of the journalist is thrown out the window."

Phil Noble, a political consultant who runs PoliticsOnline, held as a gold standard the Korean alternative news site OhmyNews, whose postings by thousands of citizens have shaken up the traditional media and political establishments. It's no surprise, he said, that such successes come from outside the media mainstream.

"OhmyNews is based on the theory that every citizen is a journalist, every voice is legitimate," Mr. Noble said. "Traditional media begins with the premise that our voice is authoritative and our voice is better informed."

Not that traditional media organizations, faced with declining readership, viewership and trust, aren't thinking seriously about ways to encourage dialogue.

The topic comes up repeatedly at media conferences, including this week's We Media organized by The Media Center, a media think tank based in Reston, Va., and held at the New York headquarters of The Associated Press, a 157-year-old news outfit.

"To have something under your banner that you don't vouch for, that's not in the DNA of most news organizations," said Dan Gillmor, a former newspaper columnist who now runs Bayosphere, an independent citizen-journalism site for the San Francisco area.

Among the concerns: accuracy, reputation and liability.

"If Yahoo puts up blogs, that's one thing. They are not making any representations," said Larry Kramer, who heads digital operations for CBS. "We as a news organization have to live with the fact that people look at us as an organization that reports credible information."

So while the public can submit questions and complaints to its new "Public Eye" Web journal, no submission gets posted without editorial scrutiny.

Contrast that with independently funded operations like Backfence, where readers in three communities near Washington, D.C., can write on any topic. Readers can report abuse after the fact.

"We are more nimble. We are more flexible," said Susan DeFife, Backfence's chief executive. "We trust our audience."

The Spokesman-Review considered a reader-submission site but shelved it because it wanted to review all postings first and didn't have enough resources. Instead, the paper pre-selected eight readers to participate in a Web journal; although postings aren't vetted, they the readers are restricted to discussing the paper's coverage.

The MSNBC cable network encourages citizens to submit text, photos and video. After the pope died, for instance, the network actively sought "remembrances, eyewitness accounts and people sending us their photographs of when they had met the pope," said Jeanne Rothermich, its vice president of interactive strategy.

"It adds an additional voice, an authentic voice," she said.

Still, MSNBC posts on its Web site or broadcasts less than 1 percent of submissions.

The BBC is giving video cameras to selected Birmingham residents to cover cattle shows and other events for a satellite channel. After the London bombings in July, the BBC site solicited eyewitness photographs from camera phones and digital cameras.

Yet nothing goes up without editorial review.

When one site tried to give readers full control -- The Los Angeles Times let readers rewrite the paper's editorials online -- it quickly pulled the feature after finding it flooded with foul language and pornographic photos.

A few papers have been more liberal about user submissions. The Daily Camera of Boulder has given a few well-known local groups "trusted status" to post directly. The News & Record of Greensboro edits stories submitted by the public "very lightly," said Lex Alexander, its citizen-journalism coordinator.

Backers of citizen journalism say that many larger news outlets have the financial cushion to experiment should a project or two fail, but if they don't engage readers now, Internet startups and larger companies will.

Already, Google Inc. is inviting filmmakers to submit video for sharing, and a project called Wikinews lets readers submit stories and edit those from others.

At Wednesday's We Media conference, Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC World Service and Global News Division, compared citizen journalism to fans charging on a field to play alongside professional athletes.

"It may well be that the original teams are the most skilled people out there," he said, "but we are in a different game."