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Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Seattle Times technology reporter

The state of citizen journalism


Like many forms of new media, citizen journalism is hard to define. For the purposes of this article, citizen journalism is considered to be original reporting and writing from people who are not part of the traditional media establishment. Here are some sites populating the citizen-journalism landscape:

Backfence
www.backfence.com

A network of city-specific sites. Seattle's not one of them — yet.

iBrattleboro
www.ibrattleboro.com

About Brattleboro, Vt./Includes news, maps, polls, advertising.

Newsvine
www.newsvine.com

Users discuss media articles or write their own/Founded by Seattle tech veterans.

YourHub
YourHub/www.yourhub.com

Community news network/Written by paid staff and by community members.

Seattle doesn't have a Backfence or a YourHub yet, but a number of neighborhood-specific sites, usually blogs, often feature residents reporting news about the region. Here are some:

Bainbridge Buzz
www.bainbridgebuzz.com

Online news magazine about Bainbridge Island/ Launched in February 2005.

Capitol Hill Seattle
capitolhillseattle.blogspot.com

About Capitol Hill/ Written by an anonymous resident.

Metroblogging Seattle
seattle.metblogs.com

Group blog about Seattle/Part of Metroblogging blog network.

Seattlest
www.seattlest.com

Group blog about Seattle/Part of Gothamist blog network.

West Seattle Blog
www.westseattleblog.com

About West Seattle/Links to other neighborhood blogs.

I Heart Seattle
www.iheartseattle.com

Blog about Seattle/ Started posting in late June.

Source: Seattle Times

This is the first in an occasional series looking at technology's impact on media.

The Capitol Hill Seattle blog says it offers tales from the "fancy pants" part of the Seattle neighborhood, and since the beginning of the year has given its 100 regular readers local news, big and small:

Tully's has begun offering free wireless Internet. A school bus ran over the Vios Cafe sign. In the hot summer weather, a list of neighborhood swimming pools.

There are more weighty items. One post, for example, analyzes police data to identify areas with the highest crime-growth rates this year. It's a piece of reporting you would expect to see in Seattle's daily and weekly newspapers, not in a blog.

The site is definitely journalism, said its creator, even though the 31-year-old man gets to hide behind a cloak of anonymity — something most mainstream journalists can't do, but a practice not uncommon in the online world.

And Capitol Hill Seattle isn't exactly eliciting concern about competition from city newsrooms.

But in its small way, the site represents the great hope of the "citizen journalism" movement. Take Capitol Hill Seattle and multiply it by millions. One day, say some, the from-the-trenches reporting by average Joes will emerge as a news force all its own.

"We're in a time when activist citizens and sometimes even the general public have an opportunity to be involved and create meaningful and easy-to-share journalism," said Merrill Brown, a former RealNetworks executive heading a Carnegie-Knight project on journalism education. "And we're all trying to figure out what that means."

The topic is top of mind for David Brewster these days. The Seattle Weekly founder is looking to start an online newspaper about Seattle. Other local companies have built news sites, though with a national focus, and encourage members to contribute articles.

Digital cameras, blogs and other technology are turning people who used to only consume news into those who report and publish it. The Internet is rewriting the rules of the news business, and traditional media giants are trying to make sense of it all.

"We're in the middle of a revolution, and revolutions offer both challenges and opportunities," Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, said at a conference in June. "The business models are being totally destroyed and reordered every day."

Hunting for money

Yet for all the grand visions of citizen journalism, news sites face a cold reality: Funding is scarce.

Sites that collect news articles from other publications and invite users to comment, such as Digg.com and Seattle-based Newsvine, are hot and getting funding, said Nick Hanauer, a partner at Seattle venture firm Second Avenue Partners. (Hanauer is a member of Newsvine's board).

But what about a site that aims to re-create a local newspaper, producing original journalism exclusively online?

"I can't think of a reason to invest in a company that wanted to be a local, sort of traditionally structured news organization but with online content," he said. "There's almost no way to build enough revenue to cover the expenses. The economics just won't work."

That's the challenge for Brewster, who started the Weekly in 1976. He said he wants to fill a void left by casualties in the local media market. Many radio stations, for example, have exited the newsgathering business. There might eventually be one less daily newspaper here, he said, referring to a high-stakes court battle being fought by The Seattle Times and Hearst Corp., owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

"Local journalism is suffering," he said. But Brewster acknowledges he is having a hard time nailing down funding. There will be tremendous competition from the likes of Google, he said, and from existing Seattle media. Google's latest encroachment involves a plan to distribute online coupons from local merchants.

"There are a lot of people crowding into something that doesn't have enough dollars to support anything yet," he said. "It's all on the come. It's like everybody trying to get into the same apartment building."

One model that seems to be gaining traction is that of Backfence.com, which gets news from reader-contributors and sells ads on 10 news sites for cities in Maryland, Virginia and California. It plans to move into a dozen more in three years, and isn't ruling out Seattle.

The company isn't profitable, but adds dozens of new advertisers every month, said Chief Executive Susan DeFife. Ad sales, she said, are "outstanding to astonishing."

Meanwhile, as these small operations struggle to find money, traditional newspapers are moving more resources to the Web, hoping to catch readers as print circulations decline alarmingly. Some, like the Rocky Mountain News' YourHub, are integrating citizen journalism into their Web sites.

The strategy may be working: Two-thirds of American adults said late last year that they regularly read local or national newspaper Web sites, up 5 percentage points from early 2005, according to a study by the research institute Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Newspaper revenues for 2005 rose by 1 percent to 2 percent, and almost all of that increase resulted from the 30 percent growth seen in online operations, the study said.

Acts of journalism

While financial models for these grass-roots news sites are worked out, ideas of what constitutes journalism are being re-examined. On Backfence's Bethesda, Md., site, for example, a recent top news item was a news release about a children's arts guide that would be sent home in student backpacks.

At iBrattleboro.com, a site in Brattleboro, Vt., a poster passed along a rumor about Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban planning a move to the area.

Is this journalism? In a controversial recent article in The New Yorker, Columbia University journalism professor Nicholas Lemann wrote that the best original Internet journalism happens by accident — when commuters with cellphone cameras take pictures immediately after a terrorist bombing, for instance.

As for the rest of it?

"When one reads it, after having been exposed to the buildup," he wrote, "it is nearly impossible not to think, This is what all the fuss is about?"

DeFife said Backfence is not trying to compete with journalism, and that there is no substitute for the professional reporting. But a newspaper can't cover a lot of geography and get deep into local communities at the same time, she said. Newsvine mostly links to a variety of articles from outside sources, but encourages users to submit their own news. The company asks its 60,000 registered users to think a little more like journalists. If a subject can be considered newsworthy by a reasonable person, it says, that's fair game. The fact that you walked your dog is not newsworthy.

"We feel like there's a gigantic portion of the population right now that has a story to tell and doesn't know where to tell it," said Chief Executive Mike Davidson. One user wrote about being diagnosed with the autoimmune disease scleroderma. Another gave details of a wildfire near his Southern California home.

Blogging still personal

Blogs have long been a home for personal essays and observations, but they're also a key tool for citizen journalists. Some of the best-known citizen journalism sites started off as blogs, but have since acquired a more professional sheen. A notable example is Talking Points Memo, a well-read, three-employee political blog that its creator says is profitable.

"What's powerful about what the Web has done is it allowed a lot more voices and information to make it to the surface than ever before," said Jeff Reifman, a Seattle software developer who worked at Microsoft for eight years. Reifman recently redesigned his news-aggregator site and changed its name from CommonTimes to NewsCloud.

But writing is difficult, he said, and it takes time and expertise to cover a "beat."

Generally, people who write blogs are not in it to break news. A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life project said that only a third of the 12 million American adults who keep a blog consider them to be journalism.

Still, sites that publish news have generated a lively debate about journalism. Are bloggers as accurate or as trustworthy as trained journalists? Or is mainstream media any more credible these days anyway, after high-profile cases of plagiarism and biased reporting?

Traditional media "have only ourselves to blame by not being as accurate as we should be, by making mistakes," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, dean of students and a professor at Columbia Journalism School. "That causes people to say, 'I don't know if I can trust this.' "

Peeking into the future

Five years from now, will people be mostly reading publication-specific sites? Or will there be other possibilities, such as a user-created news portal filled with chunks from blogs, news articles and video clips from across the Web?

What's clear is that the Internet is emerging as a news medium of its own. And the journalism establishment, by choice or not, is feeling the effect of the masses.

David Zeeck, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said that editors once had more resistance and fear when it came to online journalism. Now, many news organizations have begun delivering — and often breaking — news on the Web.

Zeeck, executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, compared the situation to when radio and TV became big in America. That "new media" invaded a niche newspapers had occupied. Now, newspapers print TV channel guides. He expects newspapers will do the same for the Web and help readers find the best content online, including what citizen journalists produce.

This new crop of citizen content is changing all aspects of the news industry, said Brown at the Carnegie-Knight project. By the end of the decade, he said, every cellphone will have a camera and video recorder, and TV stations realize this.

"This is a phenomenon different than anything else we know," he said. "The great challenge here is to figure out how traditional journalism and citizen journalism can work together, and there's a bunch of us trying to figure that out."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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