Are 'Passionate Amateurs' Journalists?

By: Steve Outing

The growth of the World Wide Web as a medium opens up many opportunities for people without traditional journalism training to perform as de facto journalists. While many news Web sites operate like traditional news media organizations -- and hire trained journalists accordingly -- other Web operations are taking another tack.

The Mining Company, which officially launched its Web service one week ago, looks to be a classic example of how the Internet is expanding the view of what is a "journalist." It is hiring hundreds of "guides," who maintain Web pages covering specialty topic areas and geographic communities. There are Mining Company guides who maintain pages covering, for example, professional sports; television shows; celebrity watching; professional areas or industries; hobbies; and so on.

The basic Mining Company concept is in creating a guide to the chaos of the Web, enlisting an army of individuals with expertise (or just interest) in a particular topic area to maintain pages on the Web that point people to the best information on a particular topic available on the Internet. Guides spend much of their effort finding the best links to their particular topic, but they also write a weekly (at least) essay for their pages, and (once it's enabled) will lead discussion forums and live chats with visitors to their pages.

Low pay, but future promise?

Guides are paid a paltry $250 a month to maintain their pages, but they also are promised a share of advertising that the site generates. (At present, they have not received anything beyond the monthly fees.)

According to Mining Company editor Jake Levich, guides come from a mix of backgrounds and experience levels. Some topic pages are led by experts in their field (such as medicine), who maintain their pages as a supplement to their full-time professional careers. Others are "passionate amateurs" who do this primarily for fun. And some have traditional journalism credentials.

Jack Downs, design editor at the Press Republican newspaper in Plattsburgh, New York, maintains a Mining Company page about U.S. newspapers online (a page which will be of interest to readers of this column). The guide for a less serious topic is Jeff Porper, who maintains a page about Twin Peaks, the defunct American television series by director David Lynch. Porper is an actor and Web page designer for a health care company who obviously is fanatic about the cancelled TV show. (I'll confess to it: I was a big fan of the oddball TV series, too!)

Guides work with Mining Company editors in New York, who oversee the work. But guides get a lot of freedom, says Downs, and can post content to their pages without going through a formal editing process. When Downs posts his weekly essay, he puts it directly on the Web for his readers to see. Mining Company policy is to not edit guides' work, although an editor may check out a guide's work and make some editing suggestions after the fact.

With a trained journalist like Downs, there's probably not much to worry about. But the policy sounds downright dangerous when you're talking about amateurs at writing (who are perhaps untrained in such standard journalism topics as libel law). Downs says as part of the process of becoming a guide, he received extensive training and coaching. "They gave a very thorough review to the (prospective) guides," explaining what they can do and instilling quality guidelines to the guides before the pages went live. Still, there's no quality control before publication, he says. "That was surprising to me at first."

Downs admits to being concerned about some guides who plan to present a lot of original material on their Mining Company pages, since they may be somewhat vulnerable, "in the same way that freelancers at a lot of publications are vulnerable today. How much are they (Mining Company) going to back you up?" he says. The answer is that the company does not stand behind its guides in a legal sense. A company public relations spokesman says that the onus is on the guides to take responsibility for what they write.

Downs expects the Mining Company gig to take about 5 to 8 hours a week of his time, which is in addition to a full-time shift at the Press Republican. His topic area is primarily newspaper new media and online activities. It's an area of strong interest and some expertise, but Downs does not work for the online operation of his newspaper. Nor does he operate his own Web site on the topic of newspapers.

Downs is the type of person that the Mining Company hopes to attract as guides. He's knowledgeable about his topic, but not so much of an expert that he has involvements with other Web sites on the same topic. Levich says that he generally doesn't mind if a guide has his own Web site on the topic, but that it should not be a commercial entity where the guide is using the Mining Company page primarily to drive traffic to his own Web site.

Seasoned experts need not apply?

Mining Company contract language restricts what a guide can do elsewhere online, and some writers who have applied to become a guide on a topic that is a specialty for them have objected to the contract. Levich says that the contract is negotiable, but Mining Company typically will not take on a guide who has an overriding interest in another Web site on the same topic. Mining Company expects a guide's page to be the principal venue for the guide's public communication about their topic area.

Obviously, a seasoned expert in a particular topic who has -- or expects to have -- online activities elsewhere in cyberspace is not going to work with Mining Company. Which might lead to the conclusion that the army of guides will be made up primarily of "amateurs" or enthusiasts; Levich calls them "passionate amateurs." As I said at the outset, sites like Mining Company are creating a new breed of quasi-journalists, many of whom lack the training of traditional journalists and who are not edited.

(Just to be sure I'm not casting too wide a net, it should be noted that some guides are very much seasoned experts. However, they cannot have extensive online activities elsewhere and still work with the Mining Company.)

Levich says that the Internet provides plenty of room for both traditional journalists and passionate amateurs. In the long run, he says, "it will be up to the consumer to decide what information purveyed by whom is the most valuable to them."

Is the Mining Company doing "journalism"? In some respects, yes. In other ways, it's just providing the framework for a conglomeration of non-professional Web sites -- with its content creators poorly paid and unprotected from legal liability.

We've long known that the Internet will change the face of journalism. With the Mining Company, we have first-hand evidence of that supposition.

Contacts: Jack Downs,
Jake Levich,

Movin' On

Joe Fiveash is leaving InfiNet to fill the position of new ventures director at Landmark Communications, where he will be examining new media opportunities for the Virginia-based media company. Landmark is an owner, along with Knight-Ridder and Gannett Co., of InfiNet, which is an Internet publishing company and ISP serving the newspaper industry.

Contact: Joe Fiveash,


In a recent column about animated graphics, I mentioned the software Director and Flash. Those are products of Macromedia, not Macromind, as I wrote.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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