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Citizen journalism and the uncertain future of news Special

By David Silverberg     Apr 11, 2009 in Internet
Will citizen journalism replace traditional media? Are these reporters credible? What's the business model for citizen media? These are some of the questions addressed at the mesh 2009 conference on the future of news.
"Journalism will survive the death of its institutions." So proclaimed David Cohn, the founder of citizen media start-up site Speaking at Toronto's mesh 2009 new media conference on a panel titled "The Future of News," his statement could have been the alternate headline to the session that enlightened the audience to media's evolution.
Cohn was joined by Gabe Rivera, founder of tech-news site Techmeme, and Rachel Nixon, senior news director of NowPublic, a "crowd-sourcing" news site based in Vancouver, Canada. Curated by Mathew Ingram, the co-founder of mesh, the discussion touched on the changing media landscape and how citizen reporters play a role in writing the news as they see it.
"Citizen media offers a different voice to the conversation," Nixon said. "Instead of the old model of journalist, where newspapers dispatch reporters to the scene to interview sources, today those sources become reporters."
Cohn added, "Reporters today can make their own credentials." He knows from experience: secured a $340,000, two-year grant from the Knight Foundation to create a site where any reporter can outline a story idea and visitors can decide which story they'd like to fund partially. The online donations can help propel a story to the pages of a local Bay Area paper, or at the very least get it completed and marked with a Creative Commons license, freely available to published anywhere.
"Journalism is a right than anyone should do," Cohn said at mesh. He believes there should be no license that grants journalists a "license" to report on stories. In a "distributive society", media leaders have to rethink their models of operations.
David Cohn of
Cohn spoke at the mesh 2009 conference on The Future of News
Courtesy Kaz Ehara, Sakana Photography
But what about business models? "There's no silver bullet," Cohn maintained. Citizen media startups need to experiment with various business models, he added, and 10,000 startups might launch and 8,000 may fail. But that trial-and-error idea is important for this sector to innovate beyond its borders.
Nixon echoed Cohn, saying experimenting is essential. "What works for one organization might not work for another." She listed some examples of generating revenue: subscriptions, partnerships, syndication. "And if you fail at one thing, do it quickly and move on to something else."
Nixon was also asked about compensating citizen reporters at NowPublic. A question from the audience wondered what motivates everyday people to write articles that never pay them a cent. "The primary motivation is not money but a desire to get content out there," Nixon stresses.
Rivera piped up about his site, Techmeme. A news aggregator of Web and tech news, Techmeme combines a human and algorithm element into its posting process. "It's a powerful model, to combine the human and tech element, and it's great when the two work in concert." In one way, Techmeme blends what Google News has refined and what citizen media sites have honed.
The panelists were then asked how journalism schools should change in light of the citizen media landscape. "A lot has to change," declared Cohn, who graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism. "J-schools should teach entrepreneurial skills and how to be independent. They need to hit the streets instead of writing these coddled museum pieces taught by old-school professors."
Finally, mesh attendee asked a vital question: "Participatory journalism has been around for years. As it grows, is there a role for citizen media sites to nurture the talent posting articles or simply to provide a platform?"
Readers of often ask us the same thing...we believe that both will happen. Offering a stage to enthusiastic reporters is the first step, but has long been a fan of a hybrid type of journalism: giving citizen journalists freedom to report the news while also working them hands-on to instruct about the finer points of writing, interviewing and publishing. Nurturing talent is key to giving those brave voices some assistance in honing their craft.
NowPublic's Nixon said, "We're a platform for sure, and our job as editorial staff is to provide pointers on how to improve what a writer doing, make suggestions on putting a story together, how to get your articles seen by more people and so on. At same time, we don't have the job of traditional newsroom staffers because we don’t edit content same way a copy editor would."
Cohn said media watchers have to take a wait-and-see approach. "There are some things the public does better than journalists, and vice versa. It's important for citizen journalism sites to figure out what can be done exceptionally with participatory journalism."
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