By Anna Pulley
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These sites can all be forgiven for their youth. Like much of the citizen journalism movement, they're still experiments, all less than a year old. But OhMyNews -- the 5-year-old Korean sensation that Newsweek says could be "the future of journalism" -- is still suffering from growing pains, despite more than 38,000 citizen reporters. Its professional editors recently chose as the top story a puff-piece Q&A with the economic adviser of the Korean Embassy in Chile, about the "excellent progress made between the two nations" since a free trade agreement signed back in 2002.
"If you think journalism is boring when written by professional writers," GradeTheNews.org's McManus says, "wait until it's written by someone with time on their hands who happens to drop by the city council or school board. If you think journalism is biased now, wait until the 'neutral' journalist is replaced by the father of the quarterback of the high school football team, writing about how well his son did, and, oh, by the way, the team won."
Despite citizen journalism's current shortcomings, several bursts of power have signaled its potential. Last fall, Joshua Micah Marshall, Washington Monthlywriter and proprietor of political blog "Talking Points Memo," asked readers to help find out which House Republicans voted to loosen ethics rules behind closed doors. "Not a journalist?" Marshall wrote. "Afraid you can't play? Fuggetaboutit...You can play too. Just pick a Republican member of Congress, call the number on their Web site and ask. Don't be rude or confrontational. Just a simple question: Did Congressperson such-and-such support the DeLay Rule in the GOP caucus meeting on Wednesday." Hundreds of readers called, and dozens of representatives answered.
Even in Marshall's successful case, though, the question remains: How many of the reader-reporters actually made those calls, and should Marshall have trusted what they told him? Aside from citizen journalists' skill limitations, the trust issue is the most important unsolved problem for the movement. New York Timesreaders, despite the Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals, expect to find something resembling the truth in the paper. With citizen journalism, there's no good way of measuring how much faith to place in a given fact or observation.
Enter Newmark, the man who strikes fear into the heart of newspaper publishers yet thinks he can lead them to the promised land of a new kind of media. "He knows how to figure out reputation and trust," says Cauthorn, the former Chronicledigital media VP. "That's what he deals with every day on spam and fraud. And he has the money."
Newmark sits on the deck outside his home office, trying to relax, a bit scatterbrained. He just returned from a week in New York, full of business meetings and conference panels. Next Friday, he'll be in Oxford, England, then heading home to New Jersey for Thanksgiving. He hasn't had a full day off in over seven years. Every week, on top of his Craigslist work, Newmark has more discussions, more speeches, more people to talk to about citizen journalism.
Considering how often he speaks publicly about citizen journalism and the future of media, Newmark is extremely guarded about his own ventures. He reveals only that he's working on three major projects -- advising two new foundations and investing in one start-up company -- all in stealth mode. The East Coast start-up was founded by Upendra Shardanand, a creator of Firefly (now Microsoft Passport), software that collects individual user information based on behavior, then recommends appropriate content. Its editor in chief, Buzzmachine.com blogger Jeff Jarvis, created Entertainment Weekly and was a journalist and executive at the New York Daily News. Next spring, they'll release technology that identifies the most important stories and most "trusted" versions -- a computerized or computer-aided "editor." As for the nonprofits, Newmark'll only say that the people running them "are a big deal ... the names involved are heavy media commentators."
Newmark has been meeting with a host of public-interest media companies and foundations (the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Wikinews, FactCheck.org) for months but hasn't made up his mind on where else his money should go: "I'm wondering about this. I have a little cash to give away. What's the most that I can do?"
For citizen journalism to work, readers must believe the words on the screen to be true. Otherwise, the movement will do little to aid the hobbling traditional media. Facts could be checked and aggregated by professionals, in the same way Newmark hunts for spam on Craigslist, or Marshall collected congressional votes. However, just as Craigslist is at a breaking point with its monitoring resources, it would be expensive and time-consuming to check up on each citizen reporter and make sure he is trustworthy. It also leaves open the possibility of libel suits based on citizen content, which OhMyNews has already faced.
Many citizen journalism proponents believe the best method is to let users do everything -- reporting, writing, and editing the stories with minimal oversight. The shining example of the self-correcting site is Wikipedia.org, the online encyclopedia with 818,000 "wiki" Web page entries written and rewritten entirely by a volunteer user community. Users argue over facts and opinions within forums, and the site generally avoids "edit wars" over the content of pages. However, its sister project, Wikinews, reveals the limitations of a free-for-all media site. Last year, when Colin Powell resigned, for several hours, the Wikinews article read as though it was a huge disaster for the Bush administration and the entire Cabinet was jumping ship. "'Colin Powell resigned' doesn't stay a news story for more than a day," says Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. "You don't have the luxury of a long time for community debate [to get the facts right]."