i-fed6db6825cff7d6f7ba743200711eaf-Rich Skrenta Topix.net.jpg
One of the ideas behind citizen journalism is that anybody who witnesses something newsworthy can photograph it, videotape it or write about it for the rest of the world. But one of the conundrums of citizen journalism is where do you do that?

You could start a blog or put the information on your existing blog. You could try a citizen media service such as NowPublic or try to sell your story to a mainstream or local news outlet. And now there are even specialized agencies set up to handle photos from citizen journalists.

I believe there’s a big opportunity for somebody (or somebodies) to step in and become the place for citizen journalism, but it will take a lot of marketing and outreach before the average person thinks that this is the place they should send their news. Meanwhile, the places for citizen journalism continue to multiply.

I recently had an email discussion with Topix.net CEO Rich Skrenta (pictured above), who had pointed to his site’s news forums and their recent booming success thanks to taking off a registration requirement. Skrenta was particularly impressed at the 200+ posts about a tornado in Caruthersville, Missouri, including many eyewitness accounts from the scene of destruction.

What ensued was a back-and-forth about how citizen journalism sprouted on Topix forums, and how future efforts might become professional/citizen hybrid collaborations in journalism. Here’s an edited version of part of that conversation.

Skrenta: I wanted to follow up with two recent posts we’ve done on the continued growth of our forum system. We’re thinking we’ve created the largest local citizen journalism system on the Net with our forums. Forums often don’t seem to get the nod from journalists proper to being real citizen journalism. I’d be curious on your take here.

Glaser: Fascinating stuff. I think the big question is at what point people in a dire situation think about Topix as the place to reach out to others. At the moment, I can’t imagine that would be the case, but maybe that will change over time. I think right now there isn’t one particular place where people go to connect online with loved ones they think they might have lost. Maybe that’s an opportunity waiting to happen…

Skrenta: It’s true that we’re seeing success which exceeds what our audience reach footprint would suggest. What I believe is happening is that, when events such as these occur, people are drawn online to find more information and to connect with others. If there is an existing, dominant communication system for the location or topic already, people go there. But if there isn’t an existing system, the audience finds our forums, since we have created a “default” news and community resource for every place and topic.

We’ve seen this over and over again, where we will have multiple witnesses to a news event end up in our forums. It can’t be explained by reach fraction [of our overall audience], yet people are finding ways to converge on our forums.

Glaser: You become the accidental center for citizen journalism. But one other question: How do you trust the info that you get, the eyewitness reports?

Skrenta: Yeah, that’s always a big question that real journalists ask. The public doesn’t have the same issue though. They’ve gotten savvier. They can appropriately judge the sources of what they read. You read online forums — or blogs for that matter — with a grain of salt, and with skepticism. The public needs to be their own editor.

This mirrors the elimination of the middlemen in other online activities. No more travel agents — we all have to use the seat selectors on Expedia ourselves now, and suffer the consequences if we botch our vacation plans. No more stockbrokers to tell you what to invest in; here’s the Schwab website, read some articles and make your own trades. And here’s a big pile of first source accounts — blogs, press releases, forums, a spectrum of news sites from Fox to the NY Times. Read it all and make up your own mind; everyone has to be their own editor now.

Journalists, being the middlemen, are wary of this progression. Like travel agents, real estate agents, and others being cut out of the chain by the Internet, they are defending their value-add. Regardless of the merits, the trend seems clear to us.

Glaser: I understand what you mean about journalists losing their place as the middleman. But then what will be their place in the future? They can’t be completely eliminated, but what happens to them and their authority?

Skrenta: I definitely believe there’s still a role for them. A lot of the story collecting — reporting — simply won’t happen without full time journalists paying attention and doing their jobs. Especially on local politics, investigative journalism, consumer advocacy. I also think there is value to the analysis that good journalism can provide around a story.

But journalists won’t have a monopoly on the newsfeed to the consumer.
They’ll be just another channel.

Glaser: My biggest question in this area is how can pro and citizen journalists work together to do better work, and support themselves financially? You are basically bringing them together in one way with aggregation, but not in a face-to-face way to collaborate. What’s the next step here?

Skrenta: I have an answer (or answer-in-progress) for the revenue side, but not the collaboration side.

I do think professionally produced news is very valuable, consumers want it, they miss it if it’s not available, but the delivery channels are changing now and the monetization hasn’t caught up. In print, classifieds paid for the newsroom; online, classifieds and news have little to do with one another. But I still believe the news is valuable, and can support itself financially. But not with 468×60 CareerBuilder ads on the header.

Glaser: So how can original news production support itself financially without the classifieds? With relevant ads?

Skrenta: Yes. We obtain performance monetizing news stories directly 10 times above what we see on newspaper websites. We do this by using our categorization engine to program the advertising.

Apart from the specifics of our case, however, I think the broader industry issue is to focus on growing incremental revenue per visitor from the web delivery channel. Part of the reason, we believe, that news websites are not strong in this area is because it’s simply taken a back seat to other initiatives. But focusing effort and attention in the right way can lead to dramatic improvements.

If the news online can’t pay for itself, funding the newsroom will become challenging. It’s critical for the industry paricipants to focus their engergy on this problem. Of course, I’m not saying anything particularly new here, but the problem hasn’t been solved yet.

*****

What do you think? Will journalism survive and thrive online with new business models? How will citizen journalism fit into that mix? What do you think about Topix.net’s mix of news aggregation and open forums on specific topics and locales?

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