Hearst newspapers tapping citizen journalists

It was reported this week that Hearst Newspapers would start carrying content from the citizen journalist website Helium.  Lincoln Millstein, senior VP for digital media at Hearst, said in a statement that this would help reduce costs:  “Sourcing Helium’s top-notch writers will allow us to continue to deliver superior local and lifestyle content to our readers while also taking the necessary steps to get our costs in line with today’s economic realities.”

This story made me think back to an earlier interview I did with Michael Tippett of NowPublic, another citizen journalist website.  NowPublic was proud of their partnership with the AP, but it was hard to tell how much the AP actually bought from the site.  It would have been a win-win for NowPublic:  they would have profited from it, it would have increased the reputation of the site, it would have made them a viable new financial model for the news, and their contributors would have been paid, all of which would have increased the quality of the news they produced.

There was plenty of incentive for the AP, too.  By partnering with NowPublic, they had direct access to thousands of people around the world.  If they wanted a photograph or a first hand account in a remote region where they didn't have a reporter, they now had a better chance of getting something---access that would have been impossible to fund.

But while it seemed dynamite in theory, it wasn't clear how often it worked in practice.  A year ago, a NowPublic contributor wrote to the user forum asking what the AP was actually looking for.  One of the NowPublic employees said mostly photographs, adding that they have used citizen journalists as sources for news stories in the past.  That's hardly cutting edge citizen journalism. Often, NowPublic looks more like a social networking site for people who are interested in the news, and want to write about that interest.

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According to an article in the Boston Business Journal, the Hearst newspapers would tap Helium for local and lifestyle stories.  Hearst could post up a notice with what they're interested in, and the writers could submit a story and wait to see if Hearst picks it up.  The key is that they're not trying to get news or investigative pieces, or even necessarily journalism.  Local and lifestyle fits more easily into the style of writing that citizens have proven adept at producing. 

In an interview on editorsweblog.org last year, Peter Newton, the VP of business development at Helium, touched on this middle ground, while shying away from the term citizen journalism:

"Citizen Journalism seems to be migrating to each individual's "15 minutes of fame" and further and further away from journalism. It might be fun to watch - but so were the lions and Christians in the Roman Coliseum.  With that said, Helium is not really concerned with categorizing or labeling different types of writers.  We have created a platform for people to express themselves in writing across a wide variety of topics in a civilized and substantive way, and then have the community sort for quality."

It's a similar stance that Tippett of NowPublic took.  To call someone a citizen journalist is to imply that they are trying to replicate what the newspapers are doing, only less well.  Becuase of this, a lot of time during these interviews was spent re-envisioning what the citizens are actually doing, if not journalism.

In an earlier interview with the Media Giraffe Project, Mark Ranalli, the president and CEO of Helium, said that it wasn't news, per se, but it wasn't blogging or a social networking site either.  The role he came up with was "augmenting the news." 

At the time, he meant that in a more abstract sense, but it also strikes a hopeful note for the new partnership.

You can Ranalli's media giraffe profile and that story here. Tippett's NowPublic profile can be found here.