Citizen Journalism Networks Stepping Up Editorial Standards

A post I did for MediaShift’s IdeaLabl blog.

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 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.

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 we speak.

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.