Thirty-seven seconds long, it opens with the cameraphone swooping in on a man trying to stanch a young woman’s chest wound. She’s lying on her back, wearing jeans, blood streaming from her nose and mouth. In her last moments, she seems to stare straight at the viewer.
Filmed on a Tehran street on Saturday June 20, 2009, and posted to the Internet within minutes, the grisly video quickly spread from site to site. Seven days earlier, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadhad been re-elected in “the most free election in the world.” But his opponents were still marching in the streets to protest the result. Events were not unfolding the way the country’s regime anticipated. So it did what governments, both authoritarian and democratic, have done for over a century: it kicked out the press. If there’s something you’d rather keep hidden, then deny access to anyone who has the power to expose it.
Well, not so fast. The government could bar foreign reporters from working inside the country, confine them to their hotel rooms, even put them on a plane back home. But it proved to be much more difficult extending the same control over Iranian citizens, many of whom were using cellphones to take pictures, shoot videos and text-message directly from the front lines, then uploading the results to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
Back in the US, the talking head on CNN was excited. Working at breakneck speed and in run-on sentences, he realized the technology that allowed the images he was seeing—fires in the street, stones hurled at helmeted police, tear gas—was a very big deal, almost as big as the story itself.
… and we’re going to keep following these things and pretty much before I pop on air we grab things that have come on literally within seconds, grab them, put them into a format that you can see them and share them with you on air because the Twitter universe I’ll tell you, is playing an historic and amazing role in what’s been going on …
If that anchor had gone to journalism school, he probably would have read a textbook called The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. And he probably would have been told to pay special attention to this sentence: “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.”
But that day, the “discipline of verification” was breaking down throughout the mainstream media. Journalism has always been a hyper-competitive business. Editors and reporters have been known to go to great lengths to beat the competition to a scoop. But with more than a billion video-equipped mobile devices in circulation around the world, the first news and images of disaster—riots, plane crashes, bombings, nasty weather—now almost always come from citizens. In 2008, CNN even created a website called iReport where viewers could post their unfiltered, unedited and unverified “news” stories.
And if journalists happen to be first on the scene, exercising the “discipline of verification” usually doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time to make sure you are, to quote again from The Elements of Journalism, “getting what happened down right.” So even the nimblest, most resourceful newsrooms can appear old and plodding when measured against upload speeds.
Which is why, when confronted with amateur video of the apparent death of an innocent protester, and with CNN correspondents nowhere to be found, verification took a back seat:
… and on Facebook along with this there is posted a story that she had been a bystander at a protest and that a member of the Basij, which is the paramilitary that answer to the government, had shot her. We, as we have been emphasizing here, cannot confirm the situation, nor her name. However she is known as Neda on Twitter, many people saying that was her name…
But for hundreds of others elsewhere throughout the mainstream media, old habits kicked in. It was fine for people in Iran to post their stories and pictures online. That’s what was expected on the Web. But viewers didn’t need to turn on their TV to watch Twitter and YouTube feeds. Networks didn’t need to employ high-priced anchors and hundreds of producers for that.
“There was a lot of discussion about using those videos,” recalls David Millan, the senior producer at CBC Newsworld that Saturday. “We knew that some kind of turning point was being reached.”
In the end, Newsworld chose to hold off running the now-iconic clip of Neda (later identified as Neda Agha-Soltan, a twenty-seven-year-old student). “We didn’t know enough about it to put it on air,” Millan now says. “We couldn’t confirm or verify it and we were using our normal journalistic standards. We were trying to be fairly cautious, but we knew something was changing, and our thinking about how we were going to use pictures like those was evolving.”
But CNN was a lot less cautious. “Newsgathering,” another anchor raved, “is becoming a collective pursuit, and we welcome that.” What he also welcomed on that Saturday was another watershed moment in the relentless, unstoppable democratization of the news.
Neda’s death might very well have been missed by the mainstream media if not for a profound transformation that has upended the old relationship between journalists and their readers, viewers, and listeners. Technology—in the form of blogs, video-sharing sites, and social networks that allow users to create their own content and distribute it to the world—has helped shift the balance of power into the hands of what media critic Jay Rosen calls “the people formerly known as the audience.” It’s a revolution that’s been gathering momentum for much longer than Twitter has been on the scene.
OWNING A NEWSPAPER used to mean having a license to print money. But in Canada, shares of media giant CanWest Global—the country’s largest newspaper publisher—are now trading for pennies on the TSX. The Halifax Daily News folded in 2008, and over the past year every major newspaper company, including the Globe and Mail, announced significant layoffs. In June, Gesca—which owns La Presse, Cyberpresse and Le Soleil—put out a call among its employees for volunteers interested in taking early retirement with a buyout. In the US, long-established newspapers in major markets like Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer have ceased publication altogether, or now only appear in digital editions. Both dailies in Chicago are hovering near bankruptcy, and the New York Times is struggling to deal with a billion-dollar debt.
The age of newspapers is drawing to a close because their economic model appears to be irrevocably broken. Newspapers thrived in an age of scarcity, and one of the most precious resources was space. With only a limited number of pages available for content, editors hustled to find the right mix of sports, business, entertainment and commentary to attract the readers that advertisers were looking for. Newsstand sales and subscription fees covered only a small percentage of the publication’s cost. The rest of the tab—reporters, ink, paper, printing press, distribution—was picked up by advertisers. Newspapers also benefited because competition was slim. Confined to what was available in their local market, readers didn’t have many options if they weren’t happy with what they were getting. Newspapers spoke to them; journalism was lecture, not conversation, and it worked splendidly for publishers for a long time.
No more. Scarcity has been replaced by abundance. Readers don’t need to rely on the local paper to get their news fix. Satellite dishes now provide access to twenty-four-hour news channels from Canada, the US and Europe. Readers can also scan their newspaper online, choose from thousands of other papers from around the world, or select one of millions of other news sites, radio stations and blogs—all for the price of an internet connection.
As a result, paid circulation—what advertisers study when agreeing to rates—is dropping. At the industry’s peak in 1984, sixty-three million newspapers were sold daily in the US. Today that number is closer to thirty-three million.
As circulation continues to fall, more advertisers will seek other ways to get their message across to potential customers. The impact of this on newspapers, which still shoulder the cost of maintaining traditional structures and editorial processes, has been devastating. This year, American ad revenues fell 30 percent, the largest annual decline since the industry started keeping track in 1950. Hardest hit were classifieds, typically a cash cow for newspapers. The result was billions of dollars in lost profits as readers took their unwanted stereos, apartment rentals and used cars to free sites like Craigslist. Without advertising, newspapers lose a core revenue generator. So severe is the threat that in July, the Toronto Star outsourced its classified ads department to a Buffalo-based company, cutting twenty-seven jobs.
Making the situation grimmer is the fact that young readers are increasingly only interested in getting their news online. In the US, in 1972, nearly half of those aged eighteen to twenty-two read a newspaper; by 2005, less than a quarter did. A recent Canadian survey on attitudes towards the media found that among those eighteen to twenty-four years old, only 7 percent considered newspapers “very important,” compared to 46 percent for the internet. And there’s little reason to believe that today’s youth will suddenly embrace paper once they get older. In 1972, three-quarters of Americans aged thirty-four to thirty-seven read newspapers; by 2005, only one-third did.
And so newspapers have been spending money they don’t have beefing up their digital content, adding new websites, and introducing audio and video to give readers a richer experience. But on average, online advertising accounts for only about 10 percent of a newspaper’s total ad revenue, and though that percentage will undoubtedly rise over time, online ads will never be as valuable a source of revenue as the print ads they are replacing.
To add insult to injury, the majority of online readers never actually see the newspapers’ carefully designed front-page portal. They arrive at their desired story through search engines or news aggregators or links provided by blogs, tweets, Facebook or online friends. Those readers could come from anywhere—further reducing the appeal for local advertisers—and they’re often drawn by their curiosity for a particular story, not loyalty to the newspaper’s brand. Many may not even know the name of the paper they’re reading.
The good news for reporters—those of them left—is that many of their stories now have a worldwide audience. Their readership has never been bigger. That’s why the US-based Project for Excellence in Journalism declared last year that the “crisis in journalism” is not strictly a loss of audience, but “the decoupling of news and advertising” caused by “the emerging reality that advertising isn’t migrating online with the consumer.”
But the “crisis in journalism” runs much deeper than the industry’s shaky economics. Only a cockeyed optimist would think that selling more banner ads or “monetizing” more online content could solve the woes currently besetting the mainstream media in general, and newspapers in particular. That’s because the fundamental “crisis in journalism” is not really economic or technological; it is existential. The assumptions that governed journalism for more than a century, assumptions that elevated it to the heights of the democratic pantheon, are now being questioned.
In a 2008 Angus Reid poll, only 49 percent of Canadians said they had a great deal or fair amount of respect for journalists; down from 73 percent in a similar 1994 poll. Back then, journalists ranked slightly behind members of the clergy; now, they are struggling to stay ahead of lawyers. The reason for the disrepute can be found in a survey conducted for the first Future of News Summit in Toronto last spring. A bare majority believe news organizations get their facts straight; nearly two-thirds believe the media cover up their mistakes.
An American poll taken in 2007 revealed similar bad news. Only 19 percent believed all or most news reporting. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that between 1985 and 2002, the number of Americans who thought news organizations were “highly professional” went from 72 percent to 49. Those who thought the press was “moral” dropped from 54 percent to 39. And those who thought it “got the facts straight” fell 20 percent to 35.
This is clearly problematic for an institution whose credibility is its only real currency, though these wounds are self-inflicted. We live in an age that is more fractious, less deferential, more skeptical and more eager to be entertained than informed. The press, particularly TV, has fostered these trends and has profited handsomely from them. But there was always going to be a price to be paid, and it now appears the bill has come due.
Then there are the high-profile plagiarism scandals; the unwillingness to stand up to the rich and powerful; the failure to ask the right questions in the lead-up to the Iraq war; the eagerness with which standards and ethics are sacrificed for profits; the pandering to the lowest common denominator. And then add to that an arrogance and misplaced sense of privilege that has further eroded the connection between the press and its audience.
Consider a 2006 book by Glenn Reynolds, who publishes a leading US political blog called Instapundit. It’s called An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths. The inclusion of “big media” in that list of “goliaths” begging to be slain is clearly not a good sign.
Or consider the blogosphere’s barely suppressed schadenfreude over the way journalists were sidelined during the political upheaval in Iran. The fact that breaking news had occurred without the filter of a media institution was, for many, something to be celebrated (“While Twitter provided updates to the world,” one user sneered, “Larry King gave us Jeff Foxworthy.”)
But it’s one thing to believe that mainstream media has shot itself in the foot and deserves some kind of comeuppance, and quite another to argue that the solution lies in using an army of untrained, unpaid giant-slayers called “citizen journalists.”
Now that audiences are no longer content to be passive consumers of news, how do they intend to separate the wheat from the chaff? In the old scarcity model, readers relied on editors to synthesize mountains of information and point them towards the truth. Today, the argument goes, people peruse a dozen news sources a day, so they are already exposed to several different perspectives on a story, and therefore don’t need editors to tell them what to think. According to the new abundance model, the accuracy of each individual source becomes less important because it is one among many. At least, that’s the theory.
To which, Kirk LaPointe, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, responds: “Special interest groups, businesses, all kinds of players are profoundly good at cultivating information in such a way and disseminating it in such a way that we can be wildly misled.” For LaPointe, gatekeepers—full-time, paid, professional journalists, disinterested and unattached to any political or commercial sponsor—are necessary to keep the misleaders at bay.
The problem is that those gatekeepers have too often kept everyone else at bay too. Take, for example, the controversy that erupted in 2008 when the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complained to various human rights commissions about an article that Mark Steyn published in Maclean’s. The CIC considered the piece hateful to Muslims, and was angry over the magazine’s refusal to provide a forum for their grievances. Ignore for now the issue of whether the complaint was legitimate, or whether human rights commissions should have jurisdiction over such issues, and focus on the mainstream Canadian media response: near-universal outrage.
The Globe and Mail described the CIC as “grievance-mongers.” The National Post called the investigation “an insult to free speech,” and proclaimed that “freedom of the press [does not] carry with it an obligation to give space to views opposed to those held by the press’ owners or their editors.” The editors then helpfully pointed out that no one was stopping the complainants from starting their own newspaper or magazine, thereby confirming A. J. Liebling’s observation that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those that own one.”
Looking back at the behaviour of the mainstream press over the past two decades, it’s hard to conclude that the decline in public trust is anything but justified. But right on cue, an alternative has emerged that allows frustrated audiences to take news reporting and distribution into their own hands. When Time magazine in 2006 named “you” as its Person of the Year, thereby recognizing the growing power of social networks, it declared, “this is a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before.” One of the characteristics of those online communities is that their members are consistently more inclined to trust each other than anyone who wears the mantle of “expert”—and that includes reporters and editors. With growing speed, the professional filter is giving way to the social filter. In its 2006 “Trust Survey,” Edelman Public Relations discovered that the answer to the question, “Who do you trust?” is increasingly, “People like me.” “We have reached an important juncture,” concluded company CEO Richard Edelman, “where the lack of trust in established institutions and figures of authority has motivated people to trust their peers as the best sources of information.”
This means that, economic troubles aside, the “crisis in journalism” won’t be solved until the Fourth Estate and the public come to some agreement about how their relationship will be re-invented in the twenty-first century: why journalism matters, and who has the right to deliver it.
IN AUGUST OF 2008, I attended the 77th annual Couchiching Conference at Geneva Park, an hour’s drive north of Toronto. The topic of the three-day retreat was “The Power of Knowledge: The New Global Currency.” But it was the debate on the second evening that created the most buzz. The question posed was “Citizen Journalism or Amateur Hour?” and it featured a couple of heavyweights. Speaking for citizen journalism was Paul Sullivan, who was then editor-in-chief of Orato.com (Latin for “I speak”), a Vancouver-based citizen journalism site whose motto at the time was “citizen news: your story, your words.”
Sullivan was the host of the CBC radio morning show in Vancouver in the mid-1990s. He had also been the western editor of the Globe and Mail, managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, editor-in-chief of the Winnipeg Sun, and senior news editor at The Journal on CBC TV. In other words, he was as mainstream a journalist as you could get in Canada.
But in much the same way that former smokers become the most militant anti-smokers, Paul Sullivan has morphed into a passionate defender of citizen journalism, and a sharp critic of the mainstream outlets that kept him so well fed for so many years. “I think there are no more free rides, no more entitlement,” he told me when I asked him about his barely disguised contempt for mainstream media. “Let’s have openness, let’s have information exchange, let’s have intelligence, but let’s not have entitlement, and if that’s what the mainstream media want to keep bringing to the table, then enough of them already.”
Sullivan was especially regretful of the gatekeeping role he had played for so many years as a print and broadcast journalist. His central argument was that the concentration of power in the hands of the traditional media had caused people to feel alienated because they had legitimate stories to tell, but no opportunity to tell them. And when they were given the opportunity, their stories were appropriated by journalists acting as “gatekeepers.” At Orato, he said, “editors work for the correspondents instead of the other way around.”
Sullivan’s sparring partner was just as unlikely an advocate for his own side. Andrew Keen made his money during Silicon Valley’s first internet boom in the 1990s. But in 2007, he decided, like Sullivan, to bite the hand that once fed him, and wrote a highly provocative book called The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture. It was an attack on what he considered the mythologies of Web 2.0, including the idea that amateurs had a role in the world of journalism. Since then, Keen has traveled the world, embracing every opportunity to stick pins into the Web 2.0 bubble, which is precisely what had brought him to the shores of Lake Couchiching on a muggy August night.
Sparks flew almost immediately. “What’s a citizen journalist?” Sullivan asked rhetorically. “Turn to the person next to you. That’s a citizen journalist.” No it’s not, Keen responded. “When you turned to each other, you didn’t see a citizen journalist, you saw a citizen. There’s a difference,” he said. “A citizen is someone who votes. A journalist is someone who reports on the world, particularly who reports on the world outside themselves. Paul’s definition of a citizen journalist is someone who has an opinion.”
Unsurprisingly, they also clashed over the role of the editorial gatekeeper. “In mainstream media,” Sullivan argued, “what we call the news has been a one-way conversation for too long. We finally have the technology to talk back and we don’t have to put up with some gatekeeper making decisions for us in a newsroom, about what we can and cannot have access to.”
When Sullivan was running Orato.com, he sent two former sex workers to cover the trial of serial killer Robert Pickton, a Port Coquitlam, B.C. pig farmer who preyed on Downtown East Side prostitutes. He ran their observations unedited. “At some level,” he told the audience, “you have to give people the opportunity to say it without being mediated. That’s what freedom of expression is all about, right? It’s your story, you get to tell it.”
Keen wasn’t buying it. Verification, for him, was a collaborative process between editor and reporter. If no one is asking the writer, “How do you know this is true?” how can we be sure it is? “My point generally,” he declared, “is that the more people, the more layers that exist between the author and the reader, the more reliable it is, the better quality, the more value it brings to media. If you care about quality, honesty, veracity, and credibility, then mainstream media is superior.”
Sullivan countered that the effectiveness of such gatekeeping was vastly overblown, pointing to, among other examples, the New York Times plagiarist Jayson Blair, who cooked up fictious stories and managed to escape detection for years. Calling the verification argument “the last resort of a desperate mainstream media community,” Sullivan insisted that it’s a “blatant oversimplification” to suggest that professional journalists adhere to standards of accuracy and citizen journalists do not.
At the core of Sullivan’s answer to the verification question is the notion of “the wisdom of crowds.” “Citizen journalism may not be bound by some sort of professional ethic,” he pointed out, “but they’re bound by ethics, they’re bound by the comment gallery, and the peanut gallery is quite vociferous when anybody spots a problem.” Make a mistake at sites like Allvoices (“where anyone can report from anywhere”) or Thisisdiversity (“Your World, Your Voice”) or try to pull a fast one, and you will be quickly exposed, your credibility will be shot, and you will lose the rewards that come with online success: seeing your work linked up and spread around the Web. This self-correcting mechanism is critical to the citizen journalism model. There is an editorial filter in place, but the collaborators have changed.
That the burden of determining truth no longer lies in the hands of a reporter and editor means that journalists and their audiences can interact in ways impossible before. Some, like California newspaper columnist Dan Gillmor, have adapted. “I take it for granted,” he writes in his book We The Media (2004), “that my readers know more than I do, and this is a liberating not threatening fact of journalistic life. Every reporter on every beat should embrace this. We will use the tools of grassroots journalism or be consigned to history.”
For other old media journalists, it will take some getting used to. It’s the difference between seeing journalism as a process or as a product. Newspaper reporters work hard to make their stories as good and as accurate as possible given the limitations of time, access and other variables, because once those stories reach their audience, there is—as Sullivan is quick to remind us—a notorious, and often infuriating, reluctance to admit errors.
A few years ago, Scott Maier, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, conducted a survey of 3,600 people who had been named as primary news sources in stories from ten major market American newspapers. His researchers asked these sources whether the stories that appeared in the paper were accurate. It turns out that more than 60 percent of the stories contained errors of fact. More damning still, fewer than 2 percent of those errors were ever corrected in print. Maier found that 130 of the sources had asked that the mistakes be corrected, but their complaints resulted in only four corrections. Maier’s study didn’t look at error and correction rates in broadcast media, but when was the last time you heard a correction offered on a radio or television news story?
If mainstream journalists see the stories they publish as products completed upon delivery, citizen journalists see their stories as works in progress. They engage readers in an interactive exercise that is never really finished as long as there is information to be added, or, in some cases, subtracted. So while citizen journalism sites may contain more errors, they will likely be corrected more quickly, and with fewer hassles, than on mainstream sites.
That’s partly because the legal stakes for getting something wrong are much higher for traditional news. Media companies employ teams of high-priced lawyers because anyone who feels they have been libeled can sue both the person who uttered the libel, and the outlet that broadcast or printed it.
But those rules don’t apply to sites that allow their content to appear unfiltered. Using a legal defense still untested in Canadian courts, they argue that because they do not see material before it is posted online, they are not legally responsible for it. They regard themselves as distributors of content, not publishers, much in the way a telephone company can’t be blamed for any slanderous content transmitted through their phone lines onto the radio.
To date, nobody has challenged this interpretation, but Kirk LaPointe believes it’s only a matter of time. As the managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, LaPointe spends lots of time and money keeping his paper out of court. He describes the current situation online as “the wild west,” but he thinks the sheriff will soon be coming to town. “The people who are offended and defamed and are treated cavalierly by people who just think that they can go online and say whatever they want are going to have their way awfully soon,” he argues. “Hosting a portal where everybody can say what they want doesn’t mean that the guy in his pajamas in his basement isn’t one day going to be hauled into court.”
If Lapointe is right, and the courts ultimately decide that these sites are indeed publishers and not strictly distributors, the entire model of citizen journalism could come crashing down. Gatekeepers would be back in business, at least as far as determining whether a story passes the legal smell test.
Those are worries for the future. For now, stories continue to be posted directly onto the sites. Readers—i.e., “the community”—vote for stories they want to see featured, weigh in with their comments and correct errors. But there’s another important role gatekeepers play that is undermined in a world where content is published directly to the web. Gatekeepers have historically been the custodians of standards. It is an article of faith amongst editors and producers that long hours spent re-writing and re-structuring stories results in a better product. They’ve always believed audiences appreciated the effort. But maybe not.
Now that audiences can have it all, what do they really want? What does journalism without gatekeepers look like?
THERE WAS A TIME when the massive shrines that housed newspapers reflected their dominant position in society. The New York Times skyscraper in midtown Manhattan. Chicago’s majestic Tribune Tower. The Toronto Star tower at the foot of Yonge Street. That’s why when I set out to find the newspapers of the future, it seemed odd to be walking up a seedy block of Seymour Street in downtown Vancouver, between Pender and Dunsmuir.
This area, however, happens to be home to one of the most closely watched experiments in citizen journalism. On the second floor of the turn-of-the-century Arts and Craft building, right next to Casanova Jewellers, you’ll find the headquarters of NowPublic.com. It’s just a few blocks away from Granville Square, the thirty-storey tower that houses both the Vancouver Sun and the Province. More than a hundred reporters and editors are needed to ready the stories for those daily publications, and hundreds more employees run the presses, sell the ads and deliver the paper to newsstands and doorsteps.
By contrast, only a couple of dozen people work at NowPublic. None of them are reporters. It looks more like an internet start-up than a newsroom. And yet, the company—which was founded in 2005 and has raised more than $11 million in private venture capital—has a big dream: to become the world’s largest newsgathering organization, “the new Reuters.”
That’s somewhat surprising, since neither of the site’s co-founders have any background in journalism. Both are Vancouver-based, thirty-something, veteran internet entrepreneurs. Michael Tippett, the company’s chief marketing officer, created one of Canada’s first internet companies back in 1995, while CEO Leonard Brody has several startups under his belt, and is an internationally known technology consultant and author. In 2007, Time magazine named their news site one of the top fifty websites of the year. “Nowhere are the merits of citizen journalism more apparent than at NowPublic,” the magazine proclaimed.
Tippett and Brody, however, refuse to use the term “citizen journalism” to describe what they do. “We are part of the user-generated news business,” Brody insists. “I think the term ‘citizen journalism’ is ridiculous. I think it’s like telling someone they’re going to be a citizen dentist.”
Like most people who try to get rich dreaming up new ways to harness the potential of the internet, Brody and Tippett saw an opening. With hundreds of millions of camera-equipped cell phones, video recorders, and other devices in the hands of people around the world, Tippett says they anticipated “an explosion of content from unconventional sources.” If they could “build a platform” to take advantage of that content, one that ordinary people could participate in, they could “create what we think is the largest news organization in the world, because anyone is a potential reporter.”
Of course, there are several important differences between the “old” Reuters (now Thomson Reuters) and the “new” Reuters. Calling itself “crowd-powered media,” and with a stable of more than 170,000 “correspondents” in 160 countries, NowPublic already dwarfs the roughly two thousand people on the editorial staff at Reuters. The difference is that Reuters reporters and editors are trained journalists, while NowPublic correspondents are, well, citizens.
At Reuters, people get paid for producing content. At NowPublic they do not. Reuters correspondents covering breaking news frequently use eyewitnesses, but they filter and attempt to verify that eyewitness testimony before incorporating it into their stories. At NowPublic, eyewitness testimony is posted directly to the Web, unfiltered and unverified.
The NowPublic front page is arranged in much the same way as any other news site. The big stories of the day are prominently featured. And there are sections that cover health news, the arts, the environment and all the rest. On a conventional news site, the top stories are chosen by editors, who generally rely on their years of experience and “nose for news” to help them determine what stories are new, interesting and important. At NowPublic, the editors are more accurately described as enablers. “We don’t make decisions about what is or is not newsworthy,” explains Rachel Nixon, a former BBC online producer and editor, who, until leaving to become director of digital media at the CBC in June, was NowPublic’s news director. “Those decisions are primarily decided by members of community who can flag materials. If other people think it’s interesting then that story will graduate up the ranks. What the community decides is important floats to the top.”
So on a day last summer when most mainstream news sites were focused on the worsening war in Afghanistan and the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing, the NowPublic community had voted for “Migaloo, World’s Only White Humpback Whale, Could be Hunted” as its top story. That story, which was posted by a member of the NowPublic staff, was typical of most of the news content on the site. For all its talk about eyewitness reporting and “explosions of content from unconventional sources,” NowPublic generates very little original reporting. The whale story came from the website of the British newspaper the Telegraph. Most stories are cut and pasted from a mainstream site, with a few lines written by the contributor. And since real names aren’t required, top NowPublic correspondents include “albertacowpoke,” “LotusFlower” and “Babel-Fish.”
So what’s the appeal? In the absence of major breaking stories like the Iran election, why would anyone look to NowPublic as a source of news? Yes, you can get stories from a wider range of sources than you can on a mainstream site, but you can do the same thing by using search engines and aggregators like Google News. What you can’t do there, or on a conventional news site, is join a social network. In the age of social media, journalism has become a social tool. Think of NowPublic as Facebook for news junkies.
One of those news junkies is Margi Blamey, a Vancouver grandmother who started writing for NowPublic last fall. Her daughter and granddaughter were both contributors, and she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Before long, she was spending at least an hour a day searching the Web for stories to post, and commenting on and recommending stories posted by others. She’s written and commented on a wide range of topics, from labour and social justice issues, to stories about food, gardening and even sea creatures.
Blamey confesses to loving CBC Radio, but admits her enthusiasm for most mainstream media has waned since she discovered NowPublic. And the reason is that NowPublic offers something better: friends. “I bump into people on NowPublic, and it is clear that we share a common interest,” she tells me over the phone. “And as that’s come about, we built a community that isn’t based on geography, it’s based on issues and interest, and in a lot of cases, on wanting to talk on a variety of points of view on an issue.”
NowPublic is currently “pre-revenue,” which is internet-speak for losing money. It hopes to turn that around in the next year through a combination of revenue generators. One is charging people to advertise and post promotional content on the site; another is licensing and selling the technology that NowPublic has developed to other user-generated content sites. Potentially the most important source of revenue will come from syndicating stories to mainstream outlets like the Associated Press, with whom they have already signed an agreement to provide content.
Co-founder Brody argues that breaking news has always been a loss leader for newspapers and broadcasters, and the eyewitness reporting provided by NowPublic correspondents can allow mainstream outlets to focus on what they do best, namely analysis and context. Jim Kennedy, AP’s vice president and director of strategic planning, heralded the partnership in 2007 as a great fit. “In a world where people have the tools at their disposal to contribute on a regular basis you’d be foolish not to tap into that.”
Of course, Kennedy was quick to point out at the time that NowPublic material would only get the AP stamp of approval after it had been authenticated and verified. That doesn’t happen now on the NowPublic site. But the question remains: how are the AP authenticators going to corroborate stories by frequently anonymous correspondents? Furthermore fundamentally changes the nature of reporting to ask a journalist sitting at a desk in Toronto to do the “analytical part” of an terrorist attack in Pakistan—who’s doing it and why—by relying on reports from eyewitnesses whose reliability cannot really be vouched for. There is no doubt that NowPublic is a useful social network for news junkies like Blamey, but it is not the “new Reuters.” Nor is it likely to be the future of news.
But there is another Canadian citizen journalism site, newer and smaller than NowPublic, that may be closer to what news will look like. It’s called DigitalJournal.com, and it operates out of a trendy New York-style loft on the fifth floor of a restored Sears mail-order warehouse in downtown Toronto. When you enter, you’re asked to remove your shoes for fear of scuffing the floor. The office is located almost directly across the street from the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. Both the CEO and managing editor of DigitalJournal are recent graduates, and perhaps because of that, they seem to understand some important truths about the strengths and weaknesses of citizen journalism.
“The biggest knock against citizen journalism is that you can’t trust it,” acknowledges Chris Hogg, the twenty-seven-year-old CEO. “People put their faith in the mainstream media because you can verify and fact-check it. So when you can integrate that with citizen media, we see a real future there.”
Both Hogg and his twenty-nine-year-old managing editor David Silverberg act as real editors, carefully vetting the seventy-five to one hundred stories that get filed every day by the site’s seventeen thousand correspondents worldwide. They proudly wear the title of gatekeeper. Give a quote to a DigitalJournal reporter, and don’t be surprised if you get a call from Hogg or Silverberg checking up on whether you’ve been quoted accurately. There’s no relying on the wisdom of the crowd or the web’s self-correcting mechanism.
This is definitely not Paul Sullivan’s idea of citizen journalism. “We don’t want to open the floodgates,” says Silverberg. “That can lead to sloppily written articles, inaccuracy, bias and spam.” So if you’re going to write for DigitalJournal, you’d better be prepared to use your real name. And you’ll have to submit a bio, a sample of your writing, and some indication that you know what a news story is before the duo will give you their stamp of approval. They believe in quality rather than quantity, and have no interest in creating a social network.
And if you are picked to write for the site, you’ll actually have to write. Cutting and pasting articles from other sources is not allowed. If you’re having difficulty, you can join Hogg and Silverberg in one of their monthly live blogs, where they offer instruction on different aspects of news writing.
It sounds daunting, but at least you won’t be asked to work for free. Unlike most citizen journalism sites, DigitalJournal believes contributors should get paid for what they write. Your compensation is based on the number of pageviews your story attracts, and how many votes it gets from readers. News stories pay more than opinion pieces. You won’t get rich doing this. At the moment, the most active contributors can earn between $200 and $500 a month, but as a principle, paying writers for their work is a step in the right direction.
Where that money comes from is unclear. Hogg says DigitalJournal is “privately financed” but he won’t say by whom, or how much money has been invested. He does concede that it, too, is currently “pre-revenue.” The site does make some money from advertising, but probably not enough to pay writers, the five employees and the rent on the downtown loft.
DigitalJournal began in 1998 as a traditional online technology site, but in 2006, it broadened its focus and started accepting contributions from outsiders, with the lofty goal of “democratizing the media.” Like NowPublic, it eventually hopes to be able to syndicate material to mainstream news outlets. “We want to be seen as a credible news source with citizen correspondents all over the world,” Hogg asserts. “We see ourselves as complementary to mainstream media, not competitive with them. They’re looking for other places to find content, and we’re cost effective and fact-checked and well-written, so we have an extreme competitive advantage over other citizen journalism sites.”
One day that may be true, but at the moment DigitalJournal’s reach still exceeds its grasp. The attempt to inject quality into citizen journalism is to be applauded, but despite Hogg and Silverberg’s best efforts, much of the writing is still journalism-school quality, and there is still a lot of reporting about places the writer has never visited, and possesses no obvious expertise. A article about the then-upcoming Afghan election was written by a correspondent in Minnesota who had never been to Afghanistan, but had obviously read accounts from various media sources. That same day, CBC Radio ran an election story on its newscast by a correspondent who had spent several months on the ground in Afghanistan. Is there any doubt which journalist brought greater value to that story?
But if present trends continue, the day is approaching when the CBC, the Globe and Mail and others in the traditional press will no longer be able to afford to fly their correspondents around the world, or even send them to cover city hall, the provincial legislature or Parliament Hill. Mainstream media has historically relied on freelancers and “stringers” to fill gaps in their own reporting. As those gaps get bigger, they will need to be filled somehow.
What Hogg and Silverberg are attempting to do is create a worldwide network of trained and trusted freelancers whose first loyalty would be to DigitalJournal, but could ultimately serve the mainstream as well. Whether they can pull it off remains to be seen, but DigitalJournal, with its rather old-fashioned commitment to the discipline of verification, seems a more likely complement to traditional media than NowPublic ever will be.
Another promising glimpse into the future came during last year’s US presidential campaign. Off the Bus was an experiment run by the popular news site the Huffington Post. It brought together a small group of professional editors and about 3,000 “amateurs” who filed stories on how the campaign was unfolding in their communities. The stories were reviewed by the Huffington Post editors and posted on the site.
Off the Bus produced the first “star” of the citizen journalism age, a sixty-one-year-old woman from California named Mayhill Fowler, who used her own money to follow the candidates around the country. She broke two important stories during the campaign; Bill Clinton describing Vanity Fair journalist Todd Purdham as a “slime ball” for his report on Clinton’s post-presidental years, and Barack Obama calling working class people in Pennsylvania “bitter” at an event that was closed to reporters covering the campaign.
The secret to her success, she told me when I interviewed her at a political blogger conference in New York, was that she kept herself at a “middle distance”—not as close and cozy as the accredited mainstream reporters, but closer than the bloggers who wrote about the campaign without ever leaving their apartments.
The most encouraging thing about Off the Bus is that it joined together the expertise of pros, and the enthusiasm and originality of amateurs in a way that brought added value to the campaign coverage. You often learned something new by going to the site. DigitalJournal is trying to develop a similar kind of sustainable pro-amateur model for news reporting. It seems clear that the future lies somewhere along that road; Goliath and David playing on the same team.
But there will be many bumps along the way. Many perceptive critics continue to doubt that there is any significant role for amateurs in journalism. David Simon is one of them. He’s a former Baltimore Sun reporter, and the creator of the gritty police drama The Wire. At a US Senate hearing last spring, Simon argued that high-end journalism “requires daily full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending.” It was “absurd,” he said, to think that city officials and chief executives could be held to account “by amateurs who pursue the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, without sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.” The next few years, he concluded, are shaping up to be good for corrupt politicians.
David Simon is undoubtedly correct that the role professional journalists have historically played—agents of the public engaged in battle against corruption and wrong-doing by governments and big business—will never be completely filled by self-styled reporters, journo-hobbyists and well-intentioned amateurs. Given the amount of information we’re exposed to everyday, the wisdom of crowds can only carry us so far. There will likely be a growing need for gatekeepers who have the knowledge and experience to help make sense of it all. And those people will have to be paid for their labour.
But the future of news will clearly not look like the past. There will not be a small group of professional truth-tellers whom we call journalists, with everyone else looking on, hungry for instruction. Those days are gone. If we didn’t know that before, we learned it when broadcasters reached out to those Twitter feeds and YouTube videos from the streets of Tehran.
And while it may be legitimate to raise concerns about the breakdown in the “discipline of verification,” it is hard not to be impressed by the way pros and amateurs together helped thwart the best laid plans of the Iranian regime. It was a real-time dramatization of what can happen when the editorial gates are stormed: a chance to bring the public back into traditional journalism—not as just another interest group that needs to be placated, or as “real people” to whom lip service must be paid, but as genuine participants. That’s what the mainstream can learn from citizen journalism. Let’s call it a good idea, and get on with it.
(See the rest of Issue 33, Fall 2009.)