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

Citizen Journalists Take On Iran’s Government

Citizen journalism (also known as “public”, “participatory”, “democratic” or “street journalism”) is the concept of members of the public “playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing and disseminating news and information.” Wikipedia

On Wednesday, CNN frequently showed amateur videos, with a graphic that labeled them “unverified material.” It showed a YouTube video of the aftermath of an apparent raid at Tehran University. The video showed rooms that appeared to have been burned extensively.  New York Times

Citizen Journalism took on a very clear role this week as the Iranian government continued to deport journalists admitted with temporary visas (to cover the Iranian elections).  As western journalists were told reporting on the demonstrations and protests against perceived election fraud was illegal (“We warn those who propagate riots and spread rumors that our legal action against them will cost them dearly,” a statement from the military force said), the burden of reporting fell on the shoulders of Iranian citizens participating in the demonstrations.

Most of the reporting comes in the form of videos uploaded to YouTube, email, and updates to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  The reporting is generally a recording of events, which is then commented upon by western news media.

During the 1993 Russian Constitutional Crisis citizen journalists used email and Usenet newsgroups to transmit near real-time updates on activities as the Army moved to occupy the White House, and many Russian citizens were killed or injured.  This supplemented the very limited news media, which was not officially allowed near the events.  Perhaps one of the first examples of the “Internet Age of Journalism.”

Even in the United States, visual accounts of events involving police brutality become instantly available to the rest of the world.  This was clearly demonstrated when Oscar Grant was shot on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train platform News Years night.  Dozens of citizens recorded the incident on their mobile phones, uploading the images to YouTube and social networking sites directly from the platform within seconds of the event.

Now as mobile phone and computerized video files continue to flow from Iran to the rest of the world, keeping people up to date with events in Iran, we can reflect on changes taking place in the Internet age of information.  CNN reporters, who have been with us providing news since the 1980s, are now barred from providing real time views of Tehran.  They are taking “iReports” provided by Iranian citizens, and providing commentary on videos that cannot be independently verified.  We need to assume that video being used is an accurate record of events – perhaps a big assumption in a world also well known for use of media deception and propaganda.

However one message is very clear.  Regardless of the validity of visual and citizen provided accounts of events, it will be very difficult for governments to contain or suppress news in the future. The Internet has provided a means to instantly globalize information and news.  Governments will forever be held accountable for their actions in the court of world opinion.


John Savageau, Long Beach

Journalists and Bloggers – Conflict or the Future of Media?

Can an enthusiast blogger generate the level of experience and credibility of a card-carrying journalist?

In part 2 of our series on journalism, newspapers, and the new media, we look at a comparison of bloggers and professional journalists.  The question, recently voiced with strong emotion by David Simon (film producer and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun), asks whether or not bloggers can adequately research and write on topics traditionally reported on by professional journalists.

In a powerful speech given to the National Press Corps in Washington DC, Simon expressed concern that the art of reporting, performed by professional journalists, is being lost.  This is partly the result of local newspapers being shut down, or with local news being replaced by wire service content. 

Professional journalists and reporters spend years developing their skills, personal networks and sources, and are able to dig into stories at a level not possible by a casual or enthusiast blogger.  In addition, the reporter has editors and the media institution behind him, providing not only support, but also a professional team to ensure facts are straight and good form is maintained.

A blogger, in general, does not need to walk a beat, develop a core of informants and news resources, and in most cases will post their blog without any 3rd party or professional editing.  Fact checking and topical accuracy are not as important as blogging frequency and search engine optimization.

Rick Daysog, reporter for the Honolulu Advertiser is not as pessimistic as Simon.   While he agrees good journalism requires a lot of “gumshoeing,” he also believes there is a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge within the blogging community.  Daysog also believes there are many people who are “very good writers, but do not fall into an institutional framework.” 

This could be based on prior experience, or they have specialized skills in niches that a typical journalist might not be able to comprehend or effectively present in print.  Reviewing the Honolulu Advertiser website, there are no less than 50 featured blogs where professional and registered local bloggers discuss topics ranging from sports, to entertainment, to business news, to lifestyles.

As blogging and immediate access to news and web pages further evolves, we will need to accept the reality that blogging does come with some compromise.  We will see spelling errors, grammatical errors, and style errors.  We will need to assume anything we read cannot be consumed with 100% confidence, as there is no fact checking, forcing non-institutional blog consumers to assume a credibility margin of error.

Bloggers reporting on events, such as a school board meeting, may be able to record the event as a binary image.  Recording events forces you to believe in everything you see, and accept that as a reality.

In the Army, deception is nearly as important as reality.  You want to present a strength, weakness, or condition to a potential enemy, while masking the real information behind a façade.  Directly recording an event presents a similar danger.  While a non-professional recorder can make a tape, snap a picture, and transcribe the event into a blog, and professional reporter will probably approach the same event differently.

The professional reporter will develop resources, ask many “why?”  questions, play dumb to get the actors to open up and go into teaching mode, or simply drill into the facts to audit accuracy.  Then he will match information developed with the event he recorded, and the result will be a new story.  All with the advantage of professional editing and compliance with style.

As a police investigator may believe that crime witnesses are not credible, as they lack professional observation skills, the blogger may be considered a recorder of events and commit similar errors.

So the burden is on us – the blog reader, to determine if what we are reading is meeting our information needs.

In the next segment of this series we will explore the idea of paid .vs unpaid journalism, and the value of information.

John Savageau, Long Beach

The Death and Life of Newspapers and Journalism

The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Tribune Company (owner of LA Times and KTLA) are all recent examples of traditional media on the brink of closure. 

Circulation is down more than 30% at the Boston Globe since 2000, which is only representative of a trend hitting the print media market – people avoid buying newspapers if the news they need is online.

The online world of journalism and blogging is generally free, forcing media companies to deal with two sticky issues:

1. How to make money online
2. How to live in a world where everybody on the internet can become a blogging journalist

David Simon, former Baltimore Sun reporter and current producer of mini-dramas such as “The Wire,” believes: 

“…the only hope for major news outlets to find a way to collaboratively impose charges for reading online, and to demand fees from aggregators such as Google News, which profit from their journalism. “

Simon goes on to make the analogy that in the past, all television was put up for free.  Most television revenues were produced by advertising in commercial spots scattered throughout normal broadcasting in the form of frequent commercials.

While free television is still around for local broadcast channels, a majority of Americans pay monthly fees to cable companies which not only give many more options to viewers, but also provide much more in-depth specialized reporting such as cable news, financial news, government news, and other non-broadcast channels.  Simon continues:

“If you don’t have a product that you’re charging for, you don’t have a product,” he says. “If you think that free is going to produce something that’s as much of a cost centre as good journalism – because it costs money to do good journalism – you’re out of your mind.” (The Guardian)

As local and regional newspapers fall to the attraction or need of selling out to large conglomerates such as Gannet, NewsCorp, and the Tribune Company, more changes are implemented which have a huge impact on local news. After acquisition, many newspapers are forced to reduce staff, offering packages to reporters – often reporters with the most experience.

Local articles and journalism also begins being gradually replaced by news service content (such as Associated  Press and Reuters).  All content of course that is already available online – and for free. 

While the local newspapers may take a stab at producing an online version of their news, this is difficult, as mashup sites like Yahoo and Google carry the same content, as well as many other value-added services for readers.  This may even include a newsfeed directly from the local newspaper, further diluting the value of the newspaper’s print and online versions.

Once local content becomes part of a mashup, the local online edition will lose whatever advertising revenue may have been on the home site, accelerating potential financial crisis for the local company.

Rick Daysog of the Honolulu Advertiser believes that newspapers must change to both understand and embrace new media.  People are online, and they want to take advantage of all opportunities to be informed. 

Hawaii may be a special case, as there are two competing newspapers (The Honolulu Advertiser and Honolulu Star Bulletin).

“The local news is very complex,” say Daysog.  As a reporter you “have to compete in the local market, and that competition is in reporting the local news.”

Readers in Hawaii look to online wire services for national and global stories, and buy one of the local newspapers “because people in Hawaii are interested in what is happening at home.”

The Long Beach Press-Telegram follows a similar model.  While the LA Times produces a global news product with LA and California features, the Long Beach Press-Telegram is focused on delivering news highlighting Long Beach and surrounding communities.  National and international news is limited to a couple pages, and some  news in the sports section.

For the same reasons, the Long Beach press-Telegram continues to survive because they know their readers, and provide a product relevant to residents and those interested in the community.

Once a newspaper falls under the umbrella of a large media company, the chance of losing that local touch declines, as veteran reporters move on to other careers.  David Simon explains you are left with a model “such as USA Today, which boils down local news to one or two paragraphs.”

Daysog remains optimistic about the future of journalism and local news.  He is positive about technology, and lays the burden of change on the media companies. 

He cites the example of society pages in the old newspapers.  “Long gone, but I frequently read through the society pages in Honolulu newspapers from the 20s and 30s, and see how much change has occurred in past 30 years.  In the 20s, people were actually interested in what clothes a local debutant might wear.  Today’s readers have a very different requirement.”

The Internet is not going away, and the news industry simply needs to creatively apply themselves to using the tools a global Internet-enabled provides, and develop news models of using that technology to build sustainable value to the news industry.

Next in this series – the conflict and roles of journalists -vs- bloggers.

John Savageau, Long Beach

Rick Daysog is a staff writer with the Honolulu Advertiser.  Interview for this article conducted via telephone on 9 June 2009.

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