Off Message August 2007

Crowd Control

Everybody's buzzing about citizen journalism. But the "journalism" could use some editing.

Look out, world—here comes citizen journalism. If you watched the recent CNN/YouTube Democratic presidential debate, you know what I'm talking about. Instead of professional journalists, real people craft the news, from asking the questions to shooting the videos to writing the stories.

Everyone's buzzing about it, and who am I to doubt everyone? In the ideology of this cultural moment, the crowd is the ultimate source of wisdom. And citizen journalism is all about the crowd.

Here's how it works: Next time you see news happening—say, a jumbo jetliner crashes in your neighborhood, or you overhear a presidential candidate plotting dirty campaign tricks—race to your keyboard and tap out a story. Throw in an image snapped with your mobile phone, upload it all to the Net, and—voila!—you're a journalist. Who needs the pros?

This week came word that a Vancouver, B.C.-based citizen-journalism service called NowPublic.com has received $10.6 million in new financing. That may look puny next to the $5 billion that Rupert Murdoch is paying for Dow Jones, but in the relatively new world of "crowd-powered media," which is how NowPublic describes itself, $10.6 million is big potatoes.

NowPublic is not just any start-up. It claims to be the largest citizen-journalism service in the world, with more than 100,000 "contributing reporters." Earlier this year, it formed a news-gathering partnership with the Associated Press. Time magazine named it one of the 50 best websites of 2007, explaining: "Nowhere are the merits of citizen journalism more apparent than at NowPublic. At this 'participatory news network' ... anyone can write a story, or upload images, audio, or video. Whatever gets the most votes from the reading masses—the site gets about 1 million unique visitors per month—ends up as the lead story."

If you believe the crowd, this is where the core task of journalism, reporting the latest news, is headed. "Newspapers have lost control of breaking news," Leonard Brody, the CEO of NowPublic, said recently at the World Newspaper Congress in South Africa. This week he told the Agence France-Presse news service, "I promise you, in 18 months NowPublic will be, by reach, the largest news agency in the world."

To get a feel for what kind of news this crowd-powered juggernaut will be breaking, I joined NowPublic this week. I visited the site repeatedly over a few days when there were plenty of major stories to cover. The war in Iraq. Murdoch taking over The Wall Street Journal. The longest-serving Republican U.S. senator, Ted Stevens of Alaska, under federal investigation.

Yet more often than not, the top news on the NowPublic front page was about transportation mishaps. "A Passenger Dead at Caracas Metro Crash" was the lead story for much of one day. The next morning, it was a fatal one-car crash outside Boston. That afternoon, the lead was a bridge near Sacramento that collapsed on a truck, pinning the driver.

Evidently, the vast discerning crowd that is about to revolutionize journalism sometimes believes that smallish train and road accidents are the biggest news on the planet. The Murdoch/Dow Jones story did make the front-page rotation, and there were non-accident stories, including Typhoon Usagi, at the top on subsequent days. Other NowPublic fare included first-person travelogues, baby pictures, and frequent news-of-the-weird items.

Curiously, NowPublic's reports often draw heavily on the newspapers and other mainstream outlets that the CEO says no longer have much sway. In its early coverage of the Minnesota bridge-collapse story, a true transportation disaster, NowPublic relied partly on reports by CNN, Fox and the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.

Indeed, rather than the opponents they are made out to be, citizen journalists and mainstreamers look more and more like symbiotic partners. As the BBC showed a few years ago when it used citizen journalists brilliantly to cover the London subway bombings, and as the mesmerizing CNN/ YouTube debate confirmed, crowd-powered news is most effective and useful when it has been filtered and selected by more-experienced journalists.

Crowds aren't wise all by themselves—they need editing, too.

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