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April 5, 2005

What's in PressThink's Pocket? Citizen Journalism!

Al Gore's network; CanWest's new hunt for the young; Merrill Brown's truthtelling; Roch Smith, Jr.'s 101 sites; BluffingtonToday's debut; and the Greensboro clan thrashes things out.

The title of Rebecca Blood’s weblog I have always loved: What’s in Rebecca’s Pocket?

“Jay, you are back,” her blog says to me. “Look, these are some things I have carried around or found just today. Let’s spread them out and examine each. They tell us some story, I suppose. Take this one for example…” It’s an effective and charming invite.

So here are some things in PressThink’s pocket, all related to “citzen journalism.” They tell a story, I suppose.

1. Al Gore’s new network will air the work of citizen journalists, youth division. The Wall Street Journal reported on it Monday: “A cable channel recently acquired by an investment group led by Al Gore is to relaunch Aug. 1 under the name Current TV, hoping to generate much of its content from viewers.” (See the Current Studio page.) There are the outlines of a plan to pay contributors:

Its Web site will be a key part of its service, listing topics on which it wants material, such as reviews of movies, CDs or videogames; items on social trends; and advocacy journalism. Current will pay $250 for videos it airs.

Now $250 is not a lot—it’s a little—but something to start with. At a minimum it says: citizen journalism has costs, and needs staff support. (See the FAQ page for producers. And here’s something they call the Assignment Desk.) Bringing the people formerly known as the audience into a new role as video content providers is a big deal, and not like running a traditional network at all.

Do the Current people understand this? It seems so, but we will have to see. Here’s co-founder Joel Hyatt in a letter to supporters. I think it’s fair to say the right talk is there. The walk begins August 1, 2005:

All around us there has been a shift in power from companies to the consumer. This “bottoms-up” trend has been transforming the way we live our lives. Innovative companies from amazon to ebay, are leading the way in personalization and consumer-created content. In the TV industry, technology is helping to keep up with viewers’ desire for on-demand scheduling in the forms of VOD and PVRs. But on the creation and programming front, no one yet is allowing their viewers to participate in a meaningful way in the creation of Television.

Current will be the first TV network to do this. We are building an
on-line production studio that empowers our audience to be a part of
our staff. We will be turning to you to create real-life video
stories. We will count on you to watch what’s being submitted and, by
ranking what you watch, help us program the line-up that you want to
see. And we will rely on you to get the word out about what we’re up

I wonder if Current be flooded with good-but-not-great material, with junk, with well-intentioned but unworkable pieces, with too much that’s worth airing, or what… I will also be watching the kind of relationships that evolve among the network staff, the huge community of potential contributors, and the users. (“Let’s redefine what’s considered ‘news’ and how it’s told. Shoot a story that traditional news media won’t touch because it’s too big, too small, or too something. We’re looking for honesty, humor, and, of course, the facts.”)

There’s another feature to Current: a partnership with Google to harvest the “information” in popular search terms to provide up-to-the-minute relevance in journalism. Interesting idea. Easy to overdo too. Read about it.

2. Merrill Brown tells his business the truth. Brown, the founding editor of and now a consultant, has published a truthtelling report, based on a study (hard data) commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, Abandoning the News. I strongly recommend it.

What I mean by truthtelling is passages like this: “the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news.” And: “Newspapers have no clear strengths and are the least preferred choice for local, national and international news.”

The report says that change in journalism is way too incremental because the world has changed a lot. “Active consumers are unlikely any longer to rely on single sources for coverage of issues that matter to them. And they’ll never be consuming news without clear chunks of opinion as part of the mix.” That’s two assumptions that held in mainstream journalism for a long time— now overturned.

Brown echoes my post from last week, Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die in calling for “a substantial commitment to new product development,” the kind of investment “that news companies—even in their triumphant days of dominance and vast profitability—were reluctant to make.” It says, bluntly: “American journalism institutions face risks of extraordinary magnitude.”

The threats are not only economic; they’re political. “Even the accepted, historic premise of how a free press and the skills of journalism bind together democratic institutions similarly merits a certain reassessment and reality check,” writes Brown. (Similar to the the “de-certification” theme developed here.) “There is little evidence that today’s politicians accept the notion that it’s mandatory to connect to the population via a ‘national press corps,’ often choosing to go around the press and communicate through their own Internet sites, through friendly talk shows and blog forums.”

In a world where national leaders are turning away from the news media, citizens have an increasing lack of confidence in the press and young people are moving perhaps permanently away from traditional newsgathering organizations, a radical rethinking of how news is delivered seems necessary—- even overdue.

From an industry leader like Brown, phrases like “radical rethinking” are rarely heard. He gives this example to suggest that some in the industry are catching on. It comes from Sandra Rowe, editor of the Oregonian:

Though frustrated at the industry’s slow pace, Rowe sees a day ahead when newspaper editors will have more products and ways to leverage their expertise. In this model, she says, her paper would be reaching different sensibilities with, for example, an alternative weekly, community papers, the leading regional portal and a network of sites. By managing multiple products and building a stronger economic base, Rowe thinks that such an organization would have the resources to put “the interest back in public interest reporting. If you can be the primary information source in the community,” she adds, “and do so because it’s your responsibility, the commercial argument would work and would be designed to support that.”

The view that the traditional news organization, whether it’s a daily newspaper or television network news operation, is effectively a “mother ship” feeding material to multiple products on multiple platforms isn’t necessarily a brand-new one. But the scale of what Rowe is proposing is a start at rethinking fading traditions.

A start, yes. Merrill Brown’s conclusions can be summed up in three words: get with it.

News executives need to quickly mobilize around what are today their secondary platforms, at least measured in terms of where, currently, their largest revenue opportunities exist. In other words, even if the daily newspaper industry’s advertising revenue dwarfs its Internet business, the future of the American newspaper will be defined online… the news industry should recognize the importance of what’s going on in places like Bakersfield and work hand-in-hand with bloggers and other independent journalists and citizens to experiment with the formation of new alliances and the development of new products

I said it in January: “The forces of denial are in retreat.” Brown, I think, wanted to make sure of that with this report. It’s called Abandoning the News, but there’s an ambiguity in that title. Young people are abandoning the news. But so is Big Media if it cannot invent a better connection to a live, twenty-first century public.

3. Dose magazine debuts in Canada, more mobile but no better. Another search party for the lost tribe of young readers has been sent out by a Big Media company. In Canada, a new entity called Dose magazine launched Monday in five big cities: VancouverCalgaryEdmontonToronto… and Ottawa. Dose—billed as a daily newsmagazine and web portal for the young—is a project of CanWest, the Canadian media giant with a strategy in the Vancouver market of owning everything.

Since this one is said to have certain citizen journalism features, I bring it to your attention. Here are the three slogans by which Dose wants to be understood (from an about page.)

The press release says, “To ensure that Dose reflects the attitudes and interests of its target audience, we have entrusted its content, format and approach to a group of fun and clever young Canadians.”

Clever? Not according to Brad Badelt and Richard Warnica in Thunderbird, an online magazine out of the University of British Columbia’s J-School. They addressed an open letter to the publisher CanWest chose: Noah Godfrey, 27, a graduate of Harvard Business School who worked in corporate strategy at AOL Time Warner and as an investment banker at Salomon Smith Barney. (Scroll down to see my Q & A with him, in the “After” section.) Here’s the heart of their letter:

From what we understand, Dose is to be of the youth, for the youth and by the youth. But we wonder, Noah, how much you really have in common, beyond age, with other young Canadians. Readership interests are more complex than age breakdowns allow. For instance, how representative is your background, which includes an Ivy League education, of the experience of the average Canadian?

And do young people even want to hear exclusively from the young? The hippest media figure among the urban, intelligent and fun – your target market – is Jon Stewart, a middle-aged white guy in a suit.

But as much as we mock, we know Dose is no joke. What worries us, beyond the title and hyper-charged marketing, is the implicit admission that mainstream daily newspapers are giving up on youth.

Canada is a country of far more than two solitudes. Newspapers should bridge those divides, not pander to them. If every demographic gets its own news, from its own source, with its own spin, what kind of consensus or democracy can we hope to create? The 18-34 year-old age group lives in the same cities, works at the same jobs and votes in the same elections as every other adult Canadian. Youth should participate in the same debates about how the country is run. And that won’t happen if mainstream news culls them from the herd.

Thunderbird added a reported piece, Why is it suddenly hot for news to be cool? that is also well done. It asks, for example, “how a news outlet can function on the basis of a cool-hunting philosophy?”

In Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die I said we’re not seeing major investment from Big Media in the next model for online journalism. Thunderbird reports: “Leonard Asper, CanWest’s president and chief executive, recently told the National Post that he expected Dose to lose $5 million to $6 million in its first year.” What would you do with that much to spend? Would it look like this?

There are a few parts of Dose that will be interesting to follow. The design is admirably minimalist, the opposite of the “busy” look that afflicts and other commercial sites. The creators of Dose have different ideas about how a printed sheet and web site should work together. (Which is definitely part of any future solution.) From a fact sheet put out by CanWest, asking: “How does Dose work together in print, online and mobile?”

Here’s the Hey they’re talking about. It’s “young person in the street” interviews about inane topics— comically thin stuff. My headline: More Old Think About the Young from Big Media. Dose is mostly focus group wisdom spread over new platforms.

4. The 101 sites spread. Will there soon be a network of local switchboards? First there was Greensboro 101, a local blog directory that became a local portal site, a natural competitor, and possible partner to the local newspaper site. Then there was Charlotte 101, kind of a franchise deal with Charlotte bloggers Dave Beckwith and Darryl Parker to do a similar thing. Now, cleverly timed to BlogNashville, there is Nashville 101, the third operation from Roch Smith, Jr., founder of See my earlier interview with him. (“I’ve been contacted by media people wanting to replicate the Greensboro101 concept in other cities.”) He e-mailed me with his expanded strategy:

Our plan is to provide turn-key 101s for individuals or groups who wish to operate one in their city. We have over 200 [cityname]101 domain names registered and plan to promote them as local citizen media cites through (not up yet).

In addition to gearing up to roll out more cities, we are in the process of developing an ad system that will not only coordinate the placement of advertising on the 101s (the revenue from which will be shared with the participating operators ), but that will also allow participation by local bloggers who will also share in the revenue. The idea is to create geographically targeted online advertising opportunities that can sustain localized citizens media to the very end of the long tail.

And so we can squint and see a local infrastructure in place, nationally. Not that Smith is going to corner the market any time soon. There are many similar sites going in other cities, and each one may be considered a potential contender with the local newspaper in the race for a Journalism 2.0 approach that works. See PhillyFuture for one example. SanDiegoBlog for another. Here’s one in Urban Vancouver.

In Journalism 2.0 (the way I explain it to myself) the People Formerly Known as the Audience, safely considered “consumers” during one era, are more involved in production. Interactivity makes daily journalism into a better, faster learning machine, which means it can improve its accuracy many times over. And in the 2.0 era new ways to pay for good work emerge from a variety of directions— the media industry is only one, and not the most likely solution.

Civic entrepreneurs like Roch Smith, Jr.—who are paid in influence, and the satisfaction of seeing your creation thrive—are equally likely to have good answers to the puzzles presented by Journalism 2.0. With most in the industry unwilling to spend, the need for experiment and innovation is being met from outside.

5. inverts the old model. Steve Yelvington read Dan Gillmor’s book, We the Media. Now he explains an experiment in citizen journalism based on some of the ideas in that book: Bluffton Today, a hyper local site in the Bluffton and Beaufort areas of South Carolina. (About page.) “Here’s a short list of what we’re doing,” Yelvington says at his weblog:

“User generated material from the get-go, including free classifieds,” says Gillmor. “It comes from an established media company, and the site looks terrific.” (The company would be Morris Digital Works.) He even calls it a “citizen journalism breakthrough.” Steve Outing of Poynter: “This is exactly how the newspaper industry should be experimenting with citizen journalism.” I will be interested to hear other reviews.

6. The Greensboro Clan Thrashes Out the Ethics of the Economics. Local GSO blogger The Shu e-mails PressThink. “Folks have been so enamored with the Greensboro News-Record’s Public Square concept since it was announced,” he says. “I have been a lonely voice in the wilderness when it comes to seeing this as a case where the MSM regains its dominance over a market it has been losing, virtually steals from the bloggers and offers very little to nothing in return.”

What his post inspired is a sight to behold: Greensboro Bloggers—Shu, Ed Cone, Roch Smith, Billy the Poet, Patrick Eakes, Mr. Sun, with Lex Alexander and John Robinson of the News & Record—wrestling with themselves, estimates of value and their local newspaper’s intentions. I recommend it. But more than that, I commend the spirit of this clan when they barbeque an idea.

Alright, those are six scenes. You tell me: What is the story?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

Noah Godfrey, the 27 year-old publisher of CanWest’s Dose, e-mails with answers to my questions:

1. What are the convictions and conclusions you have about young Canadians, behind which you launch Dose?

We believe the following about young Canadians:

2. If you’ve followed debates and developments surrounding citizen journalism, blogging and the online press, you must have seen some lessons for Dose. What were they?

We have learned:

3. Wouldn’t you agree that young people in Canada are very likely to be concerned about the power and influence of corporations like CanWest, your firm? How do you plan to handle that?

In today’s democratic world, consumers have more choices and sources of information than ever (e.g., citizen journalism, blogging, online press) and they take advantage of it. The public refuses to accept information from only one source. It’s the beauty of twenty first century media. As a result, it is impossible for any one organization to have any significant power and influence.

According to Macleans, Noah is the son of former Toronto Sun publisher and current CanWest director Paul Godfrey.

Rebecca Blood E-Mails with the origins of her weblog’s name:

Back before there was an Internet, there were BBS’s (Bulletin Board Systems)—individual computers that hosted discussion forums. When I wanted to pass one of my screenplays to a friend, I created a new area on a BBS where I had sysop privileges. On a whim I called it “Rebecca’s Pocket”, since it was just a temporary container. Before I could put the file up, the BBS owner posted a note in the room that said, “What’s in Rebecca’s Pocket?” Years later, when I created my weblog, I adopted the title and tagline, and I think they fit. My site is an ongoing collection of things I find interesting, on a wide variety of subjects. I like to think it’s the kind of place people can come and poke around in for hours.

“Journalism 1.0: we have the best stuff and we’ll give it to you when we are good and ready.” Roland Tanglao replies to this post. (I fixed the name.)

Roland Tanglao created a blog on Vancouver Dose to test them out.

Jude Nagurney Camwel reminds me that Greensboro 101 has a pretty fair editorial board. (That’s another feature of Roch Smith’s stealth model.)

“We are seeing grassroots journalism gaining a foothold.” Roch Smith, Jr. in comments says “what these six stories have in common is that grassroots journalism is coming into its own. In some cases, it is encouraged by traditional media; in some it is a sort of hybrid; and in others, it is completely independent of MSM. But in all cases, the citizen journalist is gaining more control, better tools and more exposure.”

Tim Porter on the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who are meeting this week:

The death of newspapering as a viable economic and social medium is increasingly being foretold even by its practitioners. What do the gatekeepers of the journalism’s largest platform offer at their annual convention in the face of this bleak future? Bromides, blinders and an oddly self-abusing submission to speeches from politicians who disdain, abuse and manipulate the very press these editors are charged with preserving.

Ex CNN-er Rebecca MacKinnon in Nieman Reports (it’s a pdf) on the pitiful state of television news:

Early last year, my CNN boss told me that my expertise on Northeast Asia (China, Japan and Korea) was “getting in the way” of doing the kind of stories that its U.S. network wants to put on air. I was told to cover my region more from the perspective of a tourist, rather than from the perspective of somebody who has spent her entire adult life living and working in that region. I was told my stories would be better if I wrote my scripts before I did my interviews.

From a Reuters account of the Current announcement:

Google did not disclose the terms of the deal. [Google co-founder Sergey] Brin said the company is providing specialized data from its Zeitgeist service, which tracks search patterns and trends.

Gore, who lost the 2000 election in a bitter contest with current President Bush, seemed to have put politics behind him, insisting the channel would not be a liberal pulpit.

“We have no intention of being a Democratic channel, a liberal channel, or a TV version of Air America, that’s not what we’re all about,” he said, referring to the liberal radio network.


From the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage:

“Those who are using the Internet are often watching TV at the same time, ” said the former vice president, who’s chairman of the board of Current, the new independent cable venture pitched at audiences advertisers covet — people 18 to 34 years old. “Part of our objective is to connect those two experiences.”

See also CNET’s Richard Shim on the Google portion.

Mark on Media, another Canadian blog I recommend, has a fine analysis of CanWest’s strategy. If I understand where he’s going, it’s that CanWest in Vancouver is just interested in occupying all platforms for delivery of “stuff” to the young, trendy and spendy classes because it figures that the current period of confusion will not last, the smoke will clear. And when the new model emerges Can West can simply shift investment to some semi-established brand, ramp it up, rake it in. The point is to occupy news and listing delivery space, move things across platforms to get the hang of it, take whatever advertising dribbles in, and wait….Who else can afford to do that? No one. Ergo: CanWest wins, despite the crack-up of its previous model. Here’s Mark, replying to my write up of Dose magazine’s launch:

I’m more and more convinced that CanWest’s efforts to sew up the market (two paid dailies, all or part of two free dailies, internet, TV and urban and suburban community newspapers) is about securing platform. The immediate benefit is a solid grasp on a huge portion of the advertising opportunities in the region….

Longer-term, the ubiquity of platform makes it much more difficult for a Bluffton Today or Greensboro 101 type of citizen journalism endeavour to launch and threaten. The combination of platform and brand (whether it’s the Sun, the new Dose, or a community newspaper), the development of new media models (Dose’s interactive web site) and deep pockets mean CanWest can move quickly to ensure dominance in the market.

I agree with this part: “Given the huge amount of experimentation going on, we’re starting to see some vague shapes emerging from the fog of the future.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 5, 2005 1:03 AM