Friday, April 1, 2011

Citizen journalism: is it sustainable?


By Jorge Sosa

Chuck D. knew the score.

If you're a particularly obsessive music geek, you might recall how the Public Enemy frontman once defended peer-to-peer music file-sharing as good for the artists, if not for the labels. Congress didn't quite buy that argument, but a phrase he used has long stuck with me.

"Technology giveth and it taketh away..."

How true for just about every industry, although today I'm particularly concerned about how much it can give to and take away from journalists. I'm a biased source on this issue. Full disclosure: I write full-time for a newspaper, I get paid to do so, and I'd like to keep it that way.

There's been some buzz in certain circles lately around the notion that a news organization could be run more profitably if it had fewer staffers and more stringers and unpaid contributors generating content. I guess when Arianna Huffington proved you could build an online empire that way, people noticed.

This is a perfect example of the Internet giving and taking away. It's given news organizations access to talented contributors all across the world. It's given reporters powerful tools for finding and combing through public data, and reaching out to potential sources. And it's also ushered in what some have described as the era of cheap content. When so many people are willing to do (or at least approximate) the work journalists do for free, it puts downward pressure on paid journalists' value in the marketplace.

This is why, at the risk of sounding elitist, I'd long questioned crowdsourcing or citizen journalism. And, I'd long questioned whether (to use a military metaphor) a ragtag militia of volunteers and low-paid mercenaries could keep an effective watch against abuses of power.

The scary thing is, in early February, something happened to make me question all my questioning. I hate when that happens.

Citizen watchdogs

In early February, I was sent down to St. Paul -- the Minnesota state capitol and home to the people who make those horribly addictive Salted Nut Rolls -- to cover an ethics panel hearing questioning alleged misconduct by our local senator (for the record, he was acquitted).

The reason I made the roughly 70-mile trip was because the Senate wasn't planning on live-streaming the event, so I couldn't cover it from afar. But, unbeknownst to me until I got to St. Paul, somebody else was live-streaming it: The UpTake.

The UpTake was founded as a nonprofit citizen-driven news outlet in 2007. It wasn't the only metro news outlet covering the hearing, but it was the only one I saw providing live video streaming of the entire event. I was impressed. Here was someone using the crowdsourcing model to provide even more comprehensive coverage than the mainstream news media were.