How to Integrate Citizen Journalism Into Mainstream News Sites

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By: Steve Outing

The headline on this column is sure to freak out some traditionally minded editors and journalists. Put the amateur scribblings and snapshots of the public alongside the work of professional journalists on news Web sites? I’m kidding, right?

Well, if that’s the reaction you had, then I’d contend that you’re living in the past, and it’s time to reconsider some old thinking.

“Citizen journalism” is one of those buzzwords that’s hot in our industry right now. (You also may have heard it called “participatory” or “open-source” journalism.) While some journalists might hope it’s a fad that will go away soon, I don’t think that’s likely. Inviting the public to participate in online news publishing by contributing articles and photographs is likely here to stay — indeed, it might allow journalism institutions to renew some of the public trust they’ve lost in recent years by inviting the public in instead of keeping them outside the ropes.

If I’m right, then mainstream news site managers should be thinking about how to integrate the best of citizen journalism into their organizations. In this column, I hope to give you some ideas on how to do that intelligently.

Before we get started

I’ll get to some advice shortly. But first, you might consider that this citizen-journalism thing really isn’t all that new — it’s just in a different form today thanks to the Internet.

Clyde Bentley, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and the faculty member who spearheaded a student project in citizen journalism, MyMissourian.com, points out that the early projects we’re seeing today have much in common with the old, weekly community-journalism model.

That is, tiny papers covering neighborhoods and suburbs typically are chock full of what some call “low-level journalism” — announcements of meetings, school lunch menus, reports from local garden clubs, calendar listings, notices of new businesses or promotions, little league sports scores, and so on. Much of it is stuff no self-respecting journalism-school graduate would deign to write. But community-newspaper editors publish such micro-local information because it serves a need, and they’ve long either rewritten contributions from non-journalists or simply published them as-is, supplementing limited original local reporting.

Larger metro newspapers adding citizen-journalism components to their operations can be seen as bringing back that focus on micro-local news — becoming more useful to their existing audience by more closely covering news at the very local level and bringing in new readers looking for that information. (That’s not to say that citizen content that goes beyond micro-local coverage isn’t important — but for most citizen journalism operations, micro-local is going to be the meat and potatoes.)

Where to put it

The first thing to think about in joining the citizen-journalism revolution is what to do with it. Do you create a separate micro-local-news entity to keep it at arm’s length from the “real” journalism produced by your staff? Or do you integrate it into your news organization, publishing citizen contributions alongside or near staff reporters’ and photographers’ content but labeling it differently to clearly differentiate citizen content from the work of professional journalists?

This is all so new that there aren’t a lot of models yet from which to learn. But one that is leading the way is Northwest Voice, a citizen-journalism Web site and accompanying print edition owned by The Bakersfield Californian and serving the northwestern part of the city of Bakersfield. It is a stand-alone site filled entirely with articles and photos from the public. The best of the Web site’s content (actually, right now it’s pretty much all of it) is published in a biweekly print edition.

Northwest Voice appears to the public to be an independent entity. You’ll find no Bakersfield Californian branding anywhere; it takes clicking on the About Us link in the left rail of the site to figure out that “The Voice is operated by Valley Direct Inc., which is owned by the Bakersfield Californian.”

Mary Lou Fulton, publisher of the Voice, says that the nature of the content is so different from that published in the Californian that it deserves to be operated independently of the newspaper and its Web site. She expects to continue to operate independently, but says it likely will become better integrated with Bakersfield.com, the Web site of the newspaper, in terms of links to Voice content.

For now, the newspaper is reticent to promote Northwest Voice on Bakersfield.com. There are no links whatsoever to the Voice on the home page, nor anywhere else on the site.

Keeping it together

That perhaps typifies the current attitude of traditional editors to citizen journalism, says Shayne Bowman, a new-media consultant and co-author of “We Media,” a report on participatory or open-source journalism published by the Media Center of the American Press Institute. It’s the attitude of: Well, maybe there’s something to this, but let’s not let it get too close to our real journalism.

Bowman thinks that citizen journalism ideally should be integrated into mainstream news sites — not just treated as some “bastard child” publishing in another part of the Web. Of course, he’s realistic about why that’s a difficult leap for many editors and publishers. Sometimes corporate lawyers don’t want public submissions too close to the traditional reporting for liability reasons, but sometimes the resistance to getting too close is more for egotistical reasons by executives who see citizen journalism as cheapening their editorial brand.

For citizen journalism to become integrated into mainstream news sites, it may well require a cultural change that will take a long while to gel. Bowman suggests a parallel in the refusal of many editors, still, to even attaching public comment areas to articles on their news sites. It’s that lingering resistance to the value of turning the news into a conversation instead of a lecture that means citizen journalism is likely to be a long and slow trend and not an overnight success.

If you can get past all that, how can you integrate a citizen-journalism initiative into a traditional news Web site? Clyde Bentley says that’s a no-brainer. If you take the Northwest Voice walled-garden approach, it’s imperative that on your news site you link to what you’ve created. A separate citizen-journalism brand may make sense for legal liability reasons, but there’s no reason not to provide relevant links to it from the parent news site.

For example, for a news site’s local communities page featuring staff reporting, it makes obvious sense to let readers know that there’s more available related coverage on the site’s partner citizen-journalism site. If linking to actual headlines feels like going too far, then at least offer a link to the citizen-reporting page that deals with those communities. (Even providing a headline link to a citizen story can be a rational choice if the story is preceded with a warning that the article is not by a professional journalist and the news organization makes no claim as to its accuracy.)

Find your niche

Citizen journalism may well be one of those ideas where a tight focus is imperative. As Fulton suggests, a broad call for the public to toss in anything they want won’t be nearly as effective as a tight citizen-journalism site focused on serving a niche audience.

In the case of Northwest Voice, the target for the site is the northwest part of the city, and specifically families, homeowners, and church-goers living there — people interested in knowing about the minutiae of their part of town. The site will be less of a draw to singles and young people, and obviously of little interest to those living in other areas of Bakersfield.

Citizen journalism Web site niches can be topical as well as geographical — a mini site for area youth sports coaches and parents, for example.

The editing dilemma

Another important decision to make is in what contributions from the public to accept. At Northwest Voice, the policy is that anything submitted will be published, as long as it doesn’t violate the site’s terms of service, which covers such things as no profanity, racial slurs, libelous statements, violation of intellectual property rights, commercial notices, etc. Just about any submission that passes that test will be published.

In traditional journalism the concern, of course, is: What is news and what isn’t? But in citizen journalism, that goes out the window, says Fulton. Everything is publishable; everything is “news.”

Bentley and his students at Missouri have had interesting discussions about what to accept and reject for MyMissourian.com. The final outcome: “We decided that nothing was too stupid to go on the site,” he says. He also has come to think that journalists aren’t good judges of whether or not something is “too stupid” — but other readers of the site are.

It’s the Wikipedia argument, says Bentley. Wikipedia is the open-source online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. Someone writes up an entry about, say, crocodiles, and others are free to edit the entry and add to it or fix mistakes. The audience is the editor for Wikipedia, and it works. It can work for citizen-journalism sites, too.

Both Fulton and Bentley say that so far they’ve been pleased and surprised at just how good the public contributions have been. “To our amazement, people (who want to contribute to MyMissourian.com) are pretty good writers and pretty good storytellers,” says Bentley. Fulton is likewise surprised that contributions are well written, and storytelling skills often are good.

Of course, at this point the people contributing to sites like Northwest Voice and MyMissourian are early adopters. When citizen journalism goes more mainstream, perhaps not everything will be as good as in these early days.

Copyediting: That’s OK

Traditional editors may have to curb the inclination to heavily edit citizen contributions. A smart policy is to clean up the spelling mistakes and grammar, but don’t treat a citizen journalist’s article as though it came from a city-side reporter.

Fulton says that many of the text submissions she’s seen so far tend toward the very personal, and that’s largely off limits in terms of editing beyond spelling and grammar. “We don’t call people up and ask them, ‘Did you really mean that?'” she says. However, if someone contributes an article about something like street crime and cites some statistics, that warrants an editor taking a slightly closer look. “If something raises a flag, we do check it out.”

Contributors to Northwest Voice have to register with the site, and an editor can contact them when there are questions.

An interesting angle with mistakes in citizen articles for the Voice is that they indeed are often pointed out by other readers, and editors can fix them or note the error. By the time the articles are picked up for the Voice’s print edition, often that audience-editing effect has played out, so the print edition is more accurate.

Bentley says the MyMissourian editing standard “is not the Associated Press Stylebook, it’s readability.” The site’s editors fix grammar, but only because “we don’t want citizen authors to embarrass themselves.”

Copy editors reading this might notice that citizen journalism has a role for them — indeed, when it takes off, there should be more demand for editors’ services.

Promoting quality submissions

If the quality of citizen articles is OK now, we can’t count on that as the citizen-journalism model grows and evolves. This might sound crazy to traditional editors, but perhaps the newspaper role in the future will in part be to train the public to be journalists.

Bowman views this as empowering the audience to help make journalism better. “We should be teaching the rules of [quality, ethical] journalism to a public that obviously wants to engage with us,” he says.

A newspaper wishing to implement citizen journalism into its operation might want to encourage people to learn such things as the basics of reporting; how to conduct an interview; how to file a Freedom of Information Act request; how to send in a digital news photograph they’ve taken; or how to record and submit an interview in digital format for use by your Web site.

This could be accomplished by a workshop series offered to the public at your newspaper or other venue, conducted by staff editors and reporters. Interactive learning modules can be designed for the public. (That’s an option for media chains, whose corporate staffs can support citizen journalism throughout their newspaper and other news properties.)

It’s not even that far fetched to imagine journalism training organizations someday offering online training in basic journalism skills for aspiring citizen journalists, not just professional ones.

Build it and they won’t come — so ask

OK, so now we’re training citizens to be journalists. But will they really contribute, or will they just yawn at the opportunity to write for free? If you’re reactive rather than proactive, then the latter will be the case.

Fulton says that at Northwest Voice, the amount of content that comes in to the site is directly connected to outreach by the staff. They routinely approach community leaders, school superintendents, ministers, youth sports league officials, etc. — the community’s keepers of information and micro-local news — to let them know about the site and to request that they submit news.

And not only do you have to shake the trees to get citizen content to fall out, but you also have to continually monitor the mix, says Fulton. If some schools are taking part while others are not, those quiet schools are likely to get a phone call. She says that new contributors are coming in every week, and to date some 650 citizen submissions have been published on Northwest Voice.

Most submissions are from one-time contributors, Fulton says, which is actually what she wants. The devoted citizen columnist who writes every week is certainly nice, but for the most part a fantasy.

Picture editing in the Photoshop era

At the Northwest Voice, more citizen photography has come in to date than text submissions. (Though for MyMissourian, it’s the opposite.) Clearly, photos will always be a big part of citizen journalism — from pictures of people’s pets to news shots taken when someone happens to be in the right place at the right time with a digital camera or camera phone in hand.

And while Fulton reports no problems yet with spoofed photos — shots doctored in Photoshop — that’s clearly a possibility with citizen photo submissions in the future. A requirement for any citizen-journalism operation, then, is to monitor incoming images.

But is that so difficult? Not really. Newspapers have been dealing with people coming in with alleged UFO sightings for years, and most news photography departments have the skills and know-how to spot fakes. There’s even software that can scan a digital image and tell you if it’s been altered. Again, it’s another indication that citizen journalism will require professional editors in oversight roles.

It takes a village, and an editor

Still, a citizen-journalism initiative doesn’t require a huge staff. Northwest Voice has a staff of three plus publisher Fulton, handling all aspects of the operation, from editorial to administrative to sales.

An editor is vital, of course, because control over what goes in … well, it’s obvious what could happen without proper oversight. But you don’t want an editor who “over-worries” the content, advises Bentley, so there’s not need for a big editorial staff.

It’s complementary

So, are you convinced yet that citizen journalism has a future within mainstream news? If you’re still skeptical, remember that it’s not about replacing professional reporters and photographers. It’s about supplementing and adding to their work — about expanding a news operation’s scope of coverage in a cost-effective manner while at the same time empowering an audience with enthusiasm for what we professional journalists produce.

Citizen journalism isn’t without its challenges, but it’s got great potential.

Oh my, what about OhMyNews?

Finally, if you’ve followed the citizen journalism trend, you may have noticed that I haven’t discussed South Korea’s OhMyNews.com, the wildly successful citizen journalism site that combines the output of a small staff of professional journalists with thousands of public contributors.

Now, that’s a great model; OhMyNews, established four years ago, put citizen journalism on the map. But I’m not sure it’s a model likely to be repeated in the United States (where most readers of this column reside).

OhMyNews was established as a liberal media voice when there wasn’t an effective one in Korea. Without the resources to open a traditional newspaper or TV news outlet, OhMyNews’ founders hit upon a way to establish a powerful voice on the cheap. (And powerful it was; the site is credited with influencing the outcome of the 2002 Korean presidential election.)

That’s not to say that an OhMyNews clone won’t appear in the U.S. someday, but I think the best bet for citizen journalism establishing a foothold here will be in community micro-news on the Web.

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