January 27, 2006

News 2.0 is not Journalism

by skrenta at 2:12 AM

Om's right. He says that the news 2.0 startups aren't doing journalism. But News 2.0 isn't about journalism. It's about news.

The key to understanding what is working in "Citizen Journalism" is that they're first-person accounts. Journalists are professional observers and interpreters; they watch, and report back to the wider audience. But just like stockbrokers and travel agents, the Internet is again cutting out the intermediary.

The best examples of CJ, such as Jeremy Hermanns reporting on a cabin depressurization on Alaska Airlines, or the London bombing photo taken with a cell phone, are first-person accounts reported straight to the public.

Tinfinger's Paul Montgomery says

Stories are things that happen to other people, but in CJ the issues affect you directly. You're not a dispassionate reporter, you're the subject.

He argues that the dot-com deathpool FuckedCompany is actually one of the best examples of CJ success recently, because it gave a voice to

disaffected dot-com employees who had nothing much to do at their doomed jobs other than posting gossip on message boards with funny headlines like 'Ruckus soon to become fuckus'.

When your industry is facing Clay Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, the threat comes, not from a better product, but from a worse one.

The quality of journalistic output today is, for the most part really really good. In fact it's too good. The product costs a huge amount to bring to market, and what the Internet enables is a an alternative product built for zero, and providing a different value proposition. Citizen journalism is going to be more Citizens and less Journalism.

We were told by a New York Times insider that the staff at the NYT hates their online forums, but they wouldn't ever get rid of them because they're so popular. I'm not surprised that professional writers wouldn't be happy with the level of discourse in a typical forum, especially one involving hot issues. But you know what? That's your public in the forums, like it or not. When your readers get riled up and want to rant online, that's what it looks like.

The future of news isn't going to be a new Watergatish nirvana of investigative journalism. It's going to be BYOJ -- bring your own journalism -- on top of a much richer set of sources: everybody.

Topix?

So what about our efforts here at Topix... We launched community participation features across our site six weeks ago. What's unique about our News 2.0 experiment is that we have 5 million unique visitors each month reading local news on our site. So if audience participation requires some audience to get started, well we do have some.

Our participation architecture is essentially a giant integrated message board and comment system, with various features to aid initial take-off and avoid the "empty room" problem inherent in booting up conversation in a new online space. We also invested from the start in robust anti-spam and moderation tools. Any remotely successful participatory site immediately attracts spam, and after the initial launch social scalability becomes the biggest issue, and is hard to retrofit if it hasn't been designed in from the very beginning.

Creating a local news page for every town in the US provided us with a set of local audiences for thousands of towns... towns where people who use AOL and have never heard of Web 2.0 live. These people want to tell their stories too. You don't need to know what a blog is to want to tell your story online, and you don't need a journalist to tell you how either, it turns out.

We've been astonished at many of the posts we've had. There is much of the normal chatter you'd find on message board comments (which we think is just great), but there are also many first-person accounts of news events from across the country. More than we expected, frankly. In places like Valley Center, CA, Hickory, NC, Redford, MI, Hillborough, NC, Lake Butler, FL, Hershey, PA, and Livermore, CA. Some of these reports are very raw and heart-wrenching. But we're glad we were able to offer a place for these conversations to occur.

Jeff Jarvis is absolutely right, local is hard. So is our approach reasonable? How about something like Baristanet instead, a hyperlocal journalism site in New Jersey. Baristanet is so good it makes me want to read about fender benders in a suburb on the other side of the country. But it's run by two professional journalists. Debbie Galant writes for the New York Times. Liz George writes for the New York Daily News. Liz has a degree in journalism from NYU. They're doing great journalism here, but I wouldn't call it grass roots, or "citizen".

I'd say the same about Mike Orren's Pegasus News, which just launched a great-looking new hyperlocal site in Texas. Mike's a journalist too. These are examples of professionals shrewdly adapting their trade to adapt to shifting media patterns.

As Barry Parr posted in the comments to the Baristanet vs. Backfence analysis (well worth a read),

Top-down sites have some big advantages in resources and scalability, and they can nourish thriving online communities. Yahoo Groups does this very well. It's possible that the citizens will take over one of these sites and make it habitable.

There are a number of competing News 2.0 designs in the market, ultimately it will be up to the users to decide what works and what doesn't. I'm finding this application of technology to a social system one of the most interesting projects since booting up dmoz. Fortunately, regardless of which models work and which don't, the public will be the real winner here.

Update:

Followup from Paul Montomery: CJ is not "model citizen" journalism.

Comments over here.