Citizen Journalism – The Way Forward, or the Watering-Down of News?

13 Jul 2010

I’ve always been a big fan of TED talks.  For the uninformed, TED is a nonprofit organization started in 1984 (acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design).   It’s goal is to showcase short presentations - given by entertainers, scientists, business leaders or average Joe’s – that show truly revolutionary ways of thinking, innovative solutions to current problems, or poignant life-lessons.   

So with that preamble aside…I recently watch a TED presentation titled “Citizen Journalism and the Democratization of News Coverage,” given by Brett Solomon in Australia.   The presentation focused on the way social media has affected political movements across the world – most notably the turmoil in Iran following the most recent presidential election, which was disseminated to the world largely through Twitter and home-made videos.  

I attended a PRSA event a few months ago, which was a panel discussion with some “old” and “new” media advocates discussing how the Internet, and now social media, was changing the way our society both produced and consumed news.  From CNN ‘iReports’ being featured on their home-page, it’s pretty clear that not only is individually-contributed content here to stay, but the mainstream media is trying to find a way to integrate into their established reporting practices. 

For starters, I think that says a lot about the media landscape.  To me, the outlets that have survived the digital media revolution are determined not to be left out in the cold again, like the newspapers not figuring how to profit from Web traffic until many had gone bankrupt.  I think it’s wise for media to embrace citizen journalism…mostly because there’s no stopping it.   

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a gentleman named Chris Hogg up in Toronto.  He was the editor of Digital Journal, which at the time was a glossy printed technology magazine, similar to Wired and PC World.  Flash-forward five years, and Chris has dramatically shifted-gears to embrace user-generated reporting.  Gone is the focus on delivering a print magazine…instead, is now a global citizen-journalism news network.  It features articles and content contributed by citizen journalists, bloggers, and even professional journalists that contribute from 175 countries around the world.

Here’s what separates from similar sites: they’ve figured out a way to pay the people who contribute content.  So instead of just touting lofty ideals of “building community,” they offer an honest-to-goodness way for citizen journalists to get paid.  From their website: 

As a pioneer in revenue-sharing online, devised a way to ensure all contributors could get paid for their work and we were one of the very first sites where regular people get paid for contributing. Unlike most websites where bloggers post for free (and the company takes in all the ad revenue), shares a portion of its advertising revenue with all Digital Journalists through what we call our “moneypot.” With an always-growing cash pool, every single Digital Journalist gets a chance to compete for a share of the moneypot. The more you contribute, the more you earn.”

I think Chris and is one of the examples of where the media landscape is heading.  But this shift presents a few issues, for journalists, readers, and of course, PR pros.  Curious for your thoughts on these…

 1)      If websites started to pay their reporters based on click-rates, or reader ratings, does that encourage reporters to produce sensationalist headlines, and content that caters to the lowest common denominator?

2)      Citizen-journalists can’t be forced to adhere to any sort of ethical standards or universal professional guidelines…what type of ‘checks-and-balances’ system could be used?  For example, what’s the penalty for producing a story that turns out to be non-factual?  Just a temporary loss of credibility?

3)      What about legalities?  Some states have laws that say police officers can’t be videotaped, even in public while assisting at crime scenes…even though most legal precedents say people should have “no expectation of privacy” when in public.   What sort of backlash could come from arresting everyone with a flip-cam or cell phone video trying to capture breaking content at the scene of a robbery?

4)      If every person could be a potential source of news, how can PR people engage with them?  Should they even try?  Or should “professional” PR folks only deal with “professional” journalists that operated within established media guidelines?   Do the same loosely-established “rules” of dealing with bloggers apply, or is it a whole new ballgame?


Plenty more issues to discuss, but bottom-line: the mainstream media (and a lot of talented reporters) are being put out to pasture because their old way of making money isn’t working anymore.  So what will the new model look like?