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Citizen reporters everywhere

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

One day last month Todd Cameron Thacker, Canadian senior editor (and a staff reporter) of OhmyNews International in Seoul, Korea, wrote in his personal blog, Sound of a Dog Eating Grass:

Well, it was definitely an interesting day. First we broke the 90 country mark with a new citizen reporter from Brunei. Then our oldest citizen reporter registered... he's 87! Wow!

It was a big day for me, too. I was that venerable reporter. I had just registered with four other citizen news sites as well: NowPublic (Vancouver, Canada), MySpace (global, based in US), Scoop (New Zealand), and Brookmans Park Newsletter (UK). Four of the five have since published stories I offered them... Wow, wow, wow, wow!

These and similar citizen writers' websites, where the readers write the news, are sweeping the world and may help change the face of newspapers. Private citizens have begun to write their own news stories, to photograph news events with digital cameras, and to post them on websites within seconds of their happening. OhmyNews claims to have 35,000 citizen reporters, and NowPublic is said to have 16,000. Trained journalists polish the raw copy, check the facts, and sometimes rewrite the stories.

Newspaper owners and staffs face the greatest revolution in publishing since William Caxton printed the first book in the English language in 1474 and Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype in 1884. If they don't adapt, they'll perish.

That's why Australian-born US media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. last year forked out $580m (£310m) for the community website MySpace. The market research company NetRatings says MySpace visitors have tripled since the takeover. MySpace and its competitor, Bebo, were the fifth and sixth most-visited sites in the UK in April, more popular than the BBC's marvellous website.

Young adults aren't buying newspapers these days. They can't understand why their parents pay good money for ink and a processed log of wood flung over the front fence, containing stale news, while they themselves get up-to-the-minute news and action pictures from TV and the internet for free.

It would be a tragedy if newspapers don't survive. We need trained reporters and commentators to present breaking news in a professional form. Where would the world's myriad citizen reporters, talkback radio hosts and guests be if they were deprived of expert, well presented and reliable news items to dissect and discuss?

Let's look at some of the leading citizen news sites one by one:

"The website Oh founded in 2000, is arguably the most mature example of 'citizen journalism' in the world," Martin Stabe wrote last month in the online Press Gazette (UK). "A staff of professional reporters and editors manage the site, but the bulk of its material comes from 42,000 citizen reporters."

[" I like its founder's name. Oh Yeon-ho sounds like Oh Yeah, Oh No! " - US Wordsmith Anu Garg.]

The website says "Welcome to the revolution in the culture of news production, distribution, and consumption. Say Good bye to the backwards newspaper culture of the 20th century."

Speaking at a conference in December 2004, Oh Yeon-ho said:

The Internet started in America for military purposes, but citizen journalism started in Korea.

OhmyNews is the citizen-journal of South Korea... There are now 35,000 citizen reporters who submit 150-200 posts a day. They are paid only a little bit — $20 if it's a big story. Readers can also comment on articles. Versioning of content encourages paid subscriptions.

Why in Korea? Because there's resentment of the media monopoly, because broadband penetration is high (75%), it's highly networked socially, and the young folks are open minded, liberal and activist. It hasn't happened in Japan because Korean youths are more activist.

OhmyNews is a child of the marriage of technology and democracy.

also relies on contributions from readers, or citizen journalists, who help judge what are the most important stories. Matt Marshall and Michael Bazeley, from the San Jose Mercury News (California) spoke to NowPublic's chief executive, Leonard Brody, who told them his company's traffic now rivals that of OhmyNews, at almost 2.5 million unique visitors a month.

However, he added, the company was evolving to a different model, where it would become less of a destination site. Instead, NowPublic would work to serve other media sites.

Marshall and Bazeley wrote:

It will do that by ranking its army of 16,000 members -- so that news sites can select the reports, photos or videos from top-rated contributors who are attending events that those media sites can't get to. He describes the service as a more nimble, modern version of Reuters. We shall see.

Brody said the Vancouver company is in talks with five big Silicon Valley venture firms, and that it may eventually move to the Bay Area in part -- though nothing is decided yet. He said the lower cost, focus and loyalty of Vancouver employees is something he doesn't want to give up. He will have a foot planted firmly in both places if he does move.

says it's "an online community that lets you meet your friends' friends. ...Create a private community on MySpace and you can share photos, journals and interests with your growing network of mutual friends!... MySpace is for everyone."

MySpace has just set up an Australian subsidiary. This backslapping greeting on their "About" page is more American than Australian (like Rupert Murdoch himself):

Hey folks – should I say mates? – We just launched the Australia version of MySpace. We’re featuring more Australia music and some of the features should work better with local postal codes, etc.

As a result, my lawyers told ME what I have to tell YOU: now that MySpace is looking more Australian, you should know that we are still running our site from the US, all your data still resides in the US, and that MySpace’s data management practices are still governed by US laws. -Thx Tom

is a “fiercely independent” press release driven internet news agency accredited to the New Zealand Parliament Press Gallery and also fed by a multitude of business, non-government-organisation, regional government and public relations communication professionals.

Scoop also publishes a variety of raw, unedited material from national and international commentators while producing its own editorial content on important current issues — often giving voice to perspectives not being addressed through “traditional media” sources.

On July 9, 2001, an item in Scoop read:

"Life Begins at 80 on the Internet" calls itself "the world's first multi-national e-book." The lead story in the July issue... is about a remarkable American who was born in India, written by an Australian born in England, and published by a South African website. The third story is about George Richards, editor of the SMH's Column 8, and his famous Apostrophe Man. You'll find the book, by retired Sydney journalist Eric Shackle, of Ettalong, at http://www.bdb.co.za/shackle/ebook.htm

And on October 23, 2003, it reported that in the US, an article in Newsweek had referred to Scoop as "an obscure Australian web site." That was a perfect illustration of Schadenfreude: joy at having been noticed by Newsweek, mixed with despondency at having been termed obscure, and (even worse) having been wrongly labelled as Australian.

Brookmans Park Newsletter is an award-winning local newspaper on the outskirts of London. Its editor, David Brewer, wrote on June 1:

A new interactive feature has been added to the site to enable people to get on their soapboxes and rant, get something off their chests and vent, get others to join their gang, or write a feature. It’s the Brookmans Park Weblog and anyone can post.

Weblogs enable people to post absolutely anything they want. It might be a link you have seen that you want others to see, it might be a picture that has taken your fancy, or you might want to write a sentence, a paragraph or an essay about something that has made you stop in your tracks and think.

Contributions made to the weblog might, occasionally, be considered for publication as a story or feature on the front page of the Brookmans Park Newsletter. You never know, it might get picked up by the local press or a specialist magazine. It’s happened before and it could happen again.

I once wrote a story suggesting that the original Little Miss Muffet may have lived in Brookmans Park.

These days, I have an uneasy feeling that the world's citizen reporters and bloggers will one day outnumber the readers who visit their sites. Maybe they do already.

 

DIFFICULT DAYS FOR NEWSPAPERS

Many newspapers around the world, faced with falling sales and advertising revenue, are reluctantly admitting that radio, TV and the internet are better than they are in presenting up-to-the minute news.

In the US, Peter Meirs, director of alternative media at the magazine publisher Time Inc., predicted that new portable electronic reading devices would bring "the beginning of the end for paper" within five years. He said publishers should look to user-generated content sites like YouTube and Flickr for inspiration.

And in London, The Guardian is set to become the first British national newspaper to offer a "web first news service." Important news items will be posted online before they appear in the print paper (that's already happening in Sydney and elsewhere).

Both The Times and The Guardian are launching US editions, and BBC World is becoming available to US viewers. A BBC spokesman said a survey had shown that Americans were increasingly interested in international news, yet most US news networks were spending less air time covering it.

 

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Story first posted July 2006

Copyright © 2006

Eric Shackle

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