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Two recent announcements made me wonder if the mainstream media was really starting to “get” citizen journalism, and starting to allow the former audience into the news process. The Wisconsin State Journal newspaper, run out of the state capital of Madison, decided to let its web visitors vote on one of five articles that would run on the front page of the next day’s newspaper. And CBS News started “Assignment America,” a similar project that lets viewers vote online for one of three stories that will be included in the CBS Evening News the next week.

Both initiatives were launched with the lofty ideal of including the average citizen in the editorial process, with an eye on doing even more in the future.

“Letting our readers actively participate in setting the news agenda is one step into a new world built around interactivity and conversations more than traditional one-way delivery of news,” wrote State Journal managing editor Tim Kelley in a story announcing the move.

The State Journal also has blogs, allows people to comment on stories online, and will even try to cover neighborhoods more with citizen reporters. All good and well, but what about the vote for the front page? Is this something that will empower readers or is it just window dressing? If the State Journal and CBS News are still choosing the stories to consider, how much power do readers get? And how much power should readers get — is there a danger of mob rule?

I decided to take my questions to Jay Rosen, thoughtful PressThink blogger and associate professor of NYU’s Department of Journalism. The following captures the gist of our recent email exchange on the subject.

Mark Glaser: Do these moves represent a new way of letting the former audience into the news editorial process? Are they big steps or just baby steps — a kind of citizen journalism lite? Should longtime editors be concerned that they are losing their status as gatekeepers?

Jay Rosen: I’m sure there’s wisdom in users’ choices, but I am equally sure we don’t have wisdom yet about how to use it, or even where it collects. Does it collect through a simple vote on which of three pre-selected “CBS-ey” stories CBS will chase?

The real puzzle for news organizations is not audience voting, but what use to make of all kinds of data captured from users that could be fed into news judgment and editorial priorities — click rates included. When users flock what can journalists learn, and what should they avoid learning from that data? That’s the question I would ask.

We are in a new age of aggregation. Our ideas about what to do with these new powers are not very far advanced. That’s how I view the new voting schemes. Not very advanced. Meanwhile, the opposite philosophy is articulated well by David Remnick [editor of the New Yorker]:

“My principle in the magazine — and I am not being arrogant — is that I don’t lose sleep trying to figure what the reader wants. I don’t do surveys. I don’t check the mood of the consumers. I do what I want, what interests me and a small group of editors that influences the way of the magazine.”

Glaser: I think the way people vote on sites like Slashdot and Digg are far more along the way of giving users editorial power, but I’m not sure how that might fit into an old-style journalism organization. Perhaps there will be some type of hybrid that combines the best of both?

Rosen: I think this science, which is really an art, is in its infancy.

*****

My initial impulse is to write off these votes as all for show. But if the news organizations take the next steps, and really involve their readers, viewers and listeners in the editorial process in a meaningful — but not overly intrusive — way, then it could well lead to a more engaged audience who no longer feel like they’re an audience. They’re participants. What do you think?