Citizen Journalists vs Journalists

Citizen journalists are usually passionate about what they cover. That’s the problem. As a journalist you can’t be passionate about it because 

  • you are supposed to be impartial (this doesn’t mean you don’t care; it means you listen with a detached but compassionate ear). And I reject arguments that this is not possible. Of course it’s not always possible, but it’s an aspiration. That’s the key difference 
  • you may have to cover something you don’t care about. A professional journalist would cover a topic whether they cared about it or not; that’s what a professional does. 

I’m not rejecting citizen journalism. I’m arguing that citizen journalism is a deeply flawed model if it’s supposed to supplant traditional journalism, because it’s rooted in a misunderstanding of what the profession actually does. 

Strangled by the Grassroots

 Steve Outing writes a bittersweet eulogy to his failed startup, the Enthusiast Group, which tried to build a business around grassroots media. His conclusion: with the exception of one or two sites that make it big (YouTube, Flickr) user generated content is not strong enough to stand on its own.

In my view — and based in part on my experience with the Enthusiast Group project — user content when it stands on its own is weak. But it’s powerful when appropriately combined with professional content, and properly targeted.

It’s an important lesson to learn. Steve found that while quite a bit of content came in, it was of such varied quality that it just didn’t hold users’ attention. YouTube and Flickr made it big, and so while there’s tons of rubbish on both, there’s still enough to engage and entertain users. The fact that both make it easy to find the best stuff (usually because it’s the stuff a lot of people are looking at) helps.

What Steve found is that on smaller sites, however good your good stuff is, if you’ve got bad or mediocre stuff for most of your content, you’ve got a mediocre publication. Unless it’s highly targeted, hyperlocal content it just won’t hold the reader’s/viewer’s interest.

Of course, the bigger lesson here is that quality matters. Which means good writing/photography/video/reporting/editing still matters. Which means that despite all our fears, journalists still matter. What we’ve yet to do is find out how best to merge citizen journalism with professional journalism. Or, as Steve concludes:

I depart my latest venture nevertheless convinced that grassroots or user content is immensely powerful. We just have to figure out how best to leverage it.

An Important Lesson About Grassroots Media

Enthusiast Group enters deadpool reflectively

When Old Media Buys a Community

MSNBC, owned by MSN and NBC, has bought Newsvine, a sort of citizen journalism, blogging and news-sharing site. But who stands to lose from the deal, and what does it tell us about the equity of Web 2.0?

One commenter on the page that announces the news hits the nail firmly on the head:

In the end I feel dejected, sad and I guess just a little like we should have seen this one coming. What, pray tell is going to happen to OUR huge sums of ad revenue? I mean you guys are making mad loot out of this deal, what about our money?

The deal was cash, but terms were not disclosed.

It’s one of the unresolved paradoxes of Web 2.0 (and citizen journalism): How do you reward those who make a website like Newsvine what it is? Or at least, how do you avoid making them feel hopelessly exploited?

This from Calvin Tang, a co-founder of Newsvine:

I personally would like to thank all Newsvine users who have helped make Newsvine what it is – the most vibrant and active community of users on the digital news media landscape. In addition to being one of the most powerful and unique publishing platforms on the web – the open dialogues, the free and creative expression of ideas and the genuine manner in which all of you participate on the site are some of the foremost reasons that msnbc.com found Newsvine to be an attractive company to partner with.

To be fair, Tang does point to the possibility of “an adjustment to the way contributors are compensated based on suggestions from users.” It’s not clear what this is: At the moment anyone with their own “column” on Newsvine gets 90% of ad revenue derived from visitors to that page. And all content is owned by the person who creates it.

Newsvine is actually hugely popular among those who use it: about 1.2 million unique visitors per month, according to Read/Write Web, and growing at an average rate of 46% per quarter. The site, R/WW says, gets about 80,000 comments and 250,000 votes a month. That’s pretty good traffic in a couple of years.

But still there’s the nagging feeling that money is being made on the backs of others. If all those producing the work were interested only in wider exposure, then the MSNBC deal is good — lots of opportunities for their writings to be read by a wider audience.

From the comments a lot of Newsvine users feel a sense of loyalty and protectiveness towards the site and its founders. And although it’s obvious that the best exit strategy for a site like this is to be bought out by a bigger player, probably one in old media, the illusion that something like Newsvine is an antidote to old media is an important one to maintain; how many, otherwise, would expend effort and time contributing for free if they felt the primary goal of the site was to get bought out?

Money is probably of little consequence to most of those using Newsvine. They’re more interested in the satisfaction that comes from “owning” a community. But inevitably money changes the equation: it is that very community, not the site per se, that has attracted MSNBC’s dollars. Should not the community, therefore, be entitled to some of that money?

Of course, the community itself, by not being party to the discussions with MSNBC nor beholden to the deal, can just up sticks and leave if it doesn’t like the outcome. And that’s where the other illusion kicks in: MSNBC can’t buy the community, although it may feel it has. It can buy the site where that community has built its camp. Make the wrong moves, not make enough moves, or fail to spread the wealth, and it may wake up one morning to find the camp has faded away in the night.

Newsvine – Msnbc.com Acquires Newsvine

News: Demise by Increment?

Is the problem with journalism that it always focuses on the increment?

Was reading Jeff Jarvis’ piece on the revolutionary impact of the iPhone — not, I hasten to add, about the iPhone as an item (the fetishism surrounding it may mark a lowpoint in our materialistic age) but about the citizen journalism coverage of the absurd lines forming outside shops by those eager to be an early buyer (yes, this, too, may mark a low-point in our cravenly submissive consumer culture, but let’s not go there. At least for now.)

No, Jarvis was more interested in this real-time coverage and what it represents. He rightly suggests this is real-time coverage on a par with the Virginia shootings — something that Duncan Riley, who writes good stuff at the usually puffy or snarky TechCrunch, has already called eventstreaming.

Jarvis is right: the subject matter aside (Virginia Tech shootings vs absurd consumer lines outside stores that don’t sell out) this is a good dry run for something more serious. But it’s Jarvis’ other point (if you’ve read this far, sorry for the wiggly lines getting here) that caught my attention: the tendency of media to pick holes in the potential of this:

Problems? Of course, there are. I never sit in a meeting with journalists without hearing them obsess about all the things that could go wrong; that is, sadly and inevitably, their starting point in any discussion about new opportunities. I blew my gasket Friday when I sat with a bunch of TV people doing just that.

Very true. Journalists do this all the time. That’s because we’re trained to. Not a bad thing, actually, being able to spot problems. But it has a downside. And quite a big one. It’s this:

Journalists are taught to identify “news”. In some situations, it’s obvious: A bomb goes off in Baghdad; two guys drive a flaming SUV into Glasgow Airport; Apple launches a cute phone. All news, and no one would disagree.

But it’s the rest of the stuff that gets problematic. Most journalists don’t have these kinds of stories to work with so they’re forced to look for them, and that mostly involves prying apart things, people, organizations, situations, points of view and seeing some incremental change or difference that merits a news story, such as U.S. family terrorized by possible phone hoax (Cellphones Terror Weapon Horror!)

So Wikipedia, for example, gets coverage not for the millions of great articles in there and the millions of people who go to it first for information, but the few articles that are wrong, badly written, libelous, mischievous or biased. That, for a journalist, is the news story. (Wikipedia Unreliable Shock!)

Some companies and PR folk know this tendency and exploit it: Several security companies base their business model on the idea that there are enough journalists out there to write scare stories about mobile phone viruses for an industry to emerge (I wrote what I thought was a piece somewhat mocking this scaremongery only to get another company in the same business email me thanking me for my article and suggesting that I write about their product, which rests on all the same scaremongery that I was trying to pooh-pooh.)

I am not saying journalists only write negative stories and not positive ones. I’m saying that we journalists tend to focus on kinks in the same picture, magnify them and then call it news. This is nothing new, but we should be smart enough to realize that if it’s not just us journalists making the news anymore, we have to be ready to accept the notion of “news” is changing.

Just as we can see lots of things going wrong with citizen journalism, and fixate on those to the exclusion of the bigger picture, we may well be missing the bigger picture that technology is giving us.

The World Cup Changes

Maybe it’s cos I don’t follow other sports as slowly, but this World Cup is beginning to feel like a media watershed in several different — and surprising — ways.

  • First off, the supply of World Cup footage to YouTube, and “live” commentary by cellphone from those in the stadium to those outside threatens to overturn the tight FIFA controls on coverage and sponsorship. FIFA stewards can stop people wearing clothing or carrying banners that don’t support the official sponsors, but they can’t keep people’s cellphones out of the stadium. Can they?
  • Secondly the best writing has come from blogs, not from the traditional sports pages of newspapers. But these aren’t pure bloggers, they’re journalists blogging for their newspapers’ or TV stations’ websites. The Guardian, for example, has a stable of writers who have been pushing out excellent blogs. My favorite BBC blogger on the World Cup is Paul Mason, who is actually a business correspondent for the Beeb’s flagship program Newsnight. Of course there are other soccer blogs, but these bloggers not only write well, they write regularly and attract interesting comments.
  • It’s not just about the rise of the bottom up. Some lucky cable subscribers are getting very cool new services, such as commentary in different languages to three or four different viewing perspectives. Sadly where I live we don’t get any of these, but I’ve heard they rock. These are good services to provide and it’s great to see some imaginative providers offering them. Soccer coverage has usually been woeful: Not enough long view of the pitch, so the viewer has no real sense of who is where on the pitch, while commentators offer very little extra value. Time to change.
  • Some widgets have made following the World Cup action easier, although they are still somewhat primitive.

I’m sure there are lots of non media bloggers out there, but the mainstream media seems to be finally getting it, and the World Cup is a perfect place and topic to do it. Everyone’s an expert in soccer, and no one is shy about offering an opinion. In some ways it’s a great leveler and a great showcase for participatory journalism.