Citizen Journalism Networks Stepping Up Editorial Standards

    by David Cohn
    June 10, 2009

    I tend to avoid the “professional vs. amateur journalism” debate, saying “I have constructive criticisms for both sides.” As we’ve hit a flash point for traditional news organizations, the evolution of citizen journalism networks like NowPublic, AllVoices and others may shed light on how the media space will resolve. Perhaps the two “opposites” will meet somewhere in the middle or, as I suspect, find out that they are more alike than they ever thought.

    Recent news in the space has included Orato and Ground Report making shifts to require higher editorial standards in the submissions they accept and publish.

    Alfred Hermida wrote a post on Reportr.net titled “Orato turns its back on citizen journalism,” in which he notes that the site used to focus on first person narratives of events but:


    Instead the focus is on “concrete and trustworthy information that is objective and under-reported.” The owner and founder of Orato, Sam Yehia, said the changes were made to “further professionalize the site, focus its newsworthy content, create and enforce a viable business model and keep pace with Web 2.0 standards.”

    When I met up with longtime friend Rachel Sterne, founder of Ground Report, at the Beyond Broadcast conference she explained that her network was making a similar change. While I’m one example shy of a trend, I think these two shifts warrant

    some thought.

    Rachel Sterne explains the changes happening at Ground Report:


    What is the shift on Ground Report?

    From what I gathered, there are four main shifts in Ground Report’s editorial policy.

    1. Content from new users goes through a longer vetting period. Ground Report is trading speed for accountability.
    2. Content from a trusted user or source skips this vetting period — but only because the contributor has proven themselves.
    3. Expanding the powers of volunteer editors, who can now edit anything on the site. Again, these are trusted contributors.
    4. A part-time managing editor who is in the process of writing editorial guidelines. This is a tough line to walk because they want to preserve the uniqueness of the writers’ voice but also make sure they are up to the higher editorial standards.

    The reasoning

    Sterne explained the logic behind the new system: “It is something that in the commercial world has just started to enter the dialogue while it seems obvious in an academic world.” There are several reasons why the policy change makes sense to me:

    1. Trading speed and accountability seems like a no brainer to me. Twitter has come on the scene to dominate the speed world, which means citizen journalism networks can offer an added value of accountability.
    2. Ground Report, Now Public, All Voices and others are looking to syndicate their content to larger distributors. To do that, they must provide a sense of trustworthiness.
    3. iReport, YouTube and other large user-generated sites have begun highlighting well produced work from dedicated contributors while making the larger mass of content they host harder to find.
    4. Some organizations like The UpTake have had this policy since day one of venture.

    Even more interesting, according to Sterne, contributions on Ground Report have dropped 50 percent in the month since the site began implementing the changes, but traffic has increased 10 percent. That seems to be a trade off that most publishers would take — giving them a more streamlined workflow and process along with higher traffic.

    Some things to note

    According to the Wikipedia page on Citizen Journalism:

    Allvoices was also the first citizen journalism site to measure the credibility of contributed reports and their authors, providing readers with a gauge launched in March 2009 for assessing the accuracy of news accounts.

    I am friends with several of the folk at AllVoices and hope to follow up with them next time I speak with them.

    Most people don’t know, but I am the editor in chief of citizen journalism network Broowaha. We have had similar conversations with our own members and internal team. Not surprisingly, some of the most dedicated contributors have voiced a preference towards structure, guidelines and policy.

    Where are we left?

    I don’t claim to have a crystal ball, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more citizen journalism networks make this shift. I think it is perfectly possible for these networks to be picky about what they publish without being exclusive. This will be a fine line to walk so as not to lose their citizen journalism souls as they try and up their game.

    Tagged: citizen journalists editorial standards ground report orato
    • The recognition that a pretty rigorous editing process is necessary is spreading. But that’s okay, because mapping out the pro-am process it offers a way through some of these dead-end “future of journalism” debates.

      I reflected on the process of running a major Australian pro-am journalism site in a recent paper, showing how the editorial process worked in that instance. It’s worth noting, too, that OhMyNews say they tend to reject around 30% of content.

    • As I said on your fb page, where I first read this, I’ve never liked the term “citizen journalism.” It implies what, that other journalists are not citizens. I’m all for democratization of voices being heard. But to me, the current realm exploits writers. We’ve gone from the print alternative community papers, where no one got paid, to a model where the publishers–at least the most successful a la Huff Post–take all the profits–as gigs for paid reporters shrink.

    • David, great piece on recognizing a very important shift in citizen journalism and premium user-generated content systems.

      I’d like to make one correction: while our published content is more selective, we have seen no decrease in contributions– these have actually increased. We’re just taking less from the pool of submissions.

    • Agree with Beth about the need for new terminology. I don’t like CJ for the same reasons she doesn’t – journalists are citizens. And Clay Shirky’s reasoning says some content providers may be more professional than others, or paid better, or have larger audiences, but absent standards, licensing, or certification, there’s no way to say who’s a “real” journalist.
      What will we call the new way of providing content that includes input from more sources?

    • @Beth and @Ruth Ann Harnisch

      I totally agree re: the term citizen journalism. Actually – my post previous to this was on the awkwardness of the term: http://www.digidave.org/2009/06/on-the-term-citizen-journalism.html

      @Rachel: Thanks for the correct. So if I understand it – you are getting the same amount of submissions – but your publishing of that content is down 50 percent?

    • Hi David. Thanks for this. Good thoughts. I am doing a fellowship starting this fall at the Reynolds Journalism Institute to look at emerging best practices for community news sites and for promising pro-am partnerships. Others, including you, have done a ton of good reporting on this. I”m looking at the fellowship as an opportunity to pull together resources and make them available to sites. Thanks for all you’ve done and please send any and all suggestions my way!

    • We’re a very small, young civic media news site in the UK… and we’re already asking our community if we need a civic media industry-wide “code of conduct”. However, in order to get realistic and workable changes, shouldn’t we be pulling together to get ideas moving, see what works for some and what doesn’t for others?

      Collaboration on this issue is vital – regardless of how huge or tiny a site you are; sticking to a silo mentality that each site has to come up with their own editorial standard also reinforces the “loose canon” image of civic media (as I like to cal it).

      We’re less than three months into our public beta launch – yet we’ve already had stories picked up by the local and national press/TV. We know there is an appetite for user generated news and this puts an emphasis on all of us to get smart – together.

      We’re off to the Media Standards Trust News Innovation (London) event in July. Hope to bring this subject up then. Will blog update on http://indiconews.wordpress.com/

    • With so much effort going toward refining user-generated content, I wondered if there might be ways to develop “user-generated advertising,” (or at least invite a conversation about the topic.) Innovating for journalism is way more fun, but experimenting with advertising models could be … ok not fun, but interesting. Here’s one:
      What if online classifieds worked like this?: http://bit.ly/6XdnZt
      How a community uses a social marketplace: http://bit.ly/5pt5ia
      How a partnership with online classified ads and Google might look: http://bit.ly/8adjis

    • amazing post thanks for sharing it.

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