FTC Steps in on Citizen Journalism, Internet, and Impacts on the News Industry

A couple months ago we explored citizen journalism and how that is changing the way we access news. From an industry that is largely dependent on advertising revenues to subsidize professional journalists and delivery of news and information, to a communication platform that that allows anybody with a keyboard and Internet connection to post their interpretation of events to a global audience, the news world has changed.

The players:

Traditional News and Information Sources

  • News papers
  • Periodicals
  • Broadcast news
  • Cable Television

New Media News and Information Sources

  • Bloggers
  • Ezines
  • Webcams
  • Online websites for traditional media outlets

The second category of news and information sources are mostly free from the cost of subscription, other than Internet access charges. In addition, Internet-enabled news sources are available by merely logging into the internet and the news source website. From anywhere that is not restricted from accessing news via the Internet, or that controls access to the Internet. About 1% of the global wired population.

The result of citizen journalism and Internet-enabled traditional sources is mainly in advertising revenue losses by traditional news publications. Subscription fees have never been the prime source of revenue for traditional printed media, it has always been the revenues produced from advertising.

As the world continues to move their primary access to news sources from broadcast television and printed news media to cable TV and the Internet, those advertising sources are quickly drying up.

The Federal Trade Commission/FTC Tries to Help

On August 17th the FTC announced in December it will begin a series of workshops entitled “From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” The purpose of the workshops is to:

“bring competition, consumer protection, and First Amendment perspectives to bear on the financial, technological, and other challenges facing the news industry as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet for free news and information, advertisers increasingly move their ads onto online sites and reduce advertising buys as a result of the recession, and news organizations struggle with large debt that was taken on when times were better.”

The FTC does acknowledge the shift from print to Internet, and simply wants to ensure that traditional media companies understand the realities of the shift to new media formats. The FTC also wants to ensure at the same time copyrights are protected, and fair business practices are maintained while media companies either deal with new media, or make the decision to drop out of their businesses.

Reality Hurts, But there are Realities to Consider

Several Realities to List

  • Anybody with a keyboard and a free website can post “news”
  • The Internet is ubiquitous (available just about everywhere, to everybody)
  • Censorship and control of information is almost impossible
  • Citizens do not need editorial guidance or management to post stories, blogs, photos, or anything else
  • Citizens can provide a snapshot in time, but rarely have the contacts, experience, or time to do an exhaustive check on stories or facts
  • People still want to read the LA Times or Huffington Post, even if it is only online access (and they want to read from anyplace in the world)
  • Microblogging (Twitter) supports immediate notification of events to a nearly unlimited number of recipients via email, web access, SMS Messaging, or even voice notification

Blogs do have their place. Without blogs, email, and immediate posting of real time events, we may have never learned what really happened during the recent Iran elections. We might never know what happens when an event occurs in China, a fire is approaching Santa Barbara, a storm swell is threatening Miami Beach – or any other kind of news important to those who may be impacted or are interested in the topic.

Back to the Topic

In most cases we try to offer a recommendation on what to do when identifying a problem. A good editorial goes further than simply presenting a story or fact (like a good journalist may do!). In this case I have to admit I do now have the answers or a recommendation. I don’t know how to advise a newspaper on the verge of collapse how to deal with people like myself who are happy to offer editorials, news, and reviews of events or complex topics.

In a previous article we quoted David Simon, former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and producer of HBO’s series “The Wire,” as stating “if you do not charge for a product, the product has no value.” If this is true, then the news industry needs to sit back and fully study and understand the dynamics of the Internet, citizen journalism, blogging, and global ubiquitous access to new via the Internet, and then come up with a plan to help it survive through to the next century.

Throughout history we have gone from story tellers traveling and telling their rendition of events in faraway places, to cave inscriptions telling a story of events, to town criers, to newspapers, to television, and now the Internet. Change happens, and change in the media industry is good for the consumers of their news product. And change requires us to find new ways of funding and compensation for the producers and carriers of news.

Time for a trip to the white board

John Savageau, Long Beach

Blogs and Trust – the Debate Continues

Riding home on a train from New York City to Long Beach (NY) gives a creative mind a lot of time to think through a variety of topics, and form a variety of opinions on those topics. In the current wired world, there are many different methods of bringing those thoughts to both friends and others via tools available via the Internet.

“I find time (to write) in airplanes, taxis, and while riding the train. I will write myself articles on the Blackberry, email to myself, and publish (to a blog) when I get home” Hunter Newby

Blogs are becoming a very popular way of bringing your story to both your friends and the rest of the connected world. Friends who read your blogs (or email), tend to have fairly high confidence that what you write is based on some level of fact. Or they simply enjoy reading your accounts of events happening in your part of the world.

Corporate blogs, or blogs based on meeting the marketing objectives of a company, are generally not accepted with a high level of trust, or respect (according to a recent Forrester report). On the other hand, those companies promoting the work of individual bloggers with an identity that both supplements and transcends the corporation tend to attract a more loyal following of readers that may even continue after the blogger leaves a company.

Hunter Newby, CEO and Founder of Allied Fiber, and seasoned blog writer, has a large following of readers spread over several subject areas. Newby often uses blogs as a record of conversations and people he meets. “I come across people every single day with unique, interesting, and useful stories, knowledge and information” says Newby.

Those conversations and experiences should not be lost. To ensure the conversations retain their value to current and future readers, it is important for Newby to format his blogs and material in a way that is “not only useful for readers today, but also informative for people in the future.”

Blogging and reporting current events are different. While journalists provide expertise in evaluating specific events, good bloggers also bring a high level of tacit knowledge and experience to the blog.

If a writer like Newby discusses a topic such as Carrier Hotels or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), his opinions and views are based on many years as a professional in the industry.

When interviewing or recording conversations with other professionals in the field, he is able to apply that tacit knowledge with the new conversation, and draw conclusions and opinions not possible if the same conversation had been recorded by a journalist.

The main issue with reading those blogs is trust. The reader has to assume that either the blogger is an expert in his field, or the blogger’s work can easily be cross-referenced and fact-checked. Most good bloggers will be a mix of both, understanding that new readers and casual readers will initially look at blogs with a level of skepticism – until a level of trust in the credibility of a blogger is attained.

Newby also warns that blogging may be used in nefarious ways, including deception and intentional misrepresentation of fact. Giving the example of Orson Welles original broadcast of the “War of the Worlds,” he notes that people expect media outlets to record and represent the truth. Orson Welles was a real, card-carrying journalist, and nobody had any reason to doubt his word.

The result of this breach of trust is a matter of history – the people of America actually believed the country was being invaded by Martians, and it caused mass-hysteria around the country.

While blogs may appear in an expendable format (most blogs are a roll of new articles by date, and in many cases are placed in a database that may or may not be permanent), search engine utilities provided by companies such as Google are becoming much better at indexing blogs. Google also provides a very powerful search utility for blog topics, adding another level of “findability” to blog topics.

As print journalism continues to lose ground to online media and blogging, and the number of bloggers continues to grow (according to the blogHerald this number may exceed 50 million), we will need to add more filters to blogs, remain skeptical, and also embrace blogs as a new media of not only receiving news, but also learning more from people around the world with ideas and opinions of interest to us in our personal and professional lives.

So the prevailing opinion is that blogs are not a problem, and that blogs are in fact a great tool. As with all things, people bring value, or take value away from the media. Blog on, and bring value to your blog.  Be a citizen journalist, gather readers, and express yourself in a positive way. Base your message or stories on fact, or back it up with solid experience.

“I get emails from people all over the world responding to my articles. I’ve even had messages from soldiers on the front lines in Iraq asking me questions on how to call home using VoIP.” Hunter Newby

If your message brings value, then you will also, as Hunter Newby, be driven to educate people in mass. Now that is a personal characteristic we can respect, and thank the blog for helping bring it to us!


John Savageau, Long Beach (California)

The Dangers of Citizen Journalism

The current events in Iran have clearly shown us citizen journalism may bring us news and snapshots of activities denied to traditional reporters. The CNN “iReport” shows events on the streets of Tehran denied to the professional cameras and interpretation of CNN’s seasoned staff. However, to bring us those iReports, citizen journalists take on risks normally avoided by citizens. It that risk too high? The dangers too great?

On June 20th a citizen journalist submitted a video showing the brutal death (“Youtube Please don’t delete. This is happening in streets of my country World should know.”) of a young Iranian woman protester on streets of Tehran. The motivation for taking the video was to ensure the rest of the world would be exposed to the horrific cost of the demonstrations in the streets, and the struggle would not be suppressed or forgotten. The individual taking the video clearly put himself in great danger, making a decision the cost of recording this event was too import to be lost to history.

Fox News recently teamed with MySpace to encourage citizen journalists to submit their stories via the “uReport” upload utility. The Weather Channel asks viewers to submit their videos of hurricanes and tornados, and local stations such as CBS 4 in Denver which made national news when a 6 year old girl uploaded images and video of a tornado cloud forming with a cheap child’s toy camera.

In a previous article discussing wild fires in Santa Barbara, California, students using Twitter made news by taking on the role of both emergency services and new media. The students not only kept the news media informed of real-time events and status of the wild fire, but also acted as a first line of notification to the local community by sending out warnings to evacuate as the fire rapidly moved into residential communities.

The desire for people to gain their 15 minutes of fame may compel them to take a more active citizen journalist role. KTLA (CW), a local broadcast station in Los Angeles tries to get their professional reporters into the best proximity of any breaking story, including the wild fires frequently affecting Southern California.

KTLA goes to great effort explaining to their viewers each of their reporters goes through extensive training with CalFire (the state’s main fire agency) to ensure they are able to not only get as close as possible to the fires, but also are aware of the best way to protect themselves from fire. They are also most often embedded with fire teams that are also well-protected in the event a fire changes and puts the team in danger.

Citizen journalists usually do not have the training to understand either the dangers of recording disasters or dangerous events, and may take unreasonable risks in their attempt to record the event.

As news services and media continue to suffer the effects of an economy or changing media environment, we will continue to see more requests and encouragement for citizen journalists to supplement traditional journalism. This is good, as it greatly increases the potential sources of images, video, and on-the-scene information. It also increases the potential for fraud and possible misrepresentation of “fact,” which would normally pass through the checks and balances of editors and publishers.

Citizen journalism is here to stay. Multimedia-enabled mobile phones, Twitter, email, and other social networking media make recording events and transmitting those images and reports around the world a simple and immediate process. Like any other source of unverified information, we need to be vigilant in our skepticism of those events.

Recording history is essential to our ability to understand how we have arrived at this snapshot in time. A student in Tehran taking extreme personal risk to record events happening in the streets will produce an image that will last forever in Iran’s history. Future generations will benefit from that commitment to citizen journalism.

However, we must also ensure we do not encourage 6 year old girls to spend a lot of time recording tornados. History will be full of images of tornados, and will be grateful for those who took the time to record those images. History will not be kind to those who encourage children and amateurs to take great risks. Citizen journalism will need to strike a balance.


John Savageau, Long Beach

The Unpaid Citizen Journalist – What Value?

“If you put out a product, and nobody wants to pay for it, you don’t have a product.”  David Simon

A debate is heating up on the topic of unpaid, or “Citizen Journalists.”  This issue is whether or not citizen journalists are qualified to represent news to the public, and if the news they distribute has any inherent value.

Traditional newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Christian Science Monitor have gone to online-only editions.  Most existing print newspapers also have online editions, and those online editions are gradually opening up to include blogs, including non-paid blogs opened to citizen journalists with little or no experience and formal training in journalism.

Citizen journalism is not limited to online newspapers.  Broadcast media and cable media such as CNN solicit citizen journalism through their “iReports,” which encourage non-journalists to record events and submit them online for distribution without pay.  The citizen journalist gives up the copyright to their contribution, and newsreaders or other journalists add further comment.

Leonard Brody, CEO of NowPublic, states that “Our job is to provide an army of people who are eyes and ears that journalists can build around.”  NowPublic describes their business as a group the “collects, organizes, and distributes news from unconventional sources.”

Brody believes journalism is still in the responsibility of professional journalists, however those journalists do not always have the depth of resources available to build credible stories, and citizen journalists fill the role of collecting information that can be interpreted by journalists.

Brody continues “telling someone they are going to be a citizen journalist is like telling them they are going to be a citizen dentist; it requires training and the average person just can’t do it.”

On the other hand, SF Weekly criticizes the San Francisco Chronicle’s use of citizen journalists stating “By now, aficionados of San Francisco Web journalism have probably noticed the San Francisco Chronicle’s new “City Brights” online feature; a group of “luminaries” who, essentially, blog about whatever they see fit. We’re ostensibly supposed to be compelled to read it.”

Mark Watson, a freelance journalism activist in the UK believes that “such a working culture has become prevalent in media jobs because employers know they can get away with using unpaid workers in this way.”  “People either do not realize they should be paid, or feel unable to claim. As a result employers can tap in to a steady stream of unpaid workers – and so do.”

Newspapers have always had a reader’s page, or opinion page, allowing readers to put their opinions in print.  Those opinions are not checked for facts, and are clearly identified by the paper as opinions expressed by the reader, and do not reflect the opinion of the newspaper.

Citizen journalism now takes a further step towards replacing some of the activities previously performed only by professionals. 

In a recent speech titled “The Incredible Shrinking Newsroom: How can fewer reporters meet increasing demands for coverage?” at the University of Oregon, Marty Baron, editor of the Boston Globe acknowledged:

“In many ways, we are headed for a thrilling new world of media. Technology allows journalists today to tell stories in ways that were never possible before, to reach audiences larger than ever, and to build a tight and more intimate bond with the public. For young journalists, there can be remarkable opportunity as old media models crumble and as an entrepreneurial culture takes hold in a field that has long been dominated by overbearing media behemoths. There is a lot to be excited about, and a lot that is healthy.”

Rick Daysog of the Honolulu Advertiser agrees, reinforcing the need for news media to embrace “new models of communications and media distribution.”  The Honolulu Advertiser does have nearly 50 bloggers posting topics from surfing to high school sports available online, with most of those being posted by unpaid citizen journalists.

How can an unpaid citizen journalist dedicate the time to develop and uncover facts in a story, when the journalist needs to focus the majority of their effort on their primary salaried job?  Can you really drill into a local environmental issue if your efforts are primarily in recording what you see on the surface of an issue?   Is it possible journalism will fall into a snapshot looking at the façade of a story, which may be a deception?

Of course seasoned journalists such as David Simon (producer of the HBO serial “The Wire” and former Baltimore Sun crime reporter) will tell you that unless you work the “beat,” you will never learn the real story.  He also sees reporting as a profession.  You go to work every day, earning money to pay your “mortgage, car payments, and living expenses.” 

If you are not earning a living from journalism, you are probably “not producing a product that has any real value.”

Marty Baron continues to voice additional risks in the new media and the potential of big business to further corrupt the quality of news.  Brody says “there also are risks for the practice of journalism. There are risks that journalism will turn cynically to the quick, the easy, and the cheap – that a story’s greatest accomplishment will be to get a million page views, rather than to correct an injustice, or unearth wrongdoing, or give voice to people who would not otherwise be heard.”

Part 4 of this series will explore the future of advertising in media.
John Savageau, Long Beach

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