There’s something inherently like the “Odd Couple” about the pairing of citizen media with a traditional newsroom. If citizen media is about being all-inclusive, with news as a conversation, old-line media has been about news coming from the mouths and pens of journalists, with the readers left to fend for themselves in the “Letters to the Editor.”
But when those old-line news organizations go online, they must compete with local bloggers, Craigslist, Slashdot and any online source that lets readers do the talking. So it’s not surprising that the more industrious news sites have started to ask their readers to take on citizen media projects, submit photos, start a blog or give live online feedback that runs beneath each staff-written story.
But who do you put on the front line? Who can oversee these efforts with a light but discerning touch, allowing free speech without inviting lawsuits? That’s the role of the new citizen media editor, a role that’s only now coming into focus at various sites such as MSNBC.com, VenturaCountyStar.com, NorthwestVoice.com and News-Record.com.
Part chat moderator, part copy editor and part ombudsman, the citizen media editor is such a new role that no one really has that title, yet. Alicia Hoffman at VenturaCountyStar.com is multimedia editor. Lex Alexander at News-Record.com is a staff writer at the News & Record newspaper and citizen-journalism coordinator at the Web site (as well as a blogger for the site).
Outside of South Korea, where the pioneering OhMyNews uses varying degrees of editorial oversight, budding citizen media editors are just feeling their way around, trying to find the right balance.
“This is going to be a process of mutual discovery,” said Dan Gillmor, blogger and former San Jose Mercury News columnist, who is starting a grassroots media company. “People will learn from each other’s moves, which is kinda cool.”
Even if “pure” bloggers sneer at the mainstream media’s stutter-steps toward blogs and citizen media — and would laugh at a set of guidelines for editing them — the newspaper companies feel this is their best chance to grab a younger audience and survive in a world of dwindling circulation.
“We have read all the dire predictions about newspaper readership,” said John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, NC. “We have seen the trendlines. We have read the local blogs and experienced the best (and worst) of citizen journalism. Doing nothing wasn’t an option. Well, it was, but it was a stupid one. So, we decided to experiment with other types of journalism and other ways to reach readers.”
And these experiments can pay off. OhMyNews became profitable in 2003, and the Northwest Voice expects to hit profitability by the end of the year, according to new Voice publisher Lisa Baldridge. The Voice’s parent company, which runs the Bakersfield Californian, has plans to launch similar publications for other local communities.
“We have met our revenue goals twice, including the latest [print] issue, and plan to finish the year in the black,” Baldridge said via e-mail. “Our site traffic continues to grow month over month as more people become aware of it. We are averaging 50 new registered users per issue.”
After conversing with editors overseeing citizen media efforts at various news organizations, we’ve come up with some basic best practices for the citizen media editor — keeping in mind this person’s fragile embryonic state.
For brevity’s sake, let’s call this person the CME, for citizen media editor or citizen managing editor. But as each site uses a different level of citizen media — whether it’s blogs or reader-written stories — the role of the CME can vary from site to site and the CME duties might just be one part of an online editor’s job.
Win the trust of your audience before cashing them in.
It’s important for CMEs to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. A copy editor knows his job is to keep errors out of copy. A reporter knows her job is to report the news in a fair way. The CME wants to keep typical spelling and grammar errors out of copy, while also giving citizen reporters the freedom to tell their story and the motivation to continue to do the work for little or no pay.
But before the CME has anything to work with, the news organization must first teach its audience what citizen journalism is and make them comfortable working together in a new way. Howard Owens, director of new media at VenturaCountyStar.com, sees his site’s efforts with a photo blog, podcast, and forums as community outreach.
“The most satisfying aspect to all of this is the interaction with the readers,” Owens told me via e-mail. “When they help us report the story better, or correct an error, give us a news tip, or add insight that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, we feel like we’ve provided an important community service. … The result will be — and this does excite me, of course — more page views, more visits, more visitors and a more loyal audience, which will help us grow revenue. That’s all great, but we should never stop asking the question, how do we serve our readers and our community better?”
News-Record.com goes further than VenturaCountyStar.com by offering a way for readers to submit stories in its “Your News” section. So far, only 10 stories have been posted in the first month of its existence. Initially, Robinson has a more philosophical goal than a directly financial one.
“Our primary goal is to become the place where readers come if they want to know what is going on in their community,” Robinson said. “No matter how small the story is, we can and will provide a place for it. We are interested in showcasing a variety of voices and tastes. Yes, we want to drive traffic there. Yes, we want many, many submissions. And yes, if someone can break news there, that’s OK, too. But our first goal is to open the door wider for citizens to have a place to write, and to build a place, a trusted place, for readers to get news, information and engage in dialogue with us and others.”
Edit with an open mind for the writer, but a keen eye for trouble.
Now comes the gray area of the CME’s job. What gets edited, fact-checked or outright rejected? Where do you draw the line? This is perhaps the greatest variable at each news site and depends on your level of trust in the reader as expert or eyewitness.
MSNBC.com only launched its Citizen Journalist section last fall after the U.S. elections and actually makes assignments for its audience such as asking about how faith has shaped their life or what they thought about the Super Bowl. The site’s editor-in-chief Dean Wright says the section’s editorial process is still being worked out.
“We’re very concerned about that issue [how much fact-checking is done] and are in discussions about our procedures right now,” Wright told me via e-mail. “We don’t intend to compromise our reputation.”
At News-Record.com, Robinson says “we’re making the rules as we go along” as for what is allowed. He said he wants a low standard for admittance but that “the only certain knockouts are libel and untruth masquerading as truth.” His lieutenant in the field, Alexander, said he checks for libel, grammar and curse words. “If a factual assertion seems questionable, I check it,” Alexander told me via e-mail, “but I don’t rigorously fact-check each submission.”
Hoffman, who has CME duties at VenturaCountyStar.com, has wrestled with the balance of free speech with community and newspaper standards. At one point, readers were posting racist comments below stories, and the site ultimately allowed them to stay.
“We really do want an open exchange of opinions and ideas,” Hoffman told me via e-mail. “There are several posts that the human being in me wants to delete, but the journalist in me won’t. … What I’ve been heartened by are the responses submitted by others participating on the comment boards. People are regulating themselves. The community is taking ownership of the comment boards, and that is what we were hoping for in the beginning.”
Keep an even keener eye for libelous statements.
The Catch 22 for citizen journalism is that if any editing is done, then the news organization could be held accountable for any libelous statements made or any copyrighted material that was lifted from another source. But if no editing is done, the liability might go away (as it has in libel cases against Internet service providers), but the quality would plummet as well.
The Northwest Voice makes sure to have an editor look over every submission. Baldridge, the new publisher, says it gets very few controversial submissions because of the family-oriented nature of the content.
“Preventing legal issues like libel is one of the reasons our editor reads all of the content submitted,” Baldridge told me. “We have the same legal guidelines as any newspaper, and if we have a questionable submission, we won’t run it until it has been checked. … There will always be a bit more confidence in staff-generated content, but it’s been our experience that our community contributors are good, reliable storytellers.”
The Northwest Voice does require citizen journalists to register with the site first and runs a disclaimer beneath each of the stories: “The opinions and accuracy of information in this article are the responsibility of the contributor.”
Ronald Coleman is an attorney and blogger with experience dealing with trademark and free speech issues online. Coleman told me that Northwest Voice’s disclaimer wasn’t all that useful.
“For all practical purposes, unless a company has a completely open forum, and makes no editorial choices whatsoever, it can be held responsible for the publication of defamatory or infringing material,” Coleman told me via e-mail. “And the problem for newspapers is that they depend on advertisers, who will not tolerate their brand being associated with the sort of stuff that finds its way into unfiltered forums.”
Coleman said that if he were representing a media outlet, he would require an agreement whereby the contributor accepts liability — something that Northwest Voice does in its Terms of Service included in registration. In fact, there are seven rules for contributors, with this one at No. 1: “You agree to not knowingly submit any false, defamatory, abusive, obscene, threatening, racially offensive, sexually explicit or illegal material to the Web site.”
Rather than being a readers’ representative, you’re giving the reader a voice.
While the traditional role of ombudsman is to represent the readers to the newsroom, interactivity makes the ombudsman job less necessary — especially where there’s citizen media. If a site allows its readers to write entire stories or commentary, there’s no reason that commentary couldn’t be related to the newspaper’s own lapses in coverage. The CME could very well end up being the conduit for watchdog content right from the audience.
At News-Record.com, Robinson plays the ombudsman role online instead of Alexander, taking reader’s issues directly to his editorial staff. At VenturaCountyStar.com, John Moore, assistant managing editor of new media, writes a blog that gives readers an inside peek at what the editorial staff is considering for Page One of the newspaper.
“I’m a bit distrustful of the ombudsman model because too often they’re not really a readers’ representative,” Owens told me. “What we’re aiming at, and I think ultimately serves the reader better, is complete transparency. That’s John’s role with his blog — to be transparent about what we’re doing and why. The readers can represent themselves. They don’t need John to do it for them. We can be the conduit through which the information flows, where necessary, but most of the time, readers represent themselves directly right in the comments.”
In the case of MSNBC.com, the editors provide a bit more guidance to citizen journalists, so their role is slightly different than at newspaper sites with open-ended submissions on any topic. “I’d also suggest that we’re navigators, too, steering the responses toward stories or topics that we think would make good reading and fodder for citizen journalists,” Wright said.
Get the features right, then spread the word.
Beyond editorial work, a CME might also consider how to increase reader-generated stories and comments, as well as add more local bloggers with expertise. Lex Alexander at News-Record.com says the early efforts for promotion there have been a bit scattered, though that will change once all the features are nailed down.
“I’ll be working with our artists and promotions people to develop a marketing campaign and possibly some community promotions later this spring and summer,” Alexander said. “My main concern is to get features in place first — in particular, any features that will help break down artificial divisions between the newsroom and the community. Once we’ve done that, then we can say, ‘Hey, look at what we’re doing now!'”
It doesn’t hurt that News-Record.com has a link titled “Submit articles here” in the top part of its home page. At VenturaCountyStar.com, Hoffman says that some marketing campaigns are in the works, but so far word-of-mouth has worked pretty well. She hasn’t had to recruit bloggers yet and is careful when considering the addition of new ones.
“If I think they sound interesting, I reply back and ask for a basic outline of what they think their first few blog entries will look like … maybe some more specifics if I think they are vague,” Hoffman said. “I also ask for ideas on titles, a short bio, a blog description and a photo. Sometimes they think this is too much work, and I never hear back. Maybe I’m wrong, but I figure if they can’t take the time to answer those basic questions, they may not be dedicated enough to keep the blog updated.”