Saturday, July 14, 2007

Citizen Sensationalism?: Newsvine Tries Crowdsourced Journalism in Search of DC Madam Scoop

Though its reach is relatively small in comparison to the leaders in social bookmarking, the Newsvine portal remains one of the more successful news-oriented social media sites on the Web. Unlike Digg and, which focus largely on social bookmarking for technology and entertainment, Newsviners provide both bookmarks to online content that draws discussion from members as well as original content authored by Newsvine members and smatterings of mainstream news sources such as AP and The New York Times. The mix of user-generated content and mainstream media makes for a lively mix of discussions on politics, religion and other hot-button issues that drive users to vie for top community rankings and their own modest ad revenues. But though the Newsvine community remains vibrant, it has not had a serious growth spurt in over a year. How does a social media property grow beyond a relatively small group of rowdy enthusiasts?

Newsvine is hoping that the answer may lie in nailing some hot scoops dug out by its citizen journalists. In the wake of so-called "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey's release of telephone records leading Newsvine denizens are hoping to score a big news story of their own by combing through the phone records to see if they can identify well-known political figures who may have been caught up in affairs via Palfrey's escort service. To facilitate this effort Newsvine and some of its most active members have set up some software to enable Newsvine members to do their own sleuthing through Palfrey's phone records in cooperation with their peers. While there are no tangible results yet from this crowdsourced research, the energy level is running high amongst these budding investigative journalists.

Although turning up some high-profile names may gain Newsvine some temporary traction, it's far from clear that this is the type of exercise that will put citizen journalism on the map in any significant way. Leading webloggers have been uncovering major stories for years - stories which are ignored oftentimes by mainstream media outlets or co-opted later on as their own "scoops." The focus of this effort - a Washington sex scandal - tends to play into this trend, as it's the type of work already being done no doubt at a feverish rate by every major news organization in the world in search of a hyped and hot story. Crowdsourcing and some quick coding have enabled some "boots on the ground" via Newsvine and a very interesting precedent for future user-keyed research efforts, but those hoping to gain fame and fortune from uncovering the next "Deep Throat" are likely to find asterisks next to their scoops rather than Pulitzer Prizes on their bookshelves.

The key rub in this push towards citizen journalism is that in trying to go after mass media-scaled stories with a mass media journalism techniques Newsvine is in large part just echoing the existing strengths and weaknesses of today's journalism. While there may be some hypocrisy exposed through these efforts that people should know about it's ultimately the same sort of focus on least-common-denominator interests - who's having sex with whom - that drive many of today's journalists obsessed more with fame, fortune and elbow-rubbing than with reporting on the truth regardless of its sensational value. Where citizen journalism seems to shine most brightly is when self-motivated content producers remain true to their values as individuals and to the important relationships that they want to maintain outside of the context of journalism. Quality citizen journalism seems to grow out of the quality of relationships that generate interesting content as much as out of any inherent journalistic skills used by a content producer.

I think that this is one reason why social media portals such as Facebook are growing steadily - they provide first and foremost a place where people can be themselves in all their personal dimensions. This tends to build relationships based on real-world trust more than the ginned-up popularity of of online relationships with people who hide behind pseudonyms. In turn this is likely to assist in developing more in-depth content close to individuals' interests and expertise that will reinforce relationships in their online community more effectively. Portals that focus more on media before relationships do not seem to have as much growth these days. No surprise there, really - there are already far too many mainstream media outlets chasing the tall end of the interest curve.

Relationships are the truly unique experiences around which content gains its greatest value, content which may look dull in its "long tail" focus but which in sum is far more valuable than the fleeting bits of fluff that pass themselves off as serious journalism these days far too often. This is the real direction towards which citizen journalism is most likely to head - people with substantial "real world" relationships sharing important information with one another which becomes contextualized to broader audiences when it's valuable to do so but in ways that are less exploitative than the typical journalist-source relationships. The need for serious and professional journalism will continue for many years, with citizen journalists providing many capable recruits, but the real future of citizen journalism is one in which people sharing content are more concerned about being citizens than journalists.
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