Among the 350 members of the mainstream media that packed a Vancouver, B.C. Superior Courtroom where the trial of Robert Pickton began on January 22, were two “citizen correspondents” from Orato.com.
Based in Vancouver, Orato.com went live in mid-June of 2006 and hosts a worldwide cadre of citizen correspondents. To say Orato.com’s content is unique may be something of an understatement. Glancing down its front page, one can find an array of fascinating stories: from “I Biked From Mendoza to Alaska: The Story of My 15 Thousand Mile Solo Trip” to “The Day The World Stopped: Surviving the Mumbai Bombings” to “The Worst 100 Days of My Life” (about the hijacking of a Somali ship sent to deliver good to victims of the Tsunami in 2005) to “Bukowski Spotting In New York.”
Editor-in-chief Paul Sullivan is a 30-year veteran of both print and broadcast media. He has been Western Editor of The Globe and Mail, Managing Editor of The Vancouver Sun, Editor-in-Chief of the Winnipeg Sun, host of CBC Radio’s Vancouver morning show and Senior News Editor at The Journal news program on CBC-TV. Sullivan is also President and Director of Strategy at Sullivan Media.
(About the trial: Pickton, a 57-year old pig butcher, is accused in the killings of 26 sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside section. This first trial will deal with six of the charges. This is the biggest murder trial in Canadian history, and is drawing comparisons with the OJ Simpson and Scott Peterson trials. News media is being tightly controlled by the courts: reporting information about the case is prohibited until after the jury has heard it, and media cannot identify websites revealing banned information. The only television coverage will be closed-circuit broadcasts to the media overflow room, where most of the news media will be observing the trial. There are only 16 seats for media in the courtroom.”)
OJR: Did Orato.com start with a “beta” site? When did it officially go “live”?
Paul Sullivan: We’ve had a sort of “beta” version of Orato online since 1999, with a number of demonstration stories. It sat there for a while, while we slowly… very slowly… figured out how to do it. In 2005, we revamped the site, soliciting correspondents. We ended up with 1500 correspondents, many of whom were pros hoping to be paid, as in the early days, we figured we’d run a mix of citizen and professional journalists’ stories. The pros would be paid for their stories, and we thought we’d ask people intending to post unsolicited stories to pay $2 a post.
The current version of the site, one which allows people to post stories which we feature in a variety of newsy ways, has been live since mid-June, 2006. As we got closer to the date of launch, we decided to drop the necessity to pay for posts – on either end, as it seemed like a barrier to activity. Now we offer $100 for the best story of the month, selected by the editors from reader and editor five-star finalists, and that’s it.
OJR: What inspired you to lean toward first-person, citizen-journalism rather than creating a publication featuring only professional journalists?
Sullivan: The inspiration for Orato comes from Vancouver businessman Sam Yehia, who I’ve known since 1999, who has been enthusiastic about a site featuring first-person, eyewitness reporting from people involved (intentionally or otherwise) in stories. People who are living these stories. Back in the early days, no one had yet coined the term citizen journalism, and our vision was (and is) broader than that. Anyone can post on Orato, even if they’re a pro. Pros often do, even if they don’t get paid, just to get the story online.
OJR: The various Canadian mainstream press outlets have referred to Orato as either “first-person news” “citizen journalism” or “community journalism”– do you see any difference in the terms,?
Sullivan: We’re always looking for first-person reporting. We don’t always get it, but that’s our preferred voice. It’s more immediate and, I think, stories come naturally when they’re told in the first person. We offer citizen journalists a platform, and we encourage citizen journalism, but we are not exclusive in any sense. Anyone can post on Orato. All you have to do is register and be prepared not to get paid!
As for “community journalism” – don’t know where that came from, although I have said we are a community of first-person correspondents from around the world – and we have more than 1800 registered to date. First-person is obviously a voice and a perspective; I would define citizen journalism as reporting and analysis from people not trained as journalists; and community journalism must be journalism that comes from and pertains to a recognizable community. I plead guilty to the first two, not the third, unless the world makes sense as a community – the global community, perhaps.
OJR: Oranto.com offers $100(USD) for five high-rated citizen stories. In what other ways does Orato encourage citizen contributions?
Sullivan: We do a number of things to encourage citizen contributions: Every week, we post “This Week in Orato” and “Orato’s Top 10 Story Ideas,” at the same time sending them out as an email to correspondents. We also offer $100 to the best story of the month. We hope that these efforts spur people to post and take some care with their posts.
We’ve had several winners—the monthly winner is posted on the home page with a link to his or her bio. Stories are rated on a five-star system by readers and editors – you’ll see Editors’ Picks and Readers Picks highlighted throughout the site. Our software allows only one vote per IP address, but that doesn’t prevent your mom or your boyfriend from pumping your stars via another computer. So it’s not flawless. But I find that as we gain more traffic, the stars seem to fit the best stories (from my point of view).
OJR: Can you explain a bit about Orato’s editorial staff: Are they also writing stories? Are you looking for Orato to be a melding of citizen and professional journalism?
Sullivan: Staff are Heather Wallace the first a graduate of Langara College’s j-program here in Vancouver; and Cecilia Jamasmie, a grad of University of British Columbia’s masters program in journalism, also here in Vancouver . Cecilia was a student in one of my classes at UBC. Heather is the senior editor and Cecilia the associate. Both will edit stories and work with correspondents. We try to pick our spots – some stories we’ll assign (like the Pickton trial). We’ll work with pitches. We’ll encourage people who have posted on other sites to customize their pieces for Orato.com. We contact contributors when we want to feature their stories in one of our various showcase windows and work with their pieces. To date, every story on the site has at least been read – carefully – by an editor, and many have been edited (with the correspondent’s cooperation).
I think the best way to describe our goal is to create and sustain a quality environment so our visitors find the site and its contents accessible and readable and our correspondents feel some pride of authorship when they see the finished product.
OJR: Do you encourage interaction between the editorial staff and people who comment on stories? Or is the “Comments” feature just to give readers their say?
Sullivan: We love it whenever conversation breaks out over a story, and neither Heather nor Cecilia (nor I for that matter) can resist engaging the correspondents in conversation. I’m a little frustrated by the lack of user friendliness of the Forum right now – the commenter has to leave the story to register, and then has to click back to the story to post the comment, which doesn’t encourage conversation. We’re working on a new version of the content management system (it’s Drupal 5.0 based) that will allow people to comment on stories more easily.
OJR: Where, and who is Orato’s community–the hyper-local Vancouver area? Orato’s readers? or just the folks who leave comments and interact?
Sullivan: We interact most often with the people registered on the site. By registering, they’ve expressed interest in being part of the Orato community. So we correspond with them weekly (unless they no longer want to receive emails from Orato, then we take them off the list like the responsible e-mailers we are). At the same time, we try to strike up conversations with people on our site, and we participate in the citizen journalism community by joining conversations on other sites. While we have some cherished regular contributors, everyone who considers his or herself part of the Orato community is automatically an honored member of the community! We’re an international site with a Vancouver , Canada flavor (if we were hyper-Canadian, I would have spelled that word “flavour”), because that’s where we are. But if you explore the site, I think you’ll be amazed at the dispatches from far-flung regions. Interestingly, most of our traffic comes from the US.
OJR: Two weeks before the trial, the Canadian Press reported on Orato’s call for citizen journalists to cover the trial–and that one of the criteria was for the person or persons to have worked in the sex trade. Who are the people covering the trial, and what will they be doing during the trial?
Sullivan: The two people, Pauline VanKoll and Trisha Baptie, are accredited and at the first day of the Pickton trial today (January 22). They answered the call on Orato and we were impressed with the quality of their e-mails. We interviewed them and signed them. They’re what we call “citizen correspondents.” We’ll see how the coverage unfolds. I think, though, they will spend most of their time in one of the overflow rooms adjacent to the main courtroom, covered by closed circuit – there are only 16 spots in the main courtroom. Sometimes I think the women are wondering what they’ve got themselves into, with all the media requests for interviews.
OJR: Orato offers free advertising. So, without advertising, what’s driving Orato’s business model?
Sullivan: Not all advertising is free – we got a $147 cheque from Google Adsense the other day! Our plan is to build traffic to the point where we can offer custom onsite ads at an industry-competitive CPM. Further down the pike, we also plan to syndicate story packages to interested buyers. But right now, our mission is to get the page views up.