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There are so many citizen journalism sites that seem to be in search of communities to populate them. A site such as Yahoo’s You Witness News looks so simple, inviting people to submit their photos or videos of news they have witnessed. So you’ve got easy ways to submit material, and then you can check out what people have sent in. What’s missing is the element of community, of people working together to tell stories or share experiences.

When I asked you what would motivate you to submit stories, photos or video to a particular citizen media site, your answers followed one theme: give us community, give us a sense of belonging. Yahoo’s Matt McAlister, who I believe actually lives in my physical community in Potrero Hill, San Francisco, said that my question was difficult to answer because people often do things for the meaning it brings them.

“Successful community-based news sites enable people who care enough about a topic to either be the first to report on it or be clued in before less speedy outlets pick up on something,” he wrote on his blog. “It feeds into a competitive and sometimes gossipy human nature. Just ask your best reporters why they became reporters. Digg appeals to the reporter in all of us.”

Howard Owens reminds us that user-generated content should be viewed as part of a conversation rather than strictly as journalism.

“I firmly believe that many people just want to have their say and make their contribution because they feel compelled to share what they know,” Owens wrote on his blog. “I think this is good for society. I think there is real value in protecting, extending, expanding and nurturing the conversation.”

As for where Owens would contribute news that he witnessed, he said that he would report it in the most convenient place with an existing community — currently, that’s on his blog.

Steven Streight, who blogs as Vaspers the Grate, thinks that the blog format doesn’t work as well for collaboration as a wiki.

“I have moved from the solo act of blog to the team collaboration of wikis,” he wrote. “A blog is trapped in the ‘listen to me’ while a wiki is necessarily a ‘listen to us’ or ‘listen to it,’ i.e., the wiki workspace of anonymous contributions that build into a grand treasury of user-customized information…Wiki dissolves the division between hearing about a problem (news) and getting off your butt and doing something about it (activism).”

Jeremy Bante, however, threw cold water on Streight’s vision for wikis, saying he doesn’t trust anonymous collaborations if they don’t have accountability.

“I don’t trust information without an author’s name attached to it,” he wrote. “I’m proud of my community contributions, and a venue that massages my ego would encourage me to contribute more. After I write something, I want to know that people are reading it — and not just a random middle school student in podunk looking for a current event for the day. I want to know that people who I know are reading it.”

Again, that community aspect surfaces. We want our writing, our photos, our videos to resonate with people and make a difference in the community. As Nic Slater put it, “Just the idea that the site might be contributing to my community in a way that fosters actual community [would motivate me]. That it could bolster the forces against self-serving politicians, bureaucrats and business people. This strikes me as a very positive aspect of citizen journalism.”

Of course there are obstacles against citizens trying to report corruption or problems around them — if they feel powerless in trying to fight larger institutions.

“I would like to post news about the ongoing construction and conditions in my neighborhood, located in Rockland, Mass,” K. Curtis wrote. “However, when people write about conditions in this subsidized housing project, we get retaliated against and harassed. I’ve had such experiences; therefore, I’m forced to limit what I write about or photograph. Our corporate landlord(s) are politically connected, negligent, and violate laws.”

Perhaps that’s where the bigger citizen media sites can help out, providing an umbrella of support for the whistle-blowers in the community. That might have been the role of newspapers in communities, but as their power wanes, perhaps citizen media sites (and newspaper companies that may run them some day) can step in to support these citizen muckrakers in tussles with the powerful.

What do you think? What would motivate you to send in citizen reports, and where would you send them? Where do you get community news and where do you find community online? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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