Glenn Chapman, AFP
San Francisco: Bloggers have become the new columnists. Bystanders with digital cameras cameo are spot news photographers. And folks with personal causes have branded themselves investigative reporters.
News websites featuring videos, pictures, viewpoints and stories by users are flourishing.
“Citizen journalists” have been either reviled as an infinite number of monkeys’ banging away at keyboards or regaled as an Internet-age army delivering news from every nook and cranny of the globe.
“It is essentially a whole group of people who have had no formal training but an interest in joining the big debate,” said Christine Tatum, president of the US Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ).
In December Yahoo launched YouWitnessNews, a website that posts offerings from users after the submissions pass muster with professional editors.
Founded almost two years ago in Canada, news website NowPublic.com taps into legions of people that post pictures, videos, or commentary online.
NowPublic has more than 60,000 contributing “reporters” in more than 140 countries and expects that number to climb to 150,000 by year’s end.
NowPublic and YouWitnessNews have alliances with traditional international news wire services and provide them photos or other worthy content.
YouTube, Revver, Bebo and other video-sharing websites are popular online locales for people to post news snippets or commentary. Revver even shares ad revenues with contributors.
Websites such as Newsvine and Slashdot are community driven, with users writing stories and sharing opinions.
Reddit and Digg are popular news-ranking websites that let readers summarize and link to mainstream online news and then shape “front pages” based on the popularity of items.
The number of weblogs, or blogs, in which people post commentary online is reportedly growing at a rate of one a minute.
Traditional news organizations worldwide are yielding to the inevitability of readers, viewers or listeners changing from passive consumers to contributors of content.
“It’s ordinary people witnessing extraordinary things and sharing,” NowPublic founder Leonard Brody told AFP. “When a story goes live who will get at the truth more effectively, a writer and an editor or thousands of people?”
Citizen journalists were the sole source of images fed to cable news colossus CNN’s “I-Report” from Thailand last year after a coup there.
Contributors that Brody referred to as “accidental bystanders” with camera-enabled mobile telephones were the first to get pictures of the 2005 London terrorist bombings on the Internet.
OhmyNews in South Korea boasts tens of thousands of citizen contributors and turns a profit.
“Citizen journalism is something that is taking off huge at newspapers and all levels of journalism,” said Mark Fitzgerald, an editor-at-large for leading news industry publication Editor and Publisher.
“One of the aspects very attractive to newspapers is young people who are not reading newspapers are attracted to the idea of self-publishing and being part of the newspaper.”
Editors at Dow Jones reluctantly incorporated blogs into their online offerings despite “much infighting” about the effect on credibility at the news organization, according to Marketwatch.com Internet editor Bambi Francisco.
“Editorially they don’t want it to happen but financially they want to let it happen because it increases page views,” Francisco told a digital media summit this month in Los Angeles.
“Content provided by users is generating revenue.”
Citizen journalism is a seductive trend that is poisoning traditional news organizations, argues Andrew Keen, author of a book titled Cult of the Amateur due out in June.
Keen refers to the online maelstrom of opinions, pictures and videos as “ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule, on steroids.”
“I don’t trust it,” Keen told AFP. “The pendulum has swung so dramatically that anyone feels entitled to know better. Could you imagine if newspapers were dead and all we had was the blogosphere?”
Society stands to benefit if professional reporters are augmented, not replaced, by a multiplying number of people devoted to seeking and reporting the truth, Tatum said.
“The downside, and it’s a big downside, is a lot of these people have no exposure to media practices — laws and fundamentals of sound and responsible news reporting,” Tatum told AFP.
“People trespass, make promises they don’t keep for information, receive kickbacks, don’t give someone the right to fair reply. These are huge no-noes.”
SPJ is creating a Citizen Journalism Academy that offers training on the basics of news reporting, according to Tatum. The academy is to start in 2008.
“It is a big bad case of everybody thinking they can do someone else’s job better than they can,” Tatum said.
“If you think you don’t need mainstream media, just make that one mistake that gets you sued and then talk to me.”
The age of “crowd-source” journalism is just dawning, Brody said.
The next step will be to let stories evolve Wikipedia-style with contributors building on each others’ work by adding information or images to a collaborative online work, according to Brody and Francisco.
“More and more news collection is going to be driven by people like us,” Brody said. “For the first time in history, the monopoly news organization is gone, finished. They lost the war.”