Citizens' media gets richer

Not long ago, online news sites discovered that users wanted to become part of the media conversation. Begrudgingly, many news sites added group blogs and other devices that cracked open the palace doors and allowed readers to become writers. Turns out the barbarians at the gates were adept at slinging words. Who knew?

Now we’re seeing the next stage take hold in the citizens’ media movement. People are beginning to contribute rich media — photos, video and audio — to news sites.

“If news organizations don’t embrace this, it will embrace them, and they’ll become less and less relevant,” says Michael Tippett, founder of “Citizen journalism is not the future, it’s the present.”

For some time, readers have contributed photos of news events like Sept. 11, the space shuttle breakup or the London bombings. What’s changed is that such reader galleries are becoming central parts of several news sites rather than afterthoughts. Video and audio aren’t far behind.

In the process, thousands of amateur photographers, video-makers and podcasters have begun creating a flavor of news that’s different from traditional journalism — something more informal, spirited and community-based.

Following is a look at three online news publications that are blazing new trails in user-generated content: Bluffton Today in South Carolina, and New West in Missoula, Montana.

Bluffton (S.C.) Today

When Morris Newspapers launched the Bluffton Today site on April Fools’ Day, some people weren’t quite sure what to make of this latest experiment in citizen journalism.

Steve Yelvington, analyst for Morris Digital Works, calls it “a complete inversion of the online newspaper model,” and that starts with the primary mission of the Web site: to support the daily newsprint product, which launched three days later.

To gain a foothold in the South Carolina enclave of 12 private gated communities and 20 or so open subdivisions, Morris decided to underscore the sense that the online and print publications belonged to the community. “It’s the people’s newspaper — it’s theirs, not ours,” Yelvington says.

The news site depends chiefly on user submissions for its content. Staffers and those who register receive a free Weblog and a gallery for publishing photos. People may contribute events to a community calendar and recipes to a community cookbook, and everyone may post free ads for salable items.

“We believe the real problem plaguing American newspapers and draining the lifeblood out of circulation and readership is that people are no longer primarily focused on their own communities,” Yelvington says. “You’re living in this cable TV world of the outside observer instead of acting as participants. We’re trying to make people come out of their gates and become players. We want a participative culture to evolve.”

With a hyperlocal site like Bluffton Today, it made sense editorially and business-wise to extend the reach of the newsroom into the community by enticing residents to become part of a social network. “We can get only so far with our own staff,” he says.

Forums have been one way to entice users to participate in their communities. “But everybody has had the same experience, seeing them turn into horrendous cesspools. We were determined not to have that happen,” he says.

Instead, the Bluffton Today site gave people free blogs and the ability to post their pictures to galleries. While other citizen journalism sites like the Bakersfield Californian’s Northwest Voice and the Denver Post’s YourHub try to coax citizens into producing “something that looks like journalism,” Yelvington says, Morris’s approach here has been “more conversational and less bound by assumptions about what the end result should be.” As a result, it’s less about journalism and more about empowering community members to express themselves.

“It’s been fascinating to watch it unfold,” he says. Rather than seeing the traditional formulaic approach of news stories or news releases, readers are seeing writings by people like the local high school principal quickly evolve into “that comfortable, informal, conversational style you see in blogs.”

Reader photos came naturally and organically to the site. Digital photography has become so pervasive and easy that people want to share their work online. A lot of people post pictures to the photo galleries who aren’t comfortable writing a sentence on a blog, Yelvington says.

Initially, focus groups showed that people were wary about posting photos publicly. But once members uploaded photos of a baby, and a pet dog, and a gathering at a barbecue, other photos of the same type streamed in.

“In a couple of cases, people have shot news-style photos of a fire or a car wreck,” Yelvington says. “But really it’s more about shooting a picture of a bird in someone’s back yard.”

Pets are favorite subject of local shutterbugs. “People are passionate about their animals, and it’s amazing how thoroughly newsrooms don’t get that. A lot of local issues center on pets and the other kinds of challenges you come up against in local life, and eventually you realize that the world is a small town,” Yelvington says.

So far, only one reader video has made it onto the site, partly because the site hasn’t emphasized that capability. “Editing and encoding video takes a little more skill,” he says, “but I’m convinced it’s coming in a big way because the new cameras and camcorders all have it built in, and broadband is making it easier.”

Today the site has 2,086 registered users, about 70 percent of them women. In three months, it went from zero to being the leader across all Morris sites with 36 page views per household in the target market in July.

What’s their trick? “We have not invented a single thing,” Yelvington says. But instead of taking its cues from the newspaper industry, they’ve looked to startups like Flickr and niche, user-driven sites all over the Internet that celebrate participation. “These kind of small interactions add up.”


Michael Tippett, the 35-year-old Vancouver, B.C., entrepreneur who founded NowPublic, says the idea behind the site grew out of a simple proposition: The news isn’t a private club anymore. Soon, citizen journalism will be not the exception but the rule. Most news will come directly to readers and into newsrooms from people on the scene.

Since the site’s launch on March 22, users have embraced the idea, with thousands of registered members sending in photos, video and audio. Traffic to the site is now nearing one million visitors a month.

In early 2004 Tippett noticed something interesting happening on the site’s predecessor, When people began posting their own photos of news events, traffic to those pages began to soar. Soon, those back pages became the front page.

Tippett spotted the trend of user-generated content and decided to build a technology that married text blogs with multimedia, united around a common theme of covering and commenting upon news events. The for-profit venture obtained angel funding, hired a small development team in New York and built the site in eight months.

Changes to the site’s front page and inside pages are determined by registered members’ votes. “We wanted to democratize not only the collection of news but the editorial process and the display of news,” Tippett says. Users can view media by most popular or most recent, or they can burrow into a particular topic created by members, like the Iraq war or natural disasters.

From the start, Tippett was surprised by the unpredictable makeup of the site’s participants. “Some of our most active members are grandmothers — people you wouldn’t think are early adopters of new technologies. They care passionately about their communities, whether they’re political activists or baseball fans or weather fanatics.”

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, NowPublic became one of the central places on the Web where people posted photos of Louisiana area residents displaced by the disaster. Within 48 hours, two families were reunited online through the service.

When people think of news, they often think of politics or public policy, and NowPublic has its fair share of reports by soldiers and civilians in Iraq or residents of Gaza or anti-war activists in Crawford, Texas. These subjective, eye-opening, first-person accounts are what happens when you democratize the news. “In some ways it’s a bare knuckle brawl of news in the marketplace of ideas,” Tippett says.

Certainly, it’s news of a different order, and Tippett ardently believes the news industry needs to adjust to the fast-changing dynamics of the online world, which has disrupted the traditional one-way channel between news providers and consumers.

“The big news organizations always say, we have journalism school grads and Pulitzer Prize winners and people trained in the craft. Fair enough, but you have two people on the story, and we already may have 20 or 50. What happens when we have 2,000 people covering that story? There will come a point where they can’t compete,” he says.

Another strength of citizens’ news is the removal of the journalist as an impersonal, detached observer. “This is the real reality news,” Tippett says. “People are uploading videos and publishing blog entries, saying, ‘Let me tell you about my husband who just died.’ It’s a very powerful thing to have that emotional depth and first-hand experience, rather than the formulaic, distancing approach of the mainstream media.”

While many citizen journalism sites start as a handful of individuals covering their communities, NowPublic approaches hyperlocal news from a global perspective. With a distributed network of eyewitnesses at the ready, Tippett says, NowPublic can tap into the pent-up desire of people to engage in the news. “Anything that happens now will be covered by people on the scene with camera phones and blogs. That was not the case a year ago.”

Eventually, people in hundreds and thousands of communities will be reporting about themselves. By nature, hyperlocal news about little league games and seniors’ meetings will be incredibly boring to most people but interesting to a few. More and more people will want to come in through those side doors — news pages about towns like Fargo and Dubuque — and perhaps bypass the site’s front page altogether.

Like Yelvington, Tippett believes that citizens don’t need to learn traditional journalistic practices as they pick up the mantle of multimedia reporting. “Often, it’s just about being an accidental bystander, being in the right place at the right time. The truth reveals itself as you record it as an eyewitness.”

NowPublic members are beginning to publish video taken at political events, rallies and sports events. “The biggest beneficiary of citizen journalism may eventually be the local newspaper — small publishers who don’t have someone on staff to cover the county fair but find a volunteer to shoot footage or photos of an event for a small amount of money and local acclaim.”

NowPublic aims to serve as a conduit that lets news organizations tap into the personal media revolution by licensing software that provides a content feed. The company just signed a deal to roll out the newswire-like service to one newspaper company’s 1,000 media partners starting next month.

Once a user publishes, say, a video of a tornado or hurricane — “We get a lot of crazy, daredevil storm chasers,” Tippett says — the user can assign usage rights and embed it into the media. Media organizations that like a video clip or photo can contact the creator to negotiate reuse rights.

By enlisting thousands of citizen journalists, he says, “we are, in some sense, already the largest news organization in the world.” Not the AP or New York Times? “They’re kind of Mickey Mouse compared to NowPublic,” he adds, half joking.

New West

Visitors to New West, a 7-month-old news publication in Missoula, Montana, would be forgiven if they thought the rich array of landscape photographs gracing the site’s front page were taken by staff or free-lance photographers.

In most cases, those captivating photos were snapped by citizen journalists and chosen by one of New West’s editors.

Founding editor Jonathan Weber began work on the site a year ago and launched it in February, focusing on the social changes taking place in the fast-growing Rocky Mountain West. From the outset, he wanted to partner with the readers that the publication is trying to reach. Witness the site’s plainspoken entreaty to citizen journalists: “The idea is that you as the reader have access to much of the information that we as journalists do and there is no reason you can’t be a writer, a reporter, a pontificator or a blogger yourself.”

Weber expects multimedia to become a big part of the site’s appeal in the years ahead. Already, people have contributed hundreds of photos to New West via its account on the Flickr photo-sharing site.

“We’re seeing that part of the attraction of digital photography is the ability of people to share photos,” he says. The photos taken by amateurs are predominately landscapes and urban photography — some of them stunning — with fewer shots of people or news events so far.

“It hasn’t been a big fire season, so we haven’t had a lot of breaking news photographs. Fire is the biggest natural disaster out here,” he says.

Those who write, take photos, or create video or audio for the Web site retain their copyright to the material while giving New West broad license to use it or resell it.

Weber is no big fan of sites that position front-page stories through reader voting or by random order. “That seems to me to be the job of an editor. That’s one of the big challenges, to create context around reader contributions.”

In a month or two, the site plans to add one-minute podcasts from a local radio station. Weber expects user contributions to record speeches, public events and interesting sounds in the wild.

“The barriers to producing a good podcast are probably a little higher than just writing a blog post,” he says. “It’s not simply a matter of talking into a mike, there is a certain level of production values for it to sound professional. We’re at the beginning of the podcast wave, and over time there’ll be a big differentiation between professional-style podcasts and those that aren’t.”

Like Bluffton Today, New West plans to spin a print publication out of its online presence. Weber plans to launch a monthly print magazine next year, “a Texas Monthly for the Rocky Mountain West.”

Weber says the site is ahead of its revenue targets and is on its way to becoming a self-sustaining business by next year. He calls the editorial product “even better than I thought it would be at this stage,” thanks largely to user contributions. The site had about 15,000 unique visitors in August and several hundred thousand page views.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Weber says. “We set out to do a new kind of hybrid publication that marries some of the best of citizens media with some of the best of traditional journalism, and I think we’ve done that.”

J.D. Lasica’s new book about the personal media revolution is Darknet.

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted consultant Susan Mernit saying that NowPublic wanted to become the AP of grassroots media and that Mernit consults for NowPublic. In fact, NowPublic is not a client of Mernit’s firm. OJR and the writer regret the error.

About J. D. Lasica


  1. I would like to note that a) I appear in this piece but the author did not tell me I was being interviewed, b) I am misquoted: I said that NowPublic would like to be the AP, not that they are, and c) NowPublic is not now and has never been a client of mine.
    It is upsetting that JD did not check his facts before publishing this story at OJR. I have asked for corrections.

  2. I’ve cleared up the misunderstanding with Susan M.

    Meantime, we’d be delighted to hear of other citizens media efforts that involve users contributing video, audio and photos to news sites.

  3. Well I think the media is moving from conglomorations to more individual opinion and I am still extremely bitter about google removing my site I worked 9 months on because I ranked to well so I put together this news blog…

    Cheers, Thanks,

  4. While it’s true, and encouraging, that more news sites are opening the doors to deeper participation from their community of readers, it would also be nice to see stories of this nature do a little more research and give credit to those who have pioneered community news online: the Independent Media Center ( has been providing a platform for open publishing text, photos, audio, and video since 1999, and has spread from one center in Seattle to over 160 around the world.

  5. In 2001, the Ventura County Star provided a dozen disposable cameras to citizens and had them document a downtown event. In 2003, the Star invited readers to submit photos of wild fires, and received hundreds and hundreds of submissions. In early 2005, during the floods, readers submitted video to the Star.

    SignOnSanDiego has been accepting user-submitted photos for a number of years.

    I’m sure there are a few dozen other examples out there.

    It’s not like mainstream media has suddenly discovered user-submitted content, as J.D. seems to suggest.

  6. Howard, we all admire efforts, like those in Ventura and San Diego, that have highlighted user-contributed content (as the fourth graf of this story makes clear, it’s not a new phenomenon).

    But, in my judgment, what we’re seeing now is unquestionably an effort by the traditional media to incorporate citizens’ contributions into their online publications in a much more direct, profound and embracing way.

    A year from now, we’ll see many publications include citizens’ podcasts and video, not just photos. Traditional news organizations sense that the readers’ gravitation to blogs and alternative news sites is part of a major gravitational shift, and they’re finally starting to get serious about efforts to include the community in the news process.