Last October I traveled to the Argent Hotel in San Francisco to cover the Web 2.0 conference. As I was jotting down some notes between sessions, a bearded gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing. When I told him, he laughed and said, “You’re a reporter? Don’t you know you’re out of a job, bitch?”
My interlocutor meant to not-so-kindly imply that citizen media was ascendant, and traditional journalism nearly extinct. AOL had just purchased Weblogs Inc. User-edited site Digg.com was becoming more popular every day. Online news cynosure Dan Gillmor was experimenting with the Bayosphere in San Francisco. All signs pointed to a future where reporters were marginalized by community-edited news sites, blogs and aggregation services.
Of course, this exchange happened at the Web 2.0 conference. But every reporter has heard the bugaboo about the post-scarcity, citizen-driven, small-is-the-new-big future of journalism. It’s a scary proposition, and as the mainstream media watches its revenue shrink year after year, it’s a future that looms increasingly large and real.
But despite all the recent hum and chuff about Web 2.0, there has been surprisingly little progress in “journalism 2.0.”
In the last few months, we’ve seen that pure citizen media projects aren’t panning out as proponents thought they would. Bayosphere is closing up shop. Backfence.com is struggling. The sites have little focus, and they’re completely dependent on the whimsy of their contributors.
Meanwhile, news aggregators are coming on strong. Sites like Digg, Tailrank, and reddit have received quite a lot of buzz. But while these sites are great for providing context for a larger story, they’re still purely reactive. They can’t pursue a story or break their own news.
Don’t look to mainstream media to correct these imblances. As Jay Rosen consistently points out, the traditional bastions of good journalism are actually withdrawing from competition online.
A potentially winning combination
Of all the startups entering the news marketplace in the last year, I’ve only seen one that could be a viable platform for online journalism.
Newsvine is a Seattle-based company started by former Disney and ESPN staffers. Their site newsvine.com launched an invitation-only preview beta in January. The site publishes news feeds from the Associated Press and ESPN, and then gives users the ability to comment on those stories, publish their own stories, write their own blog, and vote which articles should receive the most attention. (You can find a detailed overview of the site’s features on solutionwatch.com.)
By combining hard news with citizen opinion in a single site, Newsvine has built a powerful call-and-response mechanism that couples the culling power of news aggregators with the empowerment of citizen media. Each type of content provides a check against the excesses or omissions of the other. That focus on daily news then provides the clear organization and compelling presentation that can spur readers to involvement.
Newsvine.com’s international scope may also allow it to circumvent the traffic trap of hyperlocal coverage. Most experiments in online “news” focus on a specific region, or specific constituencies (memeorandum for tech and politics, gather.com for would-be writer). Newsvine.com includes all the news.
The site is constructed so that users can create or read local coverage at, say, sanfrancisco-oakland-sanjose.newsvine.com. But they can also read and contribute in other regions as well. Navigating the regions, you get the sense that you’re using the journalist’s version of citysearch.com. (Albeit with better design and much more personality.)
Finally, there’s newsvine.com’s carrot to users: Every contributor gets a share of the ad revenue generated on their pages. The more popular your contributions, the more money you’re likely to make.
Promising, but will it work?
The ad revenue sharing plan is a big part of Newsvine’s value proposition and speaks to the biggest hurdle the site will face: attracting a critical mass of passionate users.
Right now, the site is sparsely populated by a group of early adopters. (Traffic on beta launch day did exceed 100,000 page views, which is remarkable.) Getting user attention in the fragmented media marketplace will be difficult at best, as a recent report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York shows (to cite one example among hundreds).
Despite its beautiful design and robust features, newsvine.com doesn’t offer any features that a dedicated Web user couldn’t find distributed elsewhere on the Web. Bloggers can already share ad revenue using Google AdSense on their own sites, and they can comment on the news on their own blogs.
Even if Newsvine manages to attract enough users, they still need to attract those who will make positive contributions. As Dan Gillmor noted recently, participants need incentives. Otherwise, they’ll visit, read, and leave.
It’s not enough, on the Web, to offer a clean, well-lit place to read the news. If Newsvine is to be a successful news organization — not just a technology company — then they will need to invest in columnists, editors, and personalities. And they’ll need to tend their garden of contributors very, very closely
When I use Newsvine, I imagine what it would be like if CNN.com or NYTimes.com adopted this approach to news — an approach that sacrificed none of the legitimacy of traditional journalism while adding value from a diverse and interested public.
Mainstream media can’t compete with interactive media by deploying a few small blogs and setting up comment sections. Those are capitulations, not innovations. Likewise, interactive media can’t compete with journalism simply by adding RSS widgets and scraping news sites for headlines. Those are traffic-generating tools, not community-building tools.
Newsvine is in the sweet spot. The site’s conceit is worth paying attention to. By combining professional journalism with inspired citizen comments and blogs, Newsvine has the potential to keep the spirit of socially responsible journalism alive on the Web. That spirit is conversation.